Cook: The love of the long distance runner

David Cook
David Cook

Are you a runner?

Then you probably know Van.

Few people have influenced -- with such rebel enthusiasm -- our local running community as Van Townsend. If you're not friends with him, then someone close to you is. I'd wager that every runner in town is one or two degrees of separation away from Van.

"One or two degrees farther, and then you get to about every runner in the country, at least on an elite or competitive scale," said Jamey Gifford, whom Van coached at Baylor School.

"You could go to a race anywhere on the planet and ask, 'Do you know Van Townsend?'" said his old friend, local attorney Lee Davis.

"Everybody knows him," said Alan Outlaw.

Outlaw owns Fast Break Athletics, which is like Van's Cheers: the place where he knows everybody's name. Didn't matter if you ran a four-minute mile or a four-hour marathon, just as long as you ran.

But Van hasn't been in Fast Break in a while; his cancer has come back, and doctors say it's probably not going anywhere. Days? Weeks?

"I went to see him," Outlaw said. "I told him I loved him and appreciated him. But I'm just the latest in a long line."

Earlier this week, Outlaw listed off name after name of the elite-fast that Van either coached or influenced.

* Gifford: State cross-country champion who then raced at the NCAA Championships for Stanford University and is still racing competitively in California. (Guess who's coaching him via text message?)

"Even as sick as Van has been," Gifford said, "his focus

is still on the people around him."

* Cameron Bean: Olympic hopeful in Steeplechase.

* Brandon Lord: State cross-country champ.

* Jeff Edmonds: Baylor grad who ran at Williams College, Van's alma mater.

* Bill Matthews: State cross-country champ.

* Seth Ruhling, who dedicated his New Year's Eve Karen Lawrence Run win to Van.

* His own kids -- Oliver (who raced at Dartmouth and whose 4:09 mile set a Baylor record), Skylar and Ruthie, all part of championship teams.

"In honor of my father," Oliver wrote on Facebook, "I will donate $100 (to Make-a-Wish) for each Chattanooga area runner ... who breaks 60 seconds in the 400 meter run in January."

Van came to Chattanooga in 1996 with his wife, Robin; the two met at Williams, where she was the runner, not Van.

"He played soccer," Robin said. "He went running so he could ask me out on a date."

It caught; he later trained with the prestigious Bill Squires and the Boston Athletic Association. There, he met Lee Davis, who eventually convinced him to move to Chattanooga.

"The impact he's had on generations of runners -- from elite to day-in-and-day-out local runners -- is unbelievable," said Davis.

Van's initial cancer diagnosis came several years ago. Doctors made him stop running. Two days later, Van called up longtime friend Chris Frank.

"He had me teaching him how to ride a bike with clipless pedals," said Frank. "He never spent a second asking for sympathy."

Not long ago, Van formed his own underground track club: the Suffer-jet City, a play on David Bowie's "Suffragette City." ("Van even looks like Bowie," Outlaw said.) Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, he would coach track workouts -- even though he couldn't run them -- with anyone who showed up. From moms looking to run their first 10k to marathoners hoping to break 3:00.

"We support one another," their motto goes. "We bond."

The anarchist Emma Goldman said there can't be a revolution without dancing; Van would say not without speed workouts. (His final wish is to bring a Roger Bannister documentary here to Chattanooga.) Van has never been a clipboard-rough kind of coach. He's more philosopher, more Hunter S. Thompson than hard-nosed.

"Spiritual is a good way to put it," Gifford said.

"Swagger," Outlaw said.

"Maverick," said Davis.

"Passions," said Frank.

This column is not a eulogy, but more like a track workout.

Van, before you finish, take a long look around. This track is packed. Bowie's on the loudspeaker. Everybody's cheering, and every lane is full of runners. The fast, the slow, the young, the old.

And Van, everybody knows your name.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

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