I first heard about this book on the Marathon Training Academy Podcast. One of the hosts, Angie, is an avid reader and recommended this book, so I thought I’d give it a go. I’ll fully admit that it took me a little while to warm up to this book, but once I got into it, I really enjoyed it.
This book is written primarily about some people that influenced the sport of running, primarily long-distance running. Some people are well-known, like runners Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor, coaches Bob Larsen and Joe Vigil, but some of the characters are lesser-known (at least to me) like Terry Cotton and Ed Mendoza. The real reason for Futterman writing the books seems to be a group of guys who called themselves the Jamul (pronounced “HA-mool”) Toads, whose coach was Bob Larsen.
Futterman goes all the way back to the 1950’s to develop the story behind Coach Bob Larsen as a young boy and runner. He tells of the injuries that Larsen and his teammates had in high school. Larsen begins questioning the workouts of runners when he’s a young boy and that continues into young adulthood. While he’s enrolled in San Diego’s kinesiology department, he meets Frederick William Kasch, a recent PhD recepient who is developing a fitness program for adults to test theories about exercise, muscles, and the heart. At the time, it was commonly believed that one might die from a heart attack if you exercised vigorously after the age of thirty-five.
This is also during the time when Arthur Lydiard was becoming an advocate for running as exercise. Lydiard believed in putting in the miles and his runners routinely ran 100 miles per week. Bill Bowerman, the founder of Nike, also met with Lydiard during this time and returned home to Oregon to spread the word about “jogging.” When Larsen graduates in 1961 from San Diego, he decides to stay there and enrolls in graduate school in kinesiology and physical education and takes on the role of coaching distance runners on the SDSU track team. The book then takes us through a brief history of cross country teams of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Here is where Coach Bob begins his tinkering and experimenting with what works and what doesn’t work with his athletes. One thing he firmly believes from the beginning is that runners should train with a group. The idea is if you run by yourself, it’s too easy to slack off but if you’re with a group, that forces you to dig a little deeper. He also firmly believes when you think you’ve reached your limit, push a little harder. You want to find that fine line where you push your mind and body just to the edge, without falling off (hence the title of the book).
The evolution of the tempo run, which is largely credited to Larsen is discussed, as are the stories of the many other runners that Bob Larsen coached, including Dale Fleet, Dave Harper, Kirk Pfeffer, Mike Breen, and Ed Mendoza and Terry Cotton as mentioned earlier. Around mid-way through the book, the Toads have grown to a group of about 30 guys. The book follows the runners through the 1970’s, including their ups and downs. Everything seems to be going great for Larsen. He expects the rest of the world to start following his way of running to the edge. But then it doesn’t happen. Runners start looking for a different way to train. Bob Larsen’s ways seem to fall to the way-side for the next several years.
Part 2 of the book fast-forwards to 1993, and catches us up. Larsen joined UCLA’s men’s track and field program in 1979, where his runners went on to win first place in the NCAA championship in 1987. His team is considered one of the best college teams in any sport in 1988. His focus is now on shorter distance runners, until he meets Meb Keflezighi, when everything changes again for Coach Bob. Larsen decides to offer Keflezighi a full scholarship to UCLA after watching him run and talking to his family afterwards, and this begins Meb’s relationship with Coach Bob that ended up lasting well into Meb’s 30’s.
The second part of the book also develops the story behind how Coach Bob set up a training ground at altitude for Meb and other runners like Deena Kastor who joined them over the years. Although Larsen knew the significance of training at altitude based on what he had seen with African runners who regularly run at altitude, this was fairly new territory for Americans at the time. Basically until they saw the payoff in the form of wins for Meb and Deena, they didn’t really know if all of their hard work was working. Part 2 of the book goes through the many wins but also losses for Meb and Deena over more recent years, such as at the Beijing and Athens Olympics, several New York City, Chicago, London, and Boston Marathons, among other races. The book ultimately ends with Meb’s win at the 2014 Boston Marathon, a fitting place to end the story.
I had heard some of these stories before like the ones about Deena Kastor’s training in Colorado and her running and ultimately winning bronze in the marathon in the Olympics in Athens but most of this was new to me, especially the stories about the Toads. I found this book interesting although perhaps a bit slow in parts. Typically I enjoy reading about the history behind running and runners who were involved in the evolution of long-distance running as we know it today. If you also enjoy reading about the history of running and runners, you might also enjoy this book.
Have you read this book or have it on your list of one you want to read? If you’ve read it, what did you think of it?