[Hard to believe it’s been five years since the day Larry Olsen headed out for a run from his house in Millis and never made it home. He was 63 and still full of competitive spirit and a love for the sport of running, a love he passed to high school kids as cross-country coach at Hopedale.Even now, it makes me shake my head to think about Larry’s accomplishments: he won countless races and set numerous U.S. age-group records, including running 53:40 for 10 miles at age 50, 43:30 for 12K at age 60, and winning his age group in New England Championship races an astonishing 62 times. But it wasn’t just that he won races and set records, it was how he did it, with a determination and fearlessness that inspired all of us to be a little tougher, work a little harder, and aim a little higher. It was a coincidence that at the time he died, Runner’s World was just going to press with a feature on Larry (http://www.runnersworld.com/elite-runners/memory-larry-olsens-lifetime-love). I read it again this morning, along with the tribute that was printed in his local paper (http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/sports/local_sports/x29009379/Hopedale-cross-country-coach-Larry-Olsen-dies) . The following essay was first published December 16, 2009]
The night was one of the darkest of the year, and I was grateful that Terry was driving, especially on these back roads. If I had been alone, I doubt I would have remembered all the turns as we headed down back roads South out of Needham through Dover, Medfield, Walpole, and Norfolk, finally arriving in Wrentham and at the funeral home where friends and family were saying good-bye to Larry Olsen.
Larry was out on a run a week ago Sunday when he suffered a fatal heart attack. News of his death was hard to accept, not only because it represented a huge loss to his friends, family, but because many of us secretly thought of Larry as invincible, as someone who would resist the ravages of age better than any of us, and still be winning races and setting records while we watched him from our rockers. Larry was a very good runner when he was young, but his focus and consistency over the decades transformed him into a great runner as he aged.
But if he had been a great runner only, he wouldn’t have been so revered, and perhaps there wouldn’t have been such a long line of people stretching out of the funeral home and onto to the sidewalk for his wake, waiting for hours in the cold to pay their respects and exchange stories about the runner, the coach, the man. Larry Olsen’s legacy is that he somehow managed to give his greatness back to all of us, those of us who chased him in races, followed him as their coach, or were lucky enough to have him as a friend. Larry had the generosity and grace to compete with modesty, to give every race his best effort, and to lose with dignity. As Terry said, Larry was one of the few people whose conversation after a race was always welcome and complimentary. If you beat him, he would talk about how well you had run without ever making an excuse for his own performance; if he beat you, he would encourage you, making you feel you could do better. His post-race talk was always about the race and how it went, never about superfluous things.
His close friend and Tri-Valley teammate Robert Chasen told us last night that the first time he beat Larry in a race was one of the most memorable accomplishments of his life, more memorable than the time he beat the future Olympian Nourredine Morceli. I’m sure many other runners feel the same way. Larry gave us that gift. Instead of retiring early when he started slowing down, or becoming the kind of runner who lives on past glories while talking incessantly about his present infirmities, he continued competing into his 60’s without apology or excuse, giving younger runners like myself a chance to take his measure — sometimes. If I wasn’t at my best, he would still beat me, and no victory over Larry Olsen was ever achieved without great effort.
I was not a close friend of Larry’s, so it must be for others to recount stories of his personal generosity and his work as a coach, but as a fellow runner, I was the recipient of his larger generosity to the sport. On the rare times it happened, beating Larry Olsen in a race was a great feeling, and he gave that to us by making sure it was never easy. He made me and countless other runners better and left us a legacy that continues to inspire us to live up to his example.