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Running guru Larry Olsen is ready to greet the season

By Andrew R. Tripaldi, Globe Staff, 3/18/00

With spring officially here this week, the Boston Marathon fast approaching, and runners anxiously looking to hit their stride outdoors, Larry Olsen has reason to smile.

Olsen is the proprietor of Front Runner, the renowned pro shop located in Milford, and he is the chief organizer of the Tri-Valley Runners, a club he founded in Millis in 1983 that now consists of more than 75 runners, some of whom participate in the Boston Marathon.

His name having been linked with running as an organized sport for the last 30 years, Olsen has established a reputation as a running guru by motivating, nurturing, and teaching men, women, and children, getting them to strive for excellence by merely running as fast as they possibly can.

"Larry is one of the driving forces of the sport in terms of promoting it and his participation in all of New England," said Bellingham resident Jean Bell, one of Olsen's prize pupils.

Olsen conducts workouts with his club members on Wednesday evenings between April and September at the Milford High track. He also tutors individual runners leading up to the Boston Marathon. Olsen especially enjoys breaking in a new team member, one who is just beginning as a runner, by making that person feel more comfortable and confident. That can mean finding the right shoes to wear or just offering advice.

"Larry takes the time with anyone who shows the interest," said Bell, who ran a 4:52 in the Los Angeles Marathon on March 4 and will compete in this year's Boston Marathon on April 16. "I am about one of the slowest runners in the club, time-wise, and he always takes the time to work with me and help me improve my speed.

Olsen, 54, has a plethora of experience to share with his runners; he has won at least one organized race for the past 30 years. The highlight of his career was at the 1973 Boston Marathon, when he exceeded his wildest imagination by finishing 17th with a time of 2:27.

"I never thought I would finish in the top 20," Olsen admitted.

When Olsen was growing up, he thought running was something a person did to get away from the schoolyard bully, not make a living at.

"In high school, hockey was my number-one sport," Olsen said. "Up until the time a friend told me that he was running in road races, I did not know they existed."

Olsen became interested in the sports and competed in his first road race in Manchester, Conn., in 1965. A senior at King Philip High School at the time, he ran a 25:41, outpacing future Boston Marathon winner Bill Rodgers, who ran a 25:45.

That race was a turning point in Olsen's life, as he became hooked on running and never looked back. The same was true for Rodgers, and the two began a rivalry, built on competition and friendship, that still goes on today.

Olsen has witnessed a waning interest in running over the last two decades, and attributes the trend to several different forces.

"A lot of people are busy; they work two jobs, they have kids in school, and they go to their kids' games, so they cannot devote the time to running anymore," Olsen said. "[Another reason] we have decreased in runners over the last 15 to 20 years is that people now go to health clubs and have gotten more into physical fitness and weight lifting."

In order to spark interest in the sport, Olsen believes more standout runners have to emerge from the United States.

"The sport does not have enough role models like a Marion Jones," Olsen said. "The top runners in the world are usually not from America. Ever since Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar retired from the Boston Marathon, we have not had the local and national heroes to look up to."

These days, Olsen has curtailed his running schedule somewhat, only running in races between 5K and 25K.

But his primary source of pride is venturing through Front Runner, proudly viewing his old trophies, including the one from winning the New Bedford Road Race in 1979, and pictures depicting him with Johnny Kelley and Rodgers. Olsen knows that those precious, personal mementos serve as a reminder of how fortunate he has been.

Would he ever close up shop and leave for warmer weather and year-round running?

"I am getting a little tired of seeing the snow," Olsen said. "I'm not a skier."

He's not serious, is he?

"I love New England and I am used to the seasons, so I never want to move," Olsen said.

All New England runners can breathe a collective sigh of relief.

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