Larry Olsen, 1946-2009

This may be of limited interest, but then I always post things of virtually no interest and some of you keep coming back, and this is just something I want to say.

Larry Olsen, one of the most recognizable figures on the New England road-race scene, died Sunday morning during a training run. He was 63.

I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone with more of an untrammeled passion for running than Larry had. He raced loudly and often for a long, long time. He looked like hell out there, head down and arms flailing, and then, when you’d catch up to him certain you were just going to ease on by, he’d shoot a look your way and sprint for 100 yards in the middle of a 5K or a 10K or a half-marathon. Didn’t matter to him. He just loved racing people. He did this to me once, and I’m trying to remember where. Doesn’t matter.

My first Larry story involves one of the more interesting days in my running life. On a Saturday morning in September 1987, I was a senior at Concord High School and feeling indulgent after winning a cross-country race for the first time the afternoon before. I’d run in the 16’s on a tough course. I was volunteering at a 5K in Concord that is now defunct but was then wildly popular (the Bud Light Couples race, if any locals are reading). That day, standing by the one-mile clock in this two-loop race in an industrial park, I watched a tiny guy with a rat-tail tear off a 14:08 (an all-comers New Hampshire record that stood for over 15 years) and a bowlegged man whose knees didn’t come off the ground finish not far behind in 14:15. Those two guys were Dave Dunham and Bob Hodge, and if you don’t know what they’ve accomplished in their careers you can look it up. We’re all in the same running club today and Dave is one of my best friends.

But those guys weren’t the real story. Larry ran 14:48 to set what was then an American masters record. There was just a flood of sub-15:00 guys in those days, all of them locals. I woke up and realized I wasn’t quite such a bad-ass after all. But it was inspiring to think that someone who was, by teenager standards, ancient (and I now have about nine days of my thirties remaining) could roll out a performance like that.

I saw Larry a number of times in my twenties, when I’m pretty sure he got the best of me a number of times despite my improvement and his encroaching middle age. But the first time I talked to him was in 2001, when I was three weeks out from a marathon in Boston that would prove to be a lifetime best and visiting someone in Worcester, Mass. There had been a big snowstorm during the drive down from Concord the day before, and I was afraid I wouldn’t even make it or would kill both myself and my canine companion in a wipe-out. But I did make it, and then the person I was staying with wanted to run a 15K in nearby Upton on this Saturday morning. So we went, and having not planned on serious running that weekend, about all I had to race in was a pair of shorts that was more or less a bathing suit and a long-sleeve T-shirt with a variety of holes in it. I was treating this as an impromptu tempo run but wound up having a very “on” day and ran, I think, 48:51. At the awards, someone said this was the course record. Larry’s club (one he helped found) sponsored the race and he came up to me afterward and congratulated me on the win. We chatted it up and I told him how much in awe I’d been of him as a high-schooler and he just shrugged off what he’d done over the years as if it had amounted to nothing, an uncountable number of wins. I later figured out that Larry himself had run much faster in this race than I had (as had Bill Rodgers), and although he never mentioned it, I’m quite sure he knew, and simply chose to say nothing. He was the polar opposite of an egomaniac. Everyone just loved him.

Larry’s racing exploits, however, only begin to describe the depth of who he was. In a Running Times article that will, in a fateful coincidence, reach subscribers in a week or less, Mario Fraioli, very much an up-and-coming writer, lends insight into Larry’s fierce devotion to the Hopedale (Mass.) High School cross-country teams. At the news of Larry’s death, RT made the unprecedented decision to post Mario’s article online in advance of the print edition circulating. Larry had expressed to fellow Tri-Valley FrontRunners members that he was looking forward to seeing the article. This is the kind of thing that really makes my gears grind.

It’s clear that Larry’s sacrifices are not the sort of thing often seen, in any realm. Some would look askance at how spartan an existence he lived owing to his one true love, but he would have only looked right back and started talking about running.

This is very difficult for a very large number of people right now. A Facebook page has been set up as a tribute so that people who knew Larry can have their say. The MetroWest Daily News was the first paper to run an article about his death, and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette includes one also.

That’s it.

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  1. #1 by Mark Driscoll on December 9, 2009 - 3:08 pm

    Great thoughts on Larry!

    This had me laughing:

    “when you’d catch up to him certain you were just going to ease on by, he’d shoot a look your way and sprint for 100 yards in the middle of a 5K or a 10K or a half-marathon.”

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. #2 by kemibe on December 9, 2009 - 3:27 pm

    But he did just that. I saw him do it more than once and it’s demoralizing if you’re not focused yourself. He was a fucking animal. He didn’t so much race against you as with you, and he wanted you to play along. I don’t think I’ve ever met a greater competitor, although Dunham is close.

    • #3 by Mark Driscoll on December 9, 2009 - 6:12 pm

      His competitive fire never went out, that’s for sure!

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