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Larry Rawson — April, 2019
Larry Rawson is one of the most renowned television broadcasters of both track and field and major marathons. He has been a commentator for ESPN-TV since 1980 and for most other major TV networks. Larry has been part of the broadcast team for seven summer Olympic Games and four World Championships in track and field. His color commentary has been a part of 51 NCAA Cross Country, Indoor and Outdoor Track and Field Championships for ESPN and CBS. He has been the international or national co-host for television for the Chicago, New York and Boston marathons (101 total events). A talented runner, Larry ran his personal best mile of 4:07 for Boston College and anchored the Eagles to a 1963 Penn Relays Championship in the distance medley relay. At St. Mary’s High School, he placed fifth in the New England Championships in only his seventh mile race with a time of 4:28. The former Marine Captain served in combat in Vietnam and was an All-Marine track and field champion. Larry is a two-time national and two-time regional Emmy award winner. He was inducted into the Boston College Hall of Fame (1984), Running USA HOF (2008), New York Athletic Club HOF (2011) and received the Penn Relays Lifetime Achievement Award (2011). Rawson’s civic involvement includes serving on the Boards of The Armory Foundation, National Scholastic Athletic Foundation and Students Run L.A. Additionally, he was inducted into the Halls of Fame for LaSalle Academy (2004) and All Hallows High School (2012) for contributions to these New York City inner city schools. Larry’s primary career was in Finance for four decades with Kidder Peabody, Paine Webber, Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, CRT Capital Group and Greenwich Investment Partners. He resides in Naples, Florida and was very gracious to spend over two hours on the phone for this interview in the spring of 2019.
GCR: For a young man who graduated with a business degree, served in the military and then embarked on a career in finance, how improbable is it and how amazing that you have been a fixture as an announcer and commentator for track and field competitions and major marathons for decades?
LR I think I feel as lucky as someone who won a lottery. It’s crazy. It happened when I tried to give information at the 1974 Boston Marathon to a guy at the finish line who was sent down by his radio station to cover the race. He had no idea what was going on by his own admission. He was giving out the wrong information about the leader, Neil Cusack, and I happened to know his background. I heard three radio stations give out incorrect info as I drove to the finish line. I went up to one of the commentators as he was on commercial break and asked him, ‘What do you know about the leader, Neil Cusack?’ He said, ‘He’s a student at the University of Tennessee.’ I told him, ‘He actually goes to East Tennessee State in Johnson City. He’s not just a student – he’s the NCAA collegiate champion in cross country and he’s not an American. He’s from Ireland.’ The guy looked at me like I had four heads. He started firing questions at me like, ‘How do you know this? Where are you from?’ When the producer gave him the cue to go back on the air, he asked me quickly my name and I said, ‘Larry Rawson.’ He went on the air and said, ‘We are here with Larry Rawson – tell us about the leader, Neil Cusack.’ We did seven minutes of back-and-forth commentary, he threw it to commercial and grabbed my arm saying, ‘Please don’t go anywhere – I don’t know what I’m doing.’ He pointed up to the sky and says, ‘I’m talking about the wind and the flags unfurling and the size of the crowd. I’m an engineer and they sent me down to the finish line because they ran out of commentators. What do we do next?’
GCR: It’s amazing to get a start like that and now we flash forward over more than four decades. Since you have announced at nearly a dozen Olympics or World Championships, one hundred plus major marathons and over fifty NCAA track and field championships in addition to numerous other competitions, what are your biggest takeaways regarding the dedication and talent of the athletes, the instruction and encouragement of the coaches or the excitement and enthusiasm of the fans?
LR What I have found myself doing started out with pondering about basketball. Think about how many high school teams have ten or twelve basketball players, how many end up playing in junior college or college and then how many wind up in the NBA. There are thirty teams, so a rough figure is we are talking about maybe five hundred players. We start with well over a million basketball players. It is similar in track and field. We start off right now with over a million high school boys and girls running cross country and track and field. It’s the second most popular sport. On the Olympic track and field team there are less than one hundred members every four years. They must stay injury free; they have to have enormous natural talent and good coaching. Above all they must have a passion to push and drive themselves for probably eight to ten years to make the Olympics. That is what is required, and it is extraordinary to make an Olympic team. The fans and your support system make the difference in you getting that far just to get a college scholarship – never mind making the Olympics.
GCR: As you are broadcasting about these athletes, your television audience has viewers ranging from extremely knowledgeable to very casual and who may be tuning in for the first time since the most recent Olympics. What are your goals when you are commenting to serve the wide variety in your audience and how difficult is it to please these different constituencies?
LR We can talk about this subject for about twenty minutes. What I try to do is to create the ‘wows.’ I ask myself, ‘What are the wows?’ ‘Wows’ show how great the athletes are or what they can achieve with their kick. For example, in the mile or 1,500 meters I try to make sure we give lap splits so the educated amongst us can get their share of that story during the race. Beforehand, I spend a lot of time with the athletes and coaches to try and dig up interesting stories for the telecast. I try to simplify things within reason so that a mother at home can be educated about how good her son is. I don’t talk about a high jump being two meters and 17 centimeters. The guys on the team don’t know what the heck that is, never mind the audience. The people who fashion themselves as incredibly knowledgeable may know, but it’s no more than ten or fifteen percent of our audience. One coach stopped me in a hotel lobby about eight years ago in Arkansas. I didn’t know him as we waited on an elevator. He looked at me and said, ‘My mother loves you!’ We both laughed and he told me ‘You educate her, she understands more of what I’m doing and the more knowledgeable she has gotten, the more supportive she is of what I am trying to achieve.’ That made my day. I must appeal to both constituencies, and I have to try to build the viewership base by holding the interest of the average fan.
GCR: You mentioned at the start of this interview how you broke in to broadcasting during the 1974 Boston marathon. What were the steps up the ladder that led to more marathon announcing, track and field meets and on to the Olympics that has made you one of the longest tenured television announcers in any sport?
LR In 1977, after doing a few years of the Boston Marathon, I received a phone call from Public Broadcasting. They told me they had heard my broadcasting, liked what I did and wanted to chat with me. They were looking around for a track and field meet to do on PBS and wanted to know if I could help them. We came up with a meet called the OIC Relays which had John Thomas, the great high jumper, as the Meet Director. It was a combination of having small town high school kids from New England, collegiate athletes and even some invitational and Olympic races. It was a five-hour telecast. There was no internet for homework, and I had no help. The TV commentator just did play-by-play. What a challenge that was for a first event to ever do on television. They gave me a copy of it, and I sent it off to ESPN. I didn’t know anybody at ESPN but told them I would help them if I could. ESPN wasn’t born until 1979 and 1980. Their Director of Production, Bill Fitts, called me up and said, ‘I really like what you did. We have three track meets to do in 1980 and I’d like to invite you to do the three of them.’ I’ve been with them all these years and it’s not about me. It’s about homework and preparation about the athletes so I can create the ‘wows.’ And it’s about loving the sport. That’s why I feel I’m still around and broadcasting at events like the Boston Marathon.
GCR: During the hundreds of hours that you have been ‘on the air’ broadcasting, I’m sure there have been times you wished you hadn’t said something or had conveyed a point in a better fashion. How important is it to review your performance, learn from it so you are constantly getting better and to move forward?
LR It’s very important. As far as being careful about what I say, I had this drummed into me several years ago when I worked with this one producer of some of our track telecasts. He would finish up his meeting about each show we were doing. He would look at everybody and he had an easy, funny way about him. He would say, ‘I want all of you commentators to remember one thing.’ And then I would know what was coming because I had worked with him for years. He’d say, ‘On television you can say anything you want… once.’ So, his message was ‘Don’t screw up, be very careful about what you say.’ That being said, I can always look back and think I need to add more of this or that. It’s almost like trying to make a great meal and attempting to figure out which ingredients you need to do more or to not overcook the food. I am forever trying to look at what I’ve done to continue to tweak it, maybe add more humor or something else.
GCR: Despite your lengthy broadcasting career, is there still a surge of adrenaline and nervous energy each time when the countdown to a broadcast winds down, there is that ‘three, two, one,’ and you go live?
LR I get that surge. The adrenaline absolutely flows. I do get psyched up. I do talk positively to myself that I’d better be ready to do a fabulous job and to put the sequences in the right places. I tell myself to make sure I talk about certain things in the first half of the Boston Marathon, mention important historic items and drop in facts I want to mention. I constantly go over these points. I do better to write the points down and they seem to stick better in my brain when I do that. The adrenaline still flows, just like it did in the early days.
GCR: Speaking of the excitement of broadcasting, let’s look back at the recent 2019 Boston Marathon from earlier this week. Overall, what was it like being there again broadcasting the Boston Marathon as you have done for forty-five years? How was it interacting with former champs and experiencing the entirety of Boston and surrounding communities being so excited about the Boston Marathon? Is it almost like being a kid in a candy store?
LR I love the sport and it is emotionally a joy to see so many friends and to experience the history. I’ve been doing it so long that the people at the Fairmont Copley Plaza who work at the front door and the front desk give me a big smile. They welcome me back and are very friendly and nice. It’s a great week to be there. I see so many people who are very kind and who give me compliments for my work. I just can’t say enough good about that week. I get to Boston about a week ahead of time because they ask me to be the Master of Ceremonies for the Kenyan Elite Athletes who visit the Elmwood Grammar School in Hopkinton for ‘Kenya Day.’ They salute the Kenyan athletes. One of the teachers, over twenty years ago, had his student start studying the country of Kenya – geography, location, history, politics and the greatness of the Kenyan athletes. They learn the Kenyan National Anthem in the native language. Probably about twenty of the students make tribal outfits. Everybody gets a Kenyan t-shirt. The gymnasium is filled. The event is on Hopkinton cable TV for parents and others to see. It is a magnificent day on the Thursday before the marathon. I give each athlete the big rock star introductions. They come out to smoke and haze and confetti and high five the kids. I give a little background about each of the athletes, keeping it simple so it can be grasped by the kids. The punch line for each runner is their last name and the kids go crazy with cheers. I also co-host, with Toni Reavis, the high school and elite men’s and women’s miles that take place around the finish line two days before the marathon.
GCR: That 'Kenya Day' is a very cool event of which I was unaware of as a prelude to the Boston Marathon. Then we get to the races and let’s talk about what transpired. All the top athletes get on the starting line - the men and the women and we don’t know what is going to happen. Each year over that two-and-a-half-hour period the races write themselves. This time we had a big lead pack of men who stayed together until it was a war of attrition and we were down to William Cherono of Kenya and Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia who has won it twice as they went ‘mano a mano’ all the way to the finish with Cherono outkicking Desisa by a few yards. What are your impressions of the men’s race?
LR I was asked by a few people before the race what I thought of Cherono and I said he was a podium type of runner that the other runners would have to worry about based on what he had done on a flat course in Amsterdam where he ran 2:04 and then he backed it up with another 2:04. I felt he was somebody to keep on the radar though, coming in, I didn’t know him well. I felt after talking with Geoffrey Kirui, whom I’ve gotten to know and have a nice relationship, that he was fit and would be a factor. I talked to Desisa and he told me he was doing his best workouts ever and that was all I needed to hear. By the way, the three-and-a-half hour international telecast where I commented will be available on NBC Gold without commercials for at least three months. I was asked to pick the athletes to follow…. I put graphics up of Desi Linden on the women’s side and Yuki Kawauchi on the men’s side as last year's winners. But then I picked the three men that I thought would be podium finishers. William Cherono was one, but I also had Geoffrey Kirui and Lelisa Desisa in my top three. I thought Desisa played his cards beautifully for the whole race. He never once took the lead. He understands that it takes perhaps one percent of your energy to push the density of air aside and he just let somebody else do it the entire way. Cherono would sometimes be side-by-side with another runner but I feel the best way is to let somebody else burn the energy – not you. Coming off Commonwealth Avenue and turning on to Hereford Street, even to that point Desisa had not made one move to take the lead. It was the last six hundred meters where he bolted to the front. To the best of my knowledge he had never faced Cherono before. When that happened, Kenneth Kipchemboi was right behind them on their shoulders. They didn’t necessarily know each other’s sprint speed. So, they were living very dangerously. The difference between first and third place was the difference of $110,000 in prize money. That’s a wow! Desisa was nine seconds ahead of Kipkemboi and I think what happened at the finish was he realized he didn’t have another gear. With about three steps left he eased up a hair and his form went all over the pace. He knew when he cut back that he couldn’t catch the two steps at a maximum that Cherono had on him. The margin was more like one second and not two seconds as he slowed right then and there.
GCR: In the women’s race one of the favorites was Edna Kiplagat who is 39 years old but won the New York City Marathon in 2010, was a two-time World Championships Gold medalist in 2011 and 2013 and won the Boston Marathon two years ago in 2017. But Worknesh Degefa, who won the Dubai Marathon in 2:17 only three months ago, took off early as the race unfolded totally different than the men’s race. She built a two-minute lead at halfway and then increased it to three minutes through the hills until Kiplagat went after her in the last 10k and closed it to under a minute. What are your thoughts on how the race went, if Kiplagat should have gone earlier and if she just ran out of miles to catch Degefa?
LR I had a conversation afterward with Brendan Reilly, who is Edna’s agent, and he is a tremendously good agent whom I’ve known forever. He smiled at me as soon as he saw me and said, ‘At no time did Edna have any idea after Degefa built up that lead how far ahead she was until they hit Cleveland Circle.’ That’s where the road is straight for a long time. Edna made her move a bit before that to break away from the small chase group. Edna is the type of runner who makes one move in a race. She doesn’t put in surges at any point in the race. She often tucks in behind everybody and lets them do the work. When Edna makes a move, you know its for real. I mentioned ahead of time in our broadcast that it would most likely be that way. I didn’t know if and when she was going to move, but I began to question how much she could cut into the lead because two-thirds of the way through the race Degefa was not dying. Her rhythm and her pace were very similar. It slowed in the hills, but on the flats she picked it up again. I questioned if Degefa would have trouble in the hills and I set up that possibility in our telecast because she had not even seen the course ahead of time. But Degefa did say afterward in the press conference that she had carefully watched the marathon last year. So, she knew where the hills were and felt that she knew what to expect. In any event, when Edna made her move, she had plenty left. She cut the lead down from three minutes to forty-two seconds at the end. Did she run out of real estate? Yes. If the race was another two miles longer, would she have caught up to Degefa? I believe she would have. Kiplagat said no one yelled out along the way how much of a lead Degefa held. She said, ‘I was running blind.’ The roads there are not straight in the Newton hills and they tend to weave left and right. She never saw Degefa until there was about seven kilometers to go (note – about the 22-mile point). It’s tough to make up two minutes from there.
GCR: Let’s talk about the Americans, and first on the men’s side where we saw Scott Fauble and Jared Ward each take turns leading the race which is exciting. Their times in seventh and eighth place of 2:09:09 and 2:09:25 are in the top ten American finishing times ever in the Boston Marathon. What does this portend for the two of them and for American marathon racing?
LR I’ve gotten to know Jared Ward a little bit and I know his coach, Ed Eyestone, quite well. Jared is fit, he’s consistent, and he almost never runs a bad race. He’s in his early thirties and is very sophisticated about running marathons. The pace was a 2:08 pace and here he was taking the lead, running in the front, and staying in the lead pack all that way. So, he was obviously comfortable. I was particularly impressed with Scott Fauble who came in with a 2:12 plus lifetime best. He’s a big guy and I always admire the bigger, heavier guys because they are carrying that extra weight. And you have to negotiate the hills. Desisa is small and weighs about 115 pounds while Fauble is about six feet one-and-a-half inches tall and around 150 to 155 pounds. He trains in Flagstaff and here he is running the race of his life. I tip my hat to him. On our broadcast I started to plug him during the Newton hills as running a career day here in Boston. It is great to see what the Americans accomplish. They do so though their times at 10k are not as fast as many of the great Ethiopians and Kenyans.
GCR: How about over on the women’s side where Jordan Hasay was coming back from stress fractures last year and we didn’t know what was going to happen with her career and Desi Linden was coming off that amazing win in the horrendous weather last year and they both did well with top fives? Desi had her fifth top five finish at Boston in 2:27:00 and Jordan made the podium in third place with a 2:25:20 – what are your thoughts on these two tremendous women?
LR I thought Desi ran well. When we look at her recent half marathon that was around 71 minutes, she ran well. She is tough and never gets psyched out. I thought a podium finish was a possibility but would be very hard. For Jordan it was up in the air. She went through a period of two-and-a-half months with no training. She started back running again in November. She told me a cute story of what she said to her Coach, Alberto Salazar, when she had the first workout where he wanted her to push. She said beforehand, ‘I’ll go out there and do five miles or so at 5:45 pace and let you know how I feel.’ She related, ‘I came back in with my tail between my legs after doing 6:15 per mile… Oh, my goodness – how much work do I have to do?’ But four months later, before she came to Boston, she ran around 35 to 40k and averaged 5:25 per mile. That told her she was ready. She lived up to billing. She told me before the race that she felt in ideal circumstances and perfect conditions she could run 2:21 to 2:24. The race went out so slow and she still ran 2:25. The pace for the first 10k to 15k was only 2:30 pace and then they started to pick it up.
GCR: Are there any other thoughts on this year’s Boston Marathon that hit you and stick out?
LR What hits me is the enthusiasm of the crowd and the sophistication of the audience. It’s a really big thing in the whole Boston area. People turn out and, if you tell them you ran 3:25, they know what that means. Bostonians love sports and love their sports teams, so people follow sports closely. The Boston Globe has a terrific sports section and they do quite a bit on running which helps readers to stay up on the sport. I marvel at how they are so responsive to the audience. I once was asked to put together a feature on someone who was being honored and who was a former race director of the Boston Marathon. I remember this one scene that was cut where there was a runner who was on Hereford Street and was just about to turn toward the finish line. He was virtually walking. The jog was so slow. Then he stopped and he started to walk. This college age woman, probably no more than ten or twelve yards in front of him, steps out on the marathon course, raises her arms, starts pumping them up and down and yelling at the guy, ‘Come on! Come on!’ She doesn’t even know the guy. And then he starts to run again. She screams and cheers and claps. Welcome to Boston.
GCR: On a serious note, taking a quick side-step from running-related items, you encountered a serious health issue in 2005 when you were diagnosed with stage IV throat cancer. How tough was that battle personally for you and your family, did it affect your voice and ability to broadcast, and do you continue to remain cancer-free?
LR Happily, I can say I am cancer-free. It had spread to three areas so that is why I was in stage IV. If cancer goes to two areas in your body, you are considered in stage IV. I had the best care at Sloan-Kettering in New York which is maybe the best cancer center in the country. It did not affect my voice. It came back to normal. It took me months to heal, but I was fine. I’m reflecting back to the New York City Marathon of that year where I was in remission and my voice was starting to heal. We weren’t sure if my voice would stand up to all the commentary we had to do. They had Deena Kastor and Alan Culpepper come in to help in the studio. They picked up some of the commentary. Al Trautwig, the host, would ask them some of the questions, even though I did most of the commentary, just to get me through the race. After that, everything healed back to normal.
GCR: Before we chat about some of the memorable competitions where you were part of the broadcast crew, I’d like to review some highlights of your running history to give us a perspective on your background in the sport. First, how did you get started in organized track and field at St. Mary’s High School and how long did it take before you improved to become a 4:28 prep miler?
LR It seems like it was a hundred years ago. We ran on cinder tracks back in those days. Before that I had petitioned our small Catholic High School principal to start a hockey team. We only had 38 boys in my graduating class. We had some good players and I thought hockey was my best sport. I had never run. He told me we weren’t going to and gave me the reasons there would be no hockey team. He started a track team though. It turns out he was a great track coach at a school in New York, a Christian Brothers school, before they made him principal at our school. I was a junior when he started the track team. The first thing he did, because he was an outstanding coach whose teams had had great success at the Penn Relays, was to take us to the Penn Relays. It was my first race ever and I didn’t know what was going on with all the craziness of Penn. I loved it and it started my career. My junior year I ran four or five races, but they were only mile relay races. I didn’t run that summer, but I told my coach I wanted to run a little cross country and to get some stamina. He gave me some workouts and I ran one cross country race my senior year before I went to college. I thought I was going to die at the end of it. What an experience that was. And then I only ran seven individual mile races before I got to college. I ran one half mile and never ran a two-mile race. I was just so green! He brought me from a 4:54 mile on a gymnasium floor in December to fifth place in the New England Championships six races later. It was quite an experience how he brought me along. He certainly had knowledge about the sport, and he knew what he was doing as a coach.
GCR: What did your coach do to develop your running skill set and your mental ability to race so well despite so little experience?
LR He would hold a carrot out in front of me with workouts or with the upcoming mile. We would go through strategy of who I was going to face, a kid who had better times than I had, how I should run with him and what splits I should pay attention to. If I sensed that the pace was going out too fast, I would back off a bit. He taught me pace early on by having me run repeat quarter miles. I didn’t do them every day, but he varied the workouts and brought me along very quickly. Holding the carrot out there really worked. For example, in my second mile race I ran on an indoor eleven laps to the mile board track at the State meet. I didn’t know what I was doing. I went out too fast but held on. The other two guys in front of me finished first and second but they slowed up too. And I went from 4:54 to 4:40. He kept bringing me along. In every mile race that I ran I improved.
GCR: In that last race where you ran 4:28 to finish in fifth place, were you off the front, did you come from behind and what do you recall?
LR A guy to my right on the starting line took off like a bat out of hell. Believe it or not, we are Facebook friends and he is the National Coach in Tanzania. His name is Ron Davis, he had a great career at San Jose State and, when their team won the NCAA Championship, he was part of that. In that race with me he ran 4:20 point something. In those days that was outstanding. I’m not sure what the national record was, but he was within two or three seconds of it.
GCR: How did you decide to go to Boston College, who was your coach and what were the keys in his helping you to grow as an athlete and person?
LR I have a surprising story as I chose Boston College over about four other schools that gave me offers. It was because of a great coach named Tom Duffy. He coached Ed Collymore who won the NCAAs in the 200 meters at Villanova. He coached Charlie Jenkins who in 1956 was the Olympic Champion in the 400 meters for the U.S. He coached John Thomas in the high jump up to six feet, eleven and three quarters of an inch in high school when no one had jumped seven feet indoors. Of course, this was before the Fosbury Flop technique. He was a legendary guy in the Boston area, and I chose B.C. because of Duffy. He coached me my freshman year and did a magnificent job. He started me off with a great training program in the summer. I thought I would be able to run under a four-minute mile being coached by him. He was just a terrific, knowledgeable guy as a coach and the team loved him. The head coach, who was a throws coach, got jealous of how much we loved Mr. Duffy and pushed him out the door. I was left with a shot-put coach who told me the beginning of my sophomore year to coach myself. So, three of the four years at B.C. I had to train alone. I studied everything and made up my own workouts. I trained on the football field on an eleven-lap board track in the winter. In the spring I trained near the reservoir or on the roads. We never had a home meet indoors or outdoors in four years. We had no outdoor track at the school.
GCR: Something great did happen in college for you though that must have been great when you harken back to your first track meet at the Penn Relays. Being a member of a Penn Relays champion relay team and anchoring the victory are highlights of any runner’s collegiate career and you did both at Boston College when you anchored the distance medley to a win in 1963. Can you relate the spirit and energy down on the track as you and your Boston College teammates faced Fordham and Villanova when Jim Owen’s half mile and Bob Giovey’s quarter mile kept your squad in the lead pack and then Phil Jutras opened up a lead of perhaps a second as he handed you the baton? And how tough was it for you to hold off Villanova’s future Olympian and sub-four-minute miler, Pat Traynor?
LR I had faced Traynor the year before at the IC4A Championships and three of us broke 1956 Olympic Champion, Bob Delaney’s, mile record at the IC4As. We all had finished within seven tenths of a second of one another. Traynor ran 4:06.9 in that race and I was at 4:07.1. I knew his tactics because I had watched him run some other races. I just felt that my best chance was to try and go hard from the front and see what would happen. He had taken me from behind at the IC4As. He was on his home turf at the Penn Relays since he ran for Villanova. The track was chewed up because there was race after race after race and it was late in the afternoon. I went out in 57.8 the first lap and didn’t know what was going to happen in the end. But I could tell where Traynor was without looking back. I was listening to so many people in the stands saying, ‘Come on Patty! Come on Traynor!’ It was maybe one or two seconds after I went by that I heard everybody exhort Patty. The second lap on the back stretch it took longer to hear people start yelling for Traynor, so I knew I was pulling away. By the third lap they weren’t saying anything. But I didn’t know how far back he was. I knew I was going to have a tough time on the last lap. I faded, but Traynor did too because of the hard early pace in the first half mile and I won comfortably. I don’t even remember what the time was, but it was the first victory at the Penn Relays for Boston College in over thirty years.
GCR: How tough was the competition at the NCAA Championships in 1963 where you qualified but didn’t place in the medals and what do you recall of that race?
LR That was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I did not make it to the final. I felt fine for the first three laps, but it was my first experience running at altitude. Someone handed me a piano! That is also called having the monkey on your back and it was quite an experience – absolutely. I subsequently ran at the Albuquerque Invitational twice and got my mile down to 4:11 at altitude which I was reasonably pleased with.
GCR: What were some other highlights of your collegiate athletics either for great individual performances or Boston College winning a team championship?
LR We tied Holy Cross, which had a great team, at the New England Championships. By the way, the coach who was pushed out the door my freshman year, Tom Duffy, was hired by Holy Cross as their head coach. He had a tremendous team built up in three years. As a team we were proud of what we did at that meet because we had such poor facilities for running at Boston College. When I look back, there was also a race I ran indoors that I’ve never talked about where I felt very good. I raced a guy named Mark Mullen from Harvard who was the guy his senior year who wound up winning the IC4A Championship, beating Traynor and me in the mile. I raced him at the Greater Boston Championships. I ran 4:17 for the mile indoors which doesn’t sound like much, but it was at M.I.T.’s track which had virtually no banking and 44 turns in the mile. I beat Mullen by 14 seconds in running that 4:17. Each turn was ninety degrees and your foot would slip. I was still able to run 4:17 with that slow, sandy surface and 44 turns in the race.
GCR: You graduated from college and served in the military, represented the United States in military track and field competitions and were an All-Marine Track and Field Champion. What were some of your top races you recall from U.S. Inter-Service meets and international championships?
LR Two races that I look back on I didn’t win, but they were very close. Carey Weiseger and I are still friends to this day and at one time he had the American Record for 1,500 meters at 3:39.5. At that time, he was a Marine Lieutenant. We knew each other back in the Marine Corps when he was just about getting out and my career in the Marine Corps was still on, so to speak. He beat me at the 1964 U.S. Nationals indoor Championships at Madison Square Garden by about a stride or so in the mile. I would have loved to have beat him and we joke about that to this day. That same year I raced Bob Schul early in the year before he won the Olympic 5,000 meters in Tokyo. I almost caught him. I couldn’t believe I was catching him because he had more speed than I did. We both ran 4:09 point and he was ahead by just a few tenths of a second. Then later that year he became an Olympic champion. They were great, great runners in that day, and I was pleased that I came that close to beating them.
GCR: I appreciate these stories about your running, and this sets the stage for us to transition to discussing some of the memorable runners and their performances in the major marathons you have covered over the years. And please add any favorite or special stories about these runners that we probably haven’t heard. First, how dominant was Bill Rodgers as a competitor and how significant was he to the sport during the 1970s start of the ‘running boom’ with his four wins at Boston and four wins at New York from 1975 to 1980 and, second, how important was it that he spent so much time with his fellow runners and fans as an ambassador of the sport?
LR He is totally popular to this day, as meet directors pay him to come and sign autographs and visit with people. He just has a natural love as a people person for talking and shooting the breeze and telling stories. He is down to earth and that has been his magic elixir in the sport. There is nobody from the 1970s and onward, in my estimation, that has had the longevity and the personality. He was just magic to the sport in the 1970s and 1980s. I can’t say enough about how good Billy was. His wife at the time would say to him and almost beg him when he was racing the next day, ‘Billy, it’s quarter of twelve, we have to go. We can’t stay here and keep telling stories.’ She would drag him out to get to bed and to get enough sleep. That’s Boston Billy and he is still a fixture at the Boston Marathon. He is just beloved, and nobody has had the impact, in my opinion, in America over such a long period of time in helping to build the sport as Bill Rodgers. He stands alone.
GCR: On the other side in women’s distance running, how important to the growth of women’s distance running was Grete Waitz with her nine victories in eleven years at the New York City Marathon from 1978 to 1988 and how amazing was she in track and cross country and the marathon as a strong competitor and an ambassador for the sport as a sweet and kind lady?
LR She was very down to earth. What I can tell you that I know is true, which will show you her modesty and how down to earth she was, is that her husband, Jack, tells that her Olympic Medal was kept in a drawer. She didn’t even put it up on the wall. She was an unassuming individual. Jack used to coach her and encourage her and sacrifice kind of what he could have done in life to take care of Grete as they planned their future together. Grete and I both wound up having cancer at the same time and one of the touching moments was when I was invited to an event in New York when she was quite ill. I was invited by the Norwegian Ambassador to come over to the Consulate as they were having a party for Grete. I just got this warm, warm hug. We had known each other for years and we both shared this bond that we hoped we could make it through. Obviously, she put up with several types of cancer over time and it did take her life as we all know.
GCR: There have been many battles at the Boston Marathon from the start in Hopkinton, through the small towns and then the hills of Newton until the finish line in the city of Boston. Could you describe the unbelievable race in 1982 between Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley that is immortalized in the book, ‘Duel in the Sun,’ from your vantage point as they went toe-to-toe for mile after mile?
LR What strikes me when I look back at that race is how warm it was in the sun. Beardsley did have a cap on to help him. It is clear that was his greatest race ever. He ran into injury problems and a whole host of other things later. And Salazar was tough as nails that day as he often was. Prior to that Salazar had collapsed at the finish of the Falmouth Road Race with serious heat issues to show you how tough he was. Beardsley and Salazar were just side by side for at least the last 15k of the race. It was such a battle through the Newton hills. Everybody was taken back at how fast they ran given the heat of the day. It was the buzz in Boston for days after the race. Dick has been a terrific speaker talking about his addiction problems that he wound up having because of prescriptions medications he wound up taking for pain. He is just a wonderful public speaker and human being. Life has worked out in many ways for both extremely well as Alberto has had an extremely successful coaching career.
GCR: Another memorable duel that is quite different was at the 1983 New York City Marathon when Rod Dixon reeled in Geoff Smith in Central Park to win by a few seconds. What are your thoughts on that battle to win and then that iconic photograph of Dixon in triumph with Smith laying on the pavement?
LR It’s the classic worry that you have whether you are running on the track in a mile or 5k or 10k or in a marathon. If you are Geoff Smith and you are very fit, you must worry about someone who is close to you. And what does close mean? In Central Park you’ve got maybe three miles at the most to run. It’s maybe more like two-and-a-half miles. And you must worry about a man who has the speed to be able to be able run an Olympic 5,000-meter race brilliantly. He is now in the marathon stalking you and you have maybe 300 yards on him. And that may not be enough. In this case the guy with the speed and talent and great mile times of Rod Dixon just kept slowly closing in on Smith, who really was not fading. It was just a case of the great talent and speed of Dixon running Geoff Smith down and nailing him at the finish line. I was doing radio commentary that year and I was right at the finish line. It was immortalized to me when I saw that. Of course, that iconic picture you referred to is just legendary in the sport.
GCR: Interest in training for marathons was growing in the United States and possibly hit its peak at the 1983 Boston Marathon won by Greg Meyer. I know from my own perspective, as I ran a decent marathon for me that was eight minutes off my PR, but I was back in the pack at 2:30 and didn’t even crack the top 300 runners or top 200 Americans. What brought together this tidal wave of not just top U.S. marathon racers under 2:15, but incredible depth from 2:15 to 2:20 to 2:30 to 2:40 where there were just hundreds of U.S. runners who were running strong?
LR There are numerous guys who have talked about this, but back in those days guys trained really hard. Not to say they aren’t now, but we had quite a bit of talent that was moving up from fast 5,000 meter and 10,000-meter times. There were guys like Garry Bjorkland who had run very well. Salazar had run fast at shorter distances. We had a plethora of guys who were very fast. Tony Sandoval also comes to mind. We had a core of guys with fast 10,000-meter times which is crucial. To be a fast marathoner you need to be very quick at the mile, the 5k and the 10k. In theory, the faster you are at the mile, the better marathoner you can become, believe it or not, if you switch gears to that. Eliud Kipchoge has run the 1,500 meters in 3:33. If you do the math, at the slowest that’s about a 3:50.5 mile. And he was eighteen years of age when he ran that. His two-mile time is also extraordinary. His cardiovascular system can run faster because he is so much faster at shorter distances. So, we had a great number of guys in the 1980s who excellent track speed and had done well. And they trained hard. They put in lots of miles and it all worked out in the blender, so to speak.
GCR: Similar to Bill Rodgers inspiring male marathon runners, what was the effect of Joan Benoit’s world best 2:22:43 to win the 1983 Boston Marathon and her Gold Medal performance in the 1984 Olympic Marathon and what are your top remembrances of both of those performances?
LR It just took my breath away as to how fast she was running in Boston. She ran with a 2:11 male marathoner, Kevin Ryan from New Zealand, who was living in Boston and knew Joanie well. That day it was just stupefying what she did after what she had done in the past. Bob Sevene, who was her coach, tells a cute story about the first time he met Joanie’s mom and dad who were nice, proper, ‘Mainers.’ He looks at them and he says, ‘I’ve got to tell you how great your daughter is. She is such an animal.’ Her mother was blown away and totally taken aback and didn’t know that was the ultimate compliment for a distance runner. She got all unnerved until Bob realized she had misinterpreted what he said and then he had to explain it to her. That’s how tough Joanie was. The same thing could be said of the tough training that was done by Grete who once had a phrase that she used that said, ‘long, slow distance runs make for long, slow distance runners.’ And Grete pushed hard interval training much of the time.
GCR: What are your thoughts on the transition from amateur to professional racing in the 1980s and its effect on the demographics of the Boston Marathon winners as east Africans won 25 of 28 men’s titles from 1991 to 2018?
LR There are five things that go into this and they are natural speed, training at altitude, height and weight, staying healthy, and finally money is a key. Once marathoning became an area where you could make some money, the east Africans, who had made some money competing in track on the European circuit, started looking towards the marathon. In the earliest days, from my talking with their coaches and their agents, they weren’t used to putting in the miles that a marathoner does compared to a 5k and 10k athlete. They gradually were upping their mileage because the coaches convinced them to do that. As more and more money came into the sport, we begin to see the Kenyans and Ethiopians take their great speed in the 1,500 meters, 5k, 10k and steeplechase where they dominated and move up the ladder because there was significant money. I don’t know how much more the dollar is stretched in Kenya compared to America, but it is probably safe to say that it can be anywhere from two to five times more depending on where you live in Kenya. If you’re out in the country a dollar can buy a great deal over there, especially food. If you are in Nairobi, then less so. The key is that it gave financial security to many great distance runners who moved from the track events to the marathon. I also did a study one day by grabbing a Track and Field News year end issue from 1977 and I looked in the men’s section to see the average height and weight of the men who were ranked in the top ten in the world. I don’t think there were any Kenyans or Ethiopians that year. I averaged it out and got five feet, nine and a half inches and 137 pounds. With the arrival of the Kenyans and Ethiopians with their great speed and their altitude training, the height and weight of the top ten in the world has roughly been for the last seven or eight years at least around five feet, seven inches and 117 pounds. So, they are twenty pounds lighter than the Caucasians who were reigning supreme in the marathon as the top ten people in the world in the 1970s. That’s a huge decrease of weight to carry on top of the great speed which they possess.
GCR: Sticking with the Boston Marathon, from 1986 to 1996 all eleven women’s champs were from Europe and Russia and then from 1997 to 2017 there were 19 of 21 winners from east Africa. Why do you think the demographics of the women’s champs was different than on the men’s side for slightly over a decade before becoming in tandem?
LR I do think the east Africans are a tiny race of people who are fast. They find talented runners and the altitude helps. I once asked Joe Vigil how much he thought the altitude training helped in a marathon and he felt that over time altitude training and the increase in red blood cells can improve your time in the marathon by one and a half to two percent. That is a significant amount of performance improvement if you’re a good runner. I think the women and the coaches figured there were some runners who had done well on the track that could moved up. Fatuma Roba was one example of a runner from Ethiopia who inspired others by winning the 1996 Olympic title. I think the women decided to do the same type of training, to get organized in places like Addis Ababa, and to train in the high mountains that are over 9,000 feet above sea level. Certainly, their success has continued to follow.
GCR: Though many marathon races are decided well before the finish line and the leader approaches the finish line and it’s almost a coronation of joy as they run in smiling and waving, there was an amazing stretch at the Boston Marathon from 2008 to 2012 where all five women’s races were won by three seconds or less. How improbable was this and how exciting to watch and to announce as five years in a row the women’s race came down to a kick on Boylston Street?
LR It was tremendously exciting. And to think they had run that distance – forty-two kilometers or twenty-six plus miles – and somebody wins by three seconds or two seconds. It is a ‘shake your head’ moment. I remember getting goosebumps during the show in 2011 when Des Linden was lumbering along at Boston College around the 21-mile mark and she starts hearing chants of ‘USA! USA!’ People came out of their houses as they were watching the telecast and cheered the runners on as they approached the home stretch. They were great, great moments in Boston and there have been so many of them.
GCR: Sometimes in sports we must face a real low before we can climb to an exhilarating high. Can you describe the emotions of sadness from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the excitement and joy of the return to racing in 2014 combined with the first victory for a U.S. man in 31 years when Meb Keflezighi crossed the finish line?
LR It was an ultimate low of lows in 2013. It makes you begin to wonder about the craziness going on in the world and you hope there are no copycat people. You worry about the pockets of large numbers of people out in Framingham and Wellesley and at Wellesley College. You feel very vulnerable. The meet directors don’t talk much about this, but there have been meetings in New York, Boston and Chicago to do their very best to circulate plain clothes officers through the finish line area and other parts of the cities and they have cameras set up everywhere. They are trying to preclude anything like that from ever happening again and, hopefully, it never will. The amount of money that poured in to help those who were injured and to set up scholarships in the names of families who had loved ones killed is just amazing. And, of course, the next year with Meb coming down Boylston Street it was just awesome. I had to reign my commentary in. I know that family quite well, including Yordanos, his wife. I was broadcasting internationally on the telecast and didn’t want to sound too much like a homer. I could get excited, but just couldn’t go crazy with enthusiasm.
GCR: We spoke of how important Bill Rodgers was to marathon running, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. How important to marathon racing at a high level in the past fifteen years amongst U.S. men has Meb Keflezighi been with his 2004 Olympic Silver Medal, 2009 New York City Marathon victory, 2014 win at Boston and his continued strong ambassadorship within the sport?
LR Meb has done for this era what Bill Rodgers did for his. Meb is thought of that well. This year he was the Boston Marathon Grand Marshall that rode in the vehicle right in front of the leaders.
GCR: It had also been a long time since an American woman was on top of the podium of the New York City or Boston Marathon. What was it like to be watching and announcing at the 2017 New York City Marathon when Shalane Flanagan broke away in the final 10k and then was relentless for mile after mile as she raced to the finish and was the first American woman to win since Miki Gorman in 1977?
LR It was tremendous because she was racing Mary Keitany who didn’t have the usual response she normally does within a race. Nobody who was watching knew that. The pace had been moderate for much of the race. When Shalane really stepped on the accelerator and crushed it, Keitany could not quite respond. But at that point in the race there were miles and miles to go. Shalane Flanagan got her mile times down under five minutes and ten seconds and she was just hammering. She was so fast that the question was, ‘Could she hold up and would she get far enough in front of Keitany, who rarely ever has a bad race, to feel she could be comfortable in the victory?’ And no one knew that. So, mile after mile, everyone who was cheering for an American victory, which hadn’t happened in New York for decades, had to hold on to see what would occur. And Shalane held on. She did and had a tremendous victory that inspired the other American runners. It was important for the sport to have the victory by Shalane Flanagan, the victory by Des Linden, of Jordan Hasay coming along, and of Galen Rupp running some great races. We now have people because of hard training who are making dents in the top ten in the world and with regularity. So, America has a lot to be proud of.
GCR: You mentioned Desi Linden and we didn’t have to wait long for another American woman to win a major marathon, but it was totally different. What was it like covering the 2018 Boston Marathon and the war of attrition as the hard rain and ferocious headwinds caused almost all of the favorites to drop out until Desi was like a prize fighter and was left standing as the first American woman to win in 35 years, the soaking wet victor by four minutes as all her challengers said ‘No mas, I can’t take this?’
LR We had twenty-three elite athletes, men and women, drop out of the Boston Marathon last year because of the weather. Somewhere between two and six miles Des questioned whether she could survive the conditions and debated whether to drop out at that part of the race. She was running along with Shalane Flanagan and further into the race Shalane told her that she needed to make a stop at a port-a-potty. They are good friends as both have been Olympians and have raced together in major events over the years and Des said, ‘I will wait for you.’ We watched on our television screen and were commenting on this. Shalane veered off to the port-a-potty and Al Trautwig, sitting next to me, said, ‘I timed it and she only took thirteen seconds.’ She had dropped sixty-five yards off the lead group. Des had told her, ‘I will block the wind for you and bring you up to the lead pack again.’ Shalane thanked Des, came back from the port-a-potty, tucked in behind Linden and Des powered her way up over the next mile or two to get Shalane back up to the lead group. Des was saying to herself, ‘I’m not going to finish this race.’ Then it turned out that Shalane struggled and after the race said, ‘These were the most brutal conditions I’ve ever run in.’ Linden, after the race said, ‘I never felt worse than I did early on, and I decided to hang in and do the best I could. Then I noticed people around me were fading.’ And she ends up winning the race. What a story!
GCR: Switching gears from the marathon, you’ve covered quite a few Olympic Games and I’d like to hit on a few of the greatest athletes of the most recent few decades. What are your thoughts on three athletes from the 1984 Olympics who were multiple Gold Medalists – Valerie Brisco-Hooks, Evelyn Ashford and then Carl Lewis, who duplicated Jesse Owens four Gold Medals feat from 1936?
LR I was at an event where Valerie Brisco-Hooks raced prior to the Olympics. It was in California and she was trying to break the American Record in the 400 meters. She was trying to be the first American woman to break fifty seconds. She was talking to Bob Kersee after the race and, for some reason, Bob had not told her the time. They hadn’t been standing together long as he got to her when I was coming over to talk to her. I’m not even sure why I was down there because I had been in the announcing booth. I looked at her and said, ‘Valerie, I just want you to know… do you know what your time was? It begins with a four.’ And she went bananas. I believe she was the first American woman under fifty seconds. When you talk about Evelyn Ashford, I just have the highest regard for her. She was a tremendous athlete, tough as nails, had a great career from a young age and helped America move into the Olympic spotlight with several performances that were ones for the ages. And Carl Lewis, four-time Olympian – what can you say? From the 100 meters to the 200 meters and there was an issue in the long jump one time where he might have been the first guy to get out to thirty feet. It had to do with whether his toe was over or made an indentation in the plasticine. It became a very controversial call. The judge at the time said there was some type of indentation and it was a foul. And he lost his chance ever at a thirty-foot long jump on that runway.
GCR: Sustaining greatness over many years is a defining factor in any comparison of the greats in any sport. Amby Burfoot talked about this with me several years ago and thought that running a Thanksgiving race over fifty years in a row and winning his age group as a teenager and in his sixties was a bigger feat than his winning the Boston Marathon in 1968. Can you describe how tough a competitor Carl Lewis was to win the Olympic long jump Gold Medal four times in a row from 1984 to 1996? Also, since no top sprinters today at the Olympic level also compete in the long jump, just how great is Carl Lewis in the history of our sport?
LR He was tremendous and his status in many, many ways has not diminished. But, let’s talk about the importance of speed. If you want to be a great 110-meter hurdler, you’d better be a great sprinter, and maybe one of the best guys in your country. All long jumpers have great speed down the runway, and Carl had that. I once asked him how much he trained for the long jump in the course of a week. He said, ‘I really work mainly on technique and making sure my steps are down. I do that once a week. The rest of the time I am focusing on sprinting and various parts of the workout that Coach Tom Tellez gives me.’ It came naturally and he worked at it. But it wasn’t something that he did every day. Long jumpers have a high rate of injury, so he cut that down by just doing it one day a week.
GCR: Speaking of greatness for many years, in the last fifteen years what can you say about the repeated watching and broadcasting of excellence exhibited by Allyson Felix, who won 18 Olympic and World Golds from 2005 to 2017 and Usain Bolt, who won 19 Olympic and World Golds from 2008 to 2016?
LR I love the fact that they are both clean athletes and have been their entire careers. There is a frequency of testing of at least four, five and six times a year, and they have been clean. That is an important characteristic to note. A huge story of Allyson Felix is from when she was still in grammar school. She may have been in a school where you went up to eighth grade, but she was in about sixth grade. The story I’ve heard is that the coach, who was a gym teacher, had some experience in track and field. He was out there testing kids in workouts to see how quick they could be, and they were running fifty yards. All the kids ran it and he would encourage the faster kids to consider track and field. Allyson ran it and he had never seen her run before. She ran it so fast and he looked at his watch. He called her over and he said, ‘Listen, I’d like you to do this. Go back and run it again.’ The guy could not believe his stopwatch. She had a brother, Wes, who was on scholarship at the time at Southern Cal. He had said that toward the end of the school year he was tired and looking for a break because of the long track season. Since he was in southern California the outdoor season started in February with meets like the Long Beach Relays. He thought it was a long tough grind to earn his scholarship with all the months of training. I don’t know whether his feelings impacted Allyson, but she decided since she was so good to not run collegiately. She had a scholarship, ran less often and Nike paid her way for her elementary education program in college. I often wondered if she didn’t race collegiately, not just because of how good she was, but because she was a very stable person, disciplined, could get a good coach and not have to run the grueling four years that college can be for runners at a high level.
GCR: And what about Usain Bolt? Do you have any stories that stand out about him in terms of great performances or his joy for the sport?
LR He had the World Record for a Junior as a 15-year old and a 16-year old. So, the talent was always there. Of course, he kept growing in size and stature. In Glen Mills he had a terrific coach who was also a father figure. Usain had his own personality as well which was very endearing. He went up to the ESPN offices one day in Bristol, Connecticut. I’m not sure who recruited him. The whole place, I’m told, just stopped. I wasn’t there for it, but everybody wanted to see him and meet him. They took him out to the parking lot, and he joked about racing with some of the employees. It was a huge deal at ESPN as far as a memorable day. I was in Berlin at the World Championships and afterward a friend of mine gave me the splits of what he ran for each of the ten meters during his World Record at the World Championships in 2009. I thought someone had given me gold because I knew what I could do with it. I went back to the hotel and I broke down every ten meters, converted them to yards and then figured out some football analogies that regular sports viewers could understand. I put them on ESPN, and they kept calling me back. They said they loved the interview and the analogies. They asked me to come on ESPN SportsCenter that night and wanted me to figure out some more analogies. I did that for something like seven days on nine shows on television and also on radio. Here are some of the facts about how fast Usain Bolt was in his day. First, I had to be aware that the average person on the street couldn’t tell anyone how many yards are in one hundred meters even if we offered them one thousand dollars. It is 109 yards, one foot and one inch. I would say the exact distance every time before I used an analogy. I said to picture a football field where Usain Bolt uses that first part of just over nine yards to get up to speed. He steps out of one end zone on a football field, but mind you he does have spikes on and is running on a track. He leaves one end zone and steps into the other end zone in 7.85 seconds.
GCR: Larry, those are the types of analogies that bring it home to people who don’t understand what these great athletes do.
LR That is what I try to do, if we go back a bit to the earlier question you asked. That is, how do I create the ‘wows’ for the average fan or the new fan or the mom or dad or sister to help them understand how great these athletes are who do this? Here are another couple analogies. I tell viewers that Usain Bolt can hold his top end speed so well that the last forty yards of his race, if you picture a football field, he is at the forty-yard line and steps into the end zone forty yards later in 2.95 seconds. He had a running start, but his time in a ‘football forty’ with a standing start works out to almost exactly four seconds flat. The best ever done at an NFL combine is 4.24 seconds. Put another way, the fastest defensive back has run at the combine about 4.35 seconds. So, if Usain Bolt was running a pass pattern, he would be four yards, or twelve feet clear of the guy to catch the pass at the forty yard mark.
GCR: When an athlete is the only one to achieve an accomplishment since the modern Olympics began in 1896, it stands as historic and a testament to that competitor’s talent, dedication and grit. What are your thoughts about Michael Johnson and his unique achievement of Gold Medals in the 200 meters and 400 meters at the 1996 Olympics and World Records at both distances?
LR He is iconic and legendary, and it is much greater than having your hands put in cement in Hollywood, that’s for sure. He is just a legendary athlete and carries a mantle of a great American athlete in the same sense as Carl Lewis for his achievements. Look how well they have stood the test of time over almost twenty-five years.
GCR: Sometimes greatness is realized in the blink of an eye. At the 2004 Olympics, Hicham el Guerrouj, who is still the World Record holder at 1,500 meters and the mile, was a double Gold Medalist at 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters. But he had great competition and only edged Bernard Lagat by 0.12 seconds in the 1,500 meters and Kenenisa Bekele by 0.20 seconds in the 5,000 meters. In this instance and in others you’ve broadcast over the years, how close is that fine line between historic significance and just coming ‘oh so close?’
LR I think you said that in your question. By being ‘oh so close’ means what if Lagat had beaten him by point one-two seconds and Kenenisa had beaten him by a fifth of a second? We wouldn’t be having this discussion. That is the premium we all put on achieving greatness by being an Olympic champion. And that is perhaps as fine a double that I have ever heard of in any Olympiad.
GCR: Rivalries are a huge component of spectator excitement and athletes rising to new heights. One of my favorites that has really struck me has been over the past ten years with Christian Taylor and Will Claye in the triple jump as they competed as teammates at the University of Florida for S.E.C. and NCAA titles, at USATF meets and on the Diamond League and at World Championships and Olympic Games. Taylor has five Gold Medals at the Olympics and Worlds while Claye has three Silvers and two Bronze along with two indoor World Golds. Claye has three outdoor USATF Golds and four Silvers while Taylor has two Golds and three Silvers. What are your impressions of these as competitors and friends and as possibly the best duo and rivalry the USA has had in any event in recent memory, if not ever?
LR That’s a very good point as this is an extraordinary situation where they also train together. Taylor was also running the 400 meters, and occasionally the four by 100-meter relay, for speed reasons. Claye does triple jumping and long jumping while also working on his speed. I have followed them closely. I know Christian but don’t know Will Claye well as I’ve only met him once. Taylor and I have had some conversations at USATF conventions. It’s a very respectful, healthy and mature relationship the two of them have. They are seemingly good friends from all I know, it is genuine, and they push each other in practice. I think it has led to the success that both have had.
GCR: Sometimes it isn’t just a rivalry, but a changing of the guard. Can you take us through one that I enjoyed as a fan those half dozen years or so starting in 2004 at 400 meters when Jeremy Wariner was Olympic Champ in 2004 and two-time World Champ in 2005 and 2007 before Lashawn Merritt won 2008 Olympic and 2009 World Gold with Wariner earning Silver medals in both?
LR That is a classic example in sprinting where athletes have a shorter life span than in distance running where they can keep moving up in distance if they are great and can continue to have success. But you rarely see a point guard in basketball as an All-Star past the age of twenty-seven or twenty-eight. That first step and quickness kind of goes away. They can still be great basketball players, but the point guard position needs quickness. It’s just hard when you are a sprinter to be on top of the game. If you start losing a little speed in the 100 meters and 200 meters, it does affect your 400 meters. And I think that’s what we saw with that window where Jeremy was at the top of his game for years and was running brilliantly and on top of the world. Then along comes a younger buck by seven or eight years and then here he is.
GCR: Are there any other long-lasting rivalries that have impressed you during your broadcasting career as two athletes battled for many years?
LR If we go back to indoor track in the United States, there was a period when two runners were both great and it was a fierce rivalry and that is between Marcus O’Sullivan and Eamonn Coghlan in the mile. Marcus became a World Champion and Eamonn had been one. But Eamonn had that quick first or second or third step that he could make to get his quickness on the indoor track. When they would have some great battles at the Wanamaker Mile, Eamonn would frequently edge out Marcus by about half a step or a full step by the time the finish line came around. When I look back on rivalries, I tend to look back on the distance races that have struck me over time. Another great one that I had the honor of commentating on was Hicham el Guerrouj for years racing Bernard Lagat in the Golden League. Those battles were amazing. Their times that they would turn in for 1,500 meters and the mile were just breathtaking.
GCR: You mentioned the Wanamaker Mile and, of course, the biggest indoor track and field meet in the U.S. over the course of many decades has been the Millrose Games. What are some of your most memorable impressions of the Wanamaker Mile, especially Eamonn Coghlan winning seven times and Bernard Lagat eclipsing that with eight victories?
LR They were so superior. They both had excellent speed. They had the ability to shift gears. They ran indoors beautifully, meaning they just cruised around, even on the eleven laps to the mile tracks of the day where they had most of their victories. We hadn’t switched over to eight laps per mile tracks and the indoor events were still being held in places like the Boston Garden or the Meadowlands, which were ten laps to the mile, or Madison Square Garden, which was eleven. One of the all-time great moments I ever had was in 1983 with the World Record attempt by Eamonn Coghlan at the Meadowlands to get under 3:50 and become the first person ever to do that indoors in the mile. The race was set up and Eamonn even had a part with the architect in making sure the wood track had a little give to it and some bounce back. He loved the banking on the turns which were higher than at most tracks of the day. ESPN contacted me as the race was delayed a week by a huge snowstorm in the New York City area. I lived in New York City for twenty-five years and I don’t remember a bigger snow storm. Everything was shut down and they postponed the meet for one week. They called me up and were going to cut in at halftime of a big college basketball game to show that World Record mile attempt. The crowd was huge. We came on live. They asked me to do the play-by-play though I normally did the color commentary. Don Paige did the color commentary. Steve Scott and Ray Flynn were in the race. They pushed the pace and it was perfectly timed. Ross Donohue set the pace for the first 880 and was out I am thinking in 1:55.8 at the half mile. He had just enough, and he flew on the back stretch of the last lap. I remember doing calculations and said the World Record could be at hand. On the beginning of the back stretch I said that this was going to be right down to the wire. And that’s the way I portrayed it. He got the World Record by something like two tenths of a second.
GCR: You have been part of the broadcast team at over fifty NCAA Championships – most people seem to focus on individuals winning their events, but many top athletes I’ve interviewed have another perspective. Todd Williams comes to mind as he told me how his placing in two events at NCAAs was secondary to his University of Tennessee winning the team championship. Does anything rival the joy of winning team championships?
LR The athletes are thrilled with it. I can close my eyes and see the great success Coach Mike Holloway has had with the University of Florida over the last five to seven years. The guys love doing the Gator Chop. At the end of the 4 by 400 meters when they are in contention to win, there is a song they started doing about ten years ago at the encouragement of a couple of seniors. They all know the song and they are rallying behind their team on the field. You can see the joy on their faces as they are trying to psyche up their four by four guys. They take great pride at the University of Florida. They have great sprinters and Coach Holloway is known for that as well as for his hurdling coaching ability. It is just a thrill to watch. When they win the title, which has been often in the recent years, they are out on the field doing the Gator Chop and when you look at their faces all you see are big smiles. It’s a great moment and is the culmination of taking a sport that is both individual and team-related and tying it together in one euphoric moment of achievement that they will never forget for the rest of their lives.
GCR: Over all your years in the NCAA broadcast booth, what are some of your most memorable NCAA individual and team championships broadcasts for their improbability or a big come from behind to win in the final event, the 4 by 400-meter relay?
LR The NCAA Championships are so difficult to win. You need one or two or more teams to have significant failure. A high jumper that gets a no height. A sprinter jumps the gun, has a false start and is disqualified who was favored to win. The analysis is so accurate and so precise these days as to which team can win an NCAA Division I indoor or outdoor title that you don’t get a team that was coming in ranked tenth to ever win. That team, if they have a great day, might move up to fifth, but it is very hard for a team that is so far out to ever have an upset like Virginia had in the NCAA basketball tournament when they lost to UMBC a year ago as a sixteenth seed. That’s one basketball game. There are so many events in track and field that it transcends five players.
GCR: Are there any other athletes, competitors, meets or races that you’ve watched or broadcast that we’ve missed that you’ve just got to note?
LR I wish I had a video of one race. It was during my early days on the Boston College track team. There was a guy from Canada who made their Olympic team and may have made it twice before he became a professor. He was a very smart guy named Bruce Kidd. He ran for the Toronto Olympic Club and had a great coach named Fred Foote. He came down to Boston and the reason for his journey was he was being considered for admission into Harvard as a 17-year old high school senior in Canada. He was racing against a top guy who immigrated from Ireland named Pete McArdle. I’m going back to 1960 in the old Boston Garden. They had two major meets in those days – the Knights of Columbus Meet and Boston Athletic Association Meet. There were ten or eleven thousand fans at K of C and twelve thousand at the BAA meet. This was I believe at the Knights of Columbus meet. I was on the infield because we were about to run a four by four hundred relay shortly after this race was over. It was a two-mile race, and this was an unknown 17-year old. No one knew anything about Bruce Kidd. Now McArdle had won National AAU Cross Country Championships. He was a tough, tough New York City mechanic working for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. He was skinny as a rail, but tough as nails. Everybody knew he was a great, great runner. McArdle was out there and started hammering. He was running at close to the World Record pace at that time of 8:49. It was on an eleven laps to the mile track. And just poking along, running with his arms in a funny motion like he was plugging in a telephone switchboard, was Bruce Kidd. I’m watching with five or six laps to go how close this kid was to McArdle with no one else there. He looked up at the second balcony and suddenly on the back stretch takes off in a full sprint and passes McArdle. A guy twice his age! And McArdle gets angry and you can see his face contort. What Kidd was doing was sprinting the straightaways and jogging the turns. So, McArdle would catch back up to him. It was almost like McArdle thought Kidd was trying to insult him or embarrass him with the way he was toying with him. Bruce Kidd was running interval training up against a guy who was a national champion and they were running at close to World Record pace. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. For the next five laps that is what he did. The crowd was in an uproar. He would sprint ahead in the straightaway and slow way down in the turns. McArdle would get back up to Kidd and he would sprint the straightaway. It was crazy! He came within tenths of a second of the World Record for two miles and Bruce Kidd beats Pete McArdle. I never forgot that.
GCR: During all these years broadcasting, I’m sure you have made great friendships with your fellow broadcasters and athletes, coaches, race directors and others in the media. Is there a friendship or turning point that you’ve been blessed with that set the stage for your many years as a broadcaster?
LR The guy who opened the door for me was a guy who people reading this may not know as well as their fathers may know. We just watched Jim Nantz broadcasting the NCAA basketball championships, and the Jim Nantz back in the day was Curt Gowdy, Sr. He was a legendary guy and we broadcast the Boston marathon together one year. It was the only year he ever did it. The producer had miscalculated the amount of editing, we had no script to follow, we saw none of the video of the race. He told us he had men running to Grete in every segment for the whole one-hour Boston Marathon show. I knew the course and did extra work to get splits and other information, so I was ready for the telecast. When we finished, Curt said to me, ‘Larry, you did a fantastic job. You should be doing network television. I’m going to tell my son, Curt Gowdy, Jr., about the work you have done.’ I had never heard of Curt Gowdy, Jr., but it turned out he was the head of sports production at ABC-TV. I was working for ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut. The phone rang that August about five months later and it was Curt Gowdy, Jr. He invited me to work on the New York City Marathon. That was 1984, over thirty-four years ago, and I’m still with it.
GCR: With all you experienced as an athlete and what you’ve gleaned from watching and speaking with top athletes over the years, what are the most important overriding concepts in training and race preparation that allow an athlete to reach his or her potential and competitors to have the imperceptible edge necessary to win championships on the world stage in competitions that are often so close?
LR Honestly, over the years to me it has come down to speed. You can take the races between Hicham el Guerrouj and Bernard Lagat to make this point. Bernard Lagat had an incredible aerobic system but was never able to run one minute and forty-four seconds for 800 meters. Hicham el Guerrouj ran 1:43 point something for 800 meters. When they stepped up to the mile in a very close race, the man who had slightly more sprint speed was Hicham el Guerrouj. You can take case after case after case like that and the runner who had the best speed was usually the victor. It works that way. You can go back time after time after time and, I’ve said this my whole career, to see how fast guys are. The guys with the greatest speed have an edge in the longer races.
GCR: A troubling side of many sports, including track and field, is the use of PEDs, or Performance Enhancing Drugs, by some athletes. What has been the effect when we watch great races, and then athletes are caught for PEDs? With caught athletes such Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and Justin Gatlin and those who are suspect, such as every woman’s World Recordholder at 800 meters and below, what is the believability of the races as we watch them as we tend to wonder if what we are watching is real or drug-aided? What is the effect of our ability to enjoy watching track and field meets?
LR I’ve had the honor of winning two Emmy Awards for my work in sports journalism. In one show I told a key producer about what was going on in East Germany that we were finding out about as the Berlin Wall was coming down. He asked me to go over there and to produce the investigative piece. He asked me to do the interviews, edit them down and to do the commentary. It was an amazing experience how systematized East Germany was for decades with their cheating. There are reasons why we doubt what we see because drugs improve women’s performances even more than men in most events. They were susceptible to big improvements and, when they were trying to push the communist ideology, in East Germany, Russia and other Soviet bloc countries, they focused on the women. One key man involved in their program said, ‘America is like the wild west with drugs. People randomly use them and try them. It’s not systematized. In the countries under Soviet influence and Russia it was totally organized. That is the difference in the two societies.’ The same thing was true in China in the 1990s with their distance coach who systematically cheated. The records still stand in some cases and it’s pathetic that they still stand. It’s upsetting in many, many ways. The cheating that has gone on is a sad part of the sport and has hurt its popularity.
GCR: You have been honored with induction into the Boston College Athletic Hall of Fame in 1983 and the New York Athletic Club HOF in 2001, along with receiving the Penn Relays Lifetime Achievement Award, are a two-time national and two-time regional Emmy award winner for sports journalism and for track and field and were recognized by La Salle Academy and All Hallows High School for contributions to these inner-city schools. Are these honors both gratifying and humbling?
LR I think that’s a great way to put it. Those two adjectives are both correct. I’ve grown up with the philosophy that service to humanity is the greatest work of life. It’s not about me as far as television goes. I’m honored because I love the sport to have had the life I’ve had. I was fortunate on Wall Street to make enough money that for twenty-five years I’ve tried to give back to some inner-city schools. In the case of LaSalle Academy, they have about four hundred students and only five families can pay the full tuition. The rest will pay partial tuition and the kids will get on trains and come up an hour-and-a-half each way to go to school and to try to get the education necessary so they can go to college. My dad came up during the depression. I never met a grandparent. Two of them died in the influenza epidemic. My mom’s dad died as a policeman in the line of duty chasing a burglar. He caught his pant leg on a fence trying to jump over it to go after the guy and cracked his head on the ground. He died of a blood clot in the brain. I watched them struggle, but they set their own goals. My mother was a phenomenal nurse and had a great success in the profession. I felt that I was going to do the best that I could with everything that came my way, whether it was being a Marine officer and leading men in combat or being on TV and trying to make the sport look as great as it should be. It’s not about me. It’s about them and so I try to also give back to several non-profits I’m involved with. I try to help those less fortunate and I love doing that.
GCR: Hopefully you can keep doing that and so how is your current health and what do you do for fitness?
LR I’m happy to tell you that I’m very healthy now. I’m working out and try to do intervals on the bike which is as close as I get to seeing God. I tell myself that I’m trying to be the man I once was which, of course, we will never be. My fitness is great, my pulse rate is low, my blood pressure is great and hopefully it will stay that way. I’m happy at this stage of my life because I’m doing as good of a body work as I can, and I think that I’ve ever done. I’m pleased that the memory is as good as its been. Hopefully we can keep doing this for a few years longer.
GCR: What are some of your goals for the future in terms of broadcasting and other areas of your life, and do you see yourself slowing down or doing as much as you can to live life to its fullest?
LR That’s the right way to do it - to live life to the fullest. If my health is great and I think I can keep the quality up, then I will. But, if I sense that it is sliding, then I will step away. I don’t want to be like a baseball player they threw out because he was hitting .169. I want the sport to look great. I want people to say, ‘Hey, I didn’t know that. Gee, that’s interesting.’ It’s up to me to try to find those things. I get to work with a guy like Al Trautwig who has worked with many, many people and is the voice of Madison Square Garden for the Rangers in hockey and who works for NBC during the winter and summer Olympics. When he turns to me after the Boston Marathon and says, ‘You always do an awesome job,’ that is the type of compliment I appreciate and hope I am leaving ingrained with the play-by-play guys I work with. I’ve worked with some great ones who have been very complimentary. Dick Enberg, Al Michaels, Curt Gowdy and Charlie Jones have all said things that are so memorable that I go home and write them down.
GCR: What advice do you give to youth and teenagers so that they can be their best and reach their potential as athletes and as human beings since athletics is only a part of life?
LR I talk about setting goals for yourself. I frequently talk at high schools and I’ve been invited to speak in Wisconsin and Massachusetts and Florida to the state high school coaches’ conventions. I tell them that memory and focus in their high school athletes have been proved in tests at the University of Illinois at Champaign, at Duke University, and at Northeastern University. They have documented evidence that blood flow improves, the discipline from running is greater, the goal setting from track and field never leaves them and the academics in high school and in college for track and field teams and cross country are the best in most cases or right at the top, if not the best, in a school. It sets the stage with training that way with that type of goal-setting and discipline to be a great success in life. All the things I learned in track and field I applied to the investment business, how hard I worked, what I learned and how I got better. I also used it in broadcasting. I attributed this to track and field and what I learned from that experience. Every youngster of the million that run in the United States can do the very same thing.
GCR: I don’t know if there is much more to say, but how do you sum up the major lessons you have learned during your life from your family coming out of the Depression, Catholic upbringing, the discipline of running and the military, your career in finance, watching amazing athletic competitions for many years, and sharing your knowledge and experience with others as a broadcaster that all comes together in the ‘Larry Rawson philosophy?’
LR I’ve never really thought of it as the ‘Larry Rawson Philosophy,’ but the very things I just said to you probably encompass the ‘Larry Rawson Philosophy.’ That is applicable to the way I lived my life, the way I tried to give back and the way I tried to improve society the best I can. And I’m not through.
  Inside Stuff
Nicknames As an adult it was ‘Larue.’ It was started out by a guy I worked with. I don’t know why but he started calling my ‘Larue’ one day
Hobbies/Interests I came from a very musical family and sang in glee club in high school. For years when I lived in Boston I sang in a piano bar and I also recorded an album. I included several duets with some terrific female singers
Favorite movies ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ and ‘The Dirty Dozen.’ I like military movies
Favorite TV shows Documentaries
Favorite music I love great duets from Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli. My favorite artist of all time is Billy Joel. If you like him, you’ve got to get to Madison Square Garden, and you’ve got to get there to watch one of his great performances. He has sold out Madison Square Garden, that I know of, around one hundred and six times with twenty thousand people each time
Favorite books I love biographies that tell great stories such as Ernest Shackleton who has a book called ‘Endurance’ of how he saved men when their ship cracked up in the Antarctic, found a dot in the ocean over a hundred miles away in cold weather and saved his entire crew
First car A 1949 Ford that was an old car that my uncle gave me
Current car A Lexus SUV
First Job Stocking shelves at a corner grocery store for sixty cents an hour
Family I had fabulous parents. I couldn’t say enough about them. They set the example. They kept saying, ‘You’re going to go to college.’ They said this to all five of us and everybody did. I was very fortunate to have the parents that I did and the family that I’ve got
Pets I love dogs and love cats. We had them all when I was growing up. We even had a parakeet and stray rabbit that was dying, we nursed back to health and we let it go
Favorite breakfast I’m a Cheerios fan
Favorite meal I’ll eat anything at night
Favorite beverages I’m not an alcohol beverage drinker because of when I had throat cancer. I’m a skim milk fan. I liked wine, but that stopped with the throat cancer. I can’t even have a Coke now because of the damage it does after the radiation and chemotherapy
First running memory Thinking that I was going to die in my first time trial in the 400 meters
Running heroes Carey Weiseger. He was a Marine lieutenant who nurtured me along. He ran a 3:56 mile and was the first American to run a sub-four-minute mile in the eastern half of the country
Greatest running moment Running the 4:07 mile when I got elbowed twice and didn’t quite win the IC4A Championships. That was a very satisfying moment
Greatest broadcasting moment I don’t have a favorite. From a thrill standpoint, calling Eamonn Coghlan’s sub-3:50 live between halves of a major basketball game was a great moment. Also, the 100-meter race where it was Carl Lewis versus Ben Johnson that turned into such a disaster with Ben Johnson cheating. I called it live across the United States on Westwood One Radio
Worst broadcasting moment There is nothing I feel ashamed about or where I totally screwed up that I can think of. I’ve had some shows where the play-by-play guys couldn’t pronounce names and didn’t know some facts and I tried to make it work throughout the show. That tends to bother me because it’s something I can’t control, but I’m part of something that is only average at best
Childhood dreams I never thought about being a professional baseball player. I kind of worked my way through a very tough academic high school and struggled my freshman, sophomore and junior years. Once I got into track and field it helped me to become more disciplined and organized. My senior year my grades got better. I almost made the Dean’s List a couple times at Boston College. I just became very efficient in the use of my time and I credit that to track and field
Embarrassing moment I wound up being in the same summer house as a woman whose nickname in the New York City newspapers was ‘The Mayflower Madam.’ I did not know what she was doing when we were there. Yours truly in a toga wound up in a group photo on the front page of the New York Post and that did not go over well with the senior management of Morgan Stanley
Favorite places to travel In the United States I love San Diego, California and I’ll be out there for a reunion soon. As far as travel goes, I’ve had some great vacations in the Caribbean that I’ve enjoyed. Through broadcasting track and field meets I have been to forty-one countries