Bob Larsen’s great modesty is exceeded only by his superb ability to coach runners to new heights.
The former UCLA track and field coach is beloved among runners — especially distance runners — and all who know about and appreciate his long devotion to the sport.
Larsen, 80, led the Bruins to 11 Pac-10 titles and to men’s NCAA outdoor championships in 1987 and 1988 before he guided former Bruin Meb Keflezighi to a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics as well as to victories at the 2009 New York marathon and 2014 Boston marathon.
He also co-founded the training group that’s based in Mammoth Lakes and is now run by Deena Kastor, the women’s Olympic marathon bronze medalist. And no mention of Larsen can omit his role in coaching the scrappy, San Diego-based Jamul Toads to a national Amateur Athletic Union cross country title. The Toads, like the Mammoth group, still run.
Clearly, Larsen is a deserving winner of USA Track and Field’s annual Legend Coach award, which he will receive Saturday during the U.S. championships at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa. The only dissenter seems to be Larsen himself, who was told about the honor a few months ago but still can’t believe it.
“I went two or three months apologizing to everybody, especially other coaches,” he said by phone last week from his beach home in San Diego. “I told them, ‘You’ve made a mistake, obviously.’ There’s so many coaches that have accomplished so much.
“I think they’re honoring me because I’m still alive, but maybe they talked to my doctor and know something I don’t and are thinking, ‘We’d better get this done now.’”
Larsen has enjoyed renewed fame in the past few years as the star of a 2015 film, “City Slickers Can’t Stay with Me,” which details his relationship with Keflezighi, and as a prominent figure in the Matthew Futterman book “Running to the Edge,” which was released in June and analyzes Larsen’s impressive success at every level he has reached.
Larsen protested he had been given too much credit for influencing distance running. “I tell people I’ve got to go shopping and get bigger hats because mine aren’t fitting anymore,” he said before conceding that the film and the book were “just wonderful things.” He added, “It is a little embarrassing, though.”
Larsen said he still does some committee work with USA Track and Field — the sport’s national governing body— but he doesn’t do any one-on-one coaching.
“When Meb is in San Diego and going for a run I’ll hop on my bike and go 10 miles. He’s running and I’m pedaling,” Larsen said. “It keeps me in shape and fills me in on what’s going on.
“It’s a nice time, being able to be connected, but at the same time not have the day to day responsibility of coaching people and have your whole life become, in a good way, totally committed.”