The Bob Larsen I Know
Coach Bob Larsen may be one of the most recognized distance coaches in the USA. He has had success at every level, from high school to community college to club team to university.
Up until the turn of the century he was most known for coaching the UCLA Bruins for 21 years. Under his tenure, UCLA won 2 NCAA Track & Field Championships, 9 Pac-10 titles, and had a 118-3-1 dual meet record (undefeated against USC). Before UCLA, he led Grossmont Community College (El Cajon, CA) to 7 state titles, founded the JamulToads club in San Diego that won the AAU cross country national championship, and had success at Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley, CA. When he retired from UCLA after the 1999-2000 year, the list of accomplishments by his athletes and teams was quite impressive.
But it is since that time, that Larsen has really come to the forefront of the national scene in terms of coaching distance runners. In 2001, he and Joe Vigil started Team USA California (now Team Running USA). They used the Olympic Training Center (Chula Vista, CA) and Mammoth Lakes (altitude) as their home bases. At the time, the idea of a national athlete development program with the mission to support, promote and assist in the development of elite US distance runners, was completely new. Today, in addition to Team Running USA, which Larsen and Vigil continue to coach, there are Team USA Minnesota, Hanson-Brook’s, Boulder Performance Training Group, ZAP Fitness and others. Larsen is most known for being Mebrahtom Keflezighi’s coach. Larsen was Meb’s coach at UCLA and has continued to coach him since graduation. Over the past six years, Meb has set the American Record for 10,000 meters (27:13.98 in 2001) and won an Olympic silver medal in the marathon at Athens (2004). It is mostly his involvement with Meb and the success of Team USA in recent years that earned Larsen enshrinement into the US Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame (2003) and the 2005 Bill Bowerman Award.
I consider myself fortunate to know Bob Larsen. We first met in the fall of 1989. I was a freshman at UCLA and went to him to see if he would take me as a team manager for the coming cross country season. He wasn’t that interested. But later I found out that Larsen coached only the men’s team and that I could also inquire if the women’s team needed a manager. It turned out that the women’s head coach, Bob Messina, was more than happy to have someone do some of the grunt work. My test, to make sure I wasn’t just doing this to look at pretty girls in running shorts, was to be at the vans at 5:00 A.M. the next day to leave for a meet. I set my alarm, arrived at the vans right at 5:00, and so began my coaching career.
I found my niche as manager for the women’s team, and although I would see Larsen, I did not work with him or the men’s team. Each season I got more and more coaching responsibilities. But at the end of my junior year, UCLA made the decision to combine staffs. My mentor Bob Messina was out of a job and Larsen was to take over coaching both the men and women distance runners. Larsen let me know that he would love to have me return the next year as the manager. I was very torn, however, because I felt loyal to Messina and wasn’t sure I wanted to be manager for anyone else. I even interviewed for a high school coaching job. But, my experience and knowledge of the UCLA women runners was a real asset and Larsen began recruiting me to come back and be his manager (I felt like a blue chip recruit when he offered me a ticket to a big UCLA-Arizona basketball game). After talking it over with the returning team, I was persuaded to stay on as manager for Larsen for the 1992-93 year.
That was one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made in terms of my development as a coach. I got to learn different things from a different coach. In fact, I was learning from one of the best coaches in history. I just didn’t know it at the time. As a 21 year old undergraduate manager, I thought Larsen was kind of kooky. He talked slow, seemingly about random things, in a real nasally voice. I still remember him taking for 10 minutes to the team after an on the road pre-meet workout about what not to eat for dinner (“If you’re going to have seafood, avoid bottom feeders because they have a lot of other things in them that you don’t want to eat before a race.”) His style was also different than mine or Messina’s. He was very calm during a race, cupping his hands to say a few words as the runners came by, but certainly not screaming or jumping up and down like I have been known to do. The men on the team who were familiar with him knew where he would be positioned on the track and no matter how loud the crowd, they always heard their coach almost whispering out instructions (“That was a 72.5, a little slow, pick it up a bit.”)
Larsen let me do a lot of coaching. That senior year, I felt like I was the one coaching the UCLA women’s distance team. I remember a track team meeting when the women distance runners were getting a little chewed out for not getting things done. Larsen said his thing; then I asked if I could have the floor. (Doesn’t every team meeting close with the manager giving a speech AFTER the 4-time NCAA Coach of the Year?) I got up and gave a passionate speech about crunch time. I told them the team was going to be great with our without the distance runners so they had better make a decision if they wanted to be part of the greatness. After I was done Larsen just told them how lucky they were to have someone that cared so much about them and how they did.
I still have notes from meetings with Larsen. I would write down the workouts that I thought the various groups should be doing and Larsen and I would meet in his office, decide on the workout and who would do what. I felt that I knew the women better than he did and thus had a better handle on who needed what for training. Looking back, I wonder what this great coach thought about having a manager come in and tell him what to do on a daily basis. I figure he either:
1. Felt the specifics of the workouts weren’t that important.
2. Wasn’t worried if I screwed up the women’s team’s running.
3. Valued my insight and saw some potential in me as a coach.
Sometime during the 1992-93 year, I went to Larsen’s office and he was talking to a skinny African American kid from San Diego on a recruiting trip. That was my first contact with Mebrahtom Keflezighi. He started at UCLA after I graduated, but to this day, when I see Meb, he talks to me as if we are old friends. The fact is, although we have some common friends, we never overlapped at UCLA.
After leaving UCLA, I would see Larsen at meets maybe once a year. We would always talk briefly. I think in my mind, he was a good coach who taught me a lot of things. But not some “superstar coach”. After leaving UCLA and starting Team USA it seems his coaching legacy really grew. I started to appreciate that I had worked with a great coach.
I was at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista with Shannon Rowbury for a Junior Elite Development camp in 2001 and bumped into Larsen. He was taking Meb through a workout on the track and they invited me to watch. I was in seventh heaven, getting to listen in on their conversations and watching Meb run intervals just two months after he set the American Record for 10,000 meters. Larsen kept talking to me and we had a very nice conversation. I really enjoyed watching Larsen call all his splits to the tenth of a second. Even the 200 splits from across the track. (Did he really see Meb cross the 200 meter mark and was he sure it was 28.7 and not 28.8?) I loved it. One day I am going to start calling splits to the tenth of a second just because it was so cool when Larsen did it. After Larsen got too involved in talking to me and missed a couple splits (“missed that one Meb, sorry….don’t worry about it.”), I decided I should leave the coach and pupil to their workout.
Larsen has become an in-demand speaker for coaches’ clinics. Unfortunately, his talks are sometimes not that complete. He jumps from topic to topic and throws in a joke or two here and there that only half the audience gets. It’s comforting to know that all this fame hasn’t changed him. He’s still just like he was when he talked to the UCLA team. I have been flattered that at some clinics when he talks about training UCLA athletes, if he sees me in the crowd he’ll motion to me and say, “Andy probably remembers that one since he was with me at UCLA then.”
What Larsen lacks in training advice at coaches clinics, he makes up for with anecdotal tales. At a clinic in July 2004, probably a month before Athens, he shared some of the things that were going on in preparation for the Olympics. Specifically he talked about being in Athens the year before and how they crunched all this data on temperature, the course and Meb’s physiology to come up with some great training for the race. For the next month (and many of my running friends can attest to this) I was unforgiving in making fun of Larsen. I could be heard saying, “Typical USA attitude – applying all this science. I bet all the Kenyan coaches do is show their athletes the starting line, point towards the finish line and say go.” But as Meb’s race unfolded, I must admit I was awestruck. Larsen was right! They were prepared! Meb ran himself to the silver medal. I spent the next month feeling as if I owed Larsen an apology for doubting him.
I now have so much respect for Larsen’s knowledge. I think I always respected him and knew it was a privilege to have worked with him at UCLA, but only in the last couple years have I fully realized what a privilege it was. His knowledge is amazing. He was one of very few people who wasn’t surprised by Hall’s 59:43 half marathon performance. In fact, at the Houston Half Marathon pre-race press conference, Larsen went to sit with the media so he could raise his hand like one of the reporters and ask Meb, “Do you think you can stay with Ryan Hall tomorrow?”. He knew Hall was going to do something big and that Meb was not in shape to go with him. That right there shows how well he knows the sport. But it also shows his sense of humor. How many coaches would put their own athlete on the spot during a press conference like that?
I was very lucky to spend a year with this man. And I am still lucky today, because if I have a question, I can shoot him an e-mail and he’ll get back to me. He has influenced me as a coach. I may never be as calm as he is during a race but when I am getting overly excited at a race and need to relax, I picture him and ask myself, “what would Larsen be doing now?” Scary as the thought is, I probably have a similar sense of humor (if my athletes went to press conferences and I could embarrass them the day before a race to help them relax, I would be all over it). Does that mean my athletes today think I am as kooky as I thought he was? Maybe I am better off not knowing the answer to that. What I do know is, when I read interviews of Larsen, I can practically hear his distinctive voice and see his facial expressions as I read his words. I am lucky to know a great coach like Bob Larsen.