Monday, May 10, 2010

RunnerDude Chats with Bart Yasso

Recently, I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Bart Yasso, Chief Running Officer of Runner’s World. Bart has been such a prominent figure in running over the past 30 years and has run so many races that he’s known to many as the “Mayor of Running.” You may also know Bart as the creator of the Yasso 800s, an innovative marathon training technique. I was nervous going into the interview with Bart, but once the conversation began, it was like talking to an old friend. Bart is one of the most positive, optimistic people I think I’ve ever met. Read on to learn more about Bart.

RD: Where is Runner’s World Located?
Bart: Emmaus, PA is the Runner’s World headquarters.
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RD: What part of PA is that in?
Bart: It’s about 60 miles north of Philly, close to Allentown Bethlehem.
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RD: How did it end up in Emmaus?
Bart: Runner’s World is owned by a company called Rodale which is located in Emmaus. It used to be located in the Bay area but moved to Emmaus back in 1985.
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RD: So, your title at Runner’s World is CRO—Chief Running Officer.
Bart: Yep, greatest job in the world!
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RD: What makes it the greatest job in the world for you?
Bart: Awe, what runner wouldn’t want to get paid to go around the world and do races? The thing I love about my job the most is the people I get to meet every weekend. I’m at weekend events 48 weekends out of the year. There’s about four weekends I stay at home—Christmas, Thanksgiving, and two other weekends for family functions or something else going on. Every other weekend, I’m at a race somewhere. And I just get to meet the most inspiring people that have overcome so much just to get to the starting line of the race and then the finish line is the culmination of their journey. I’m usually at the longer events like half marathons and marathons and of those, they're usually the bigger races. I do get to some smaller ones once in a while.
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RD: I’ve had similar experiences with the Runner of the Week feature I do on the blog, although I rarely get to meet these runners in person. Some of the stories they share about the obstacles they’ve overcome through running are truly amazing and inspiring.
Bart: It’s mindboggling to me and it’s very humbling to me in my position. A lot of people will look at me and know my story and they think I’m inspirational or a hero, but I tell them all the time that I meet people that will blow you away…it’s just incredible.
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RD: Why do you think so many people end up using running as a means to deal with and/or overcome hardships and life obstacles?
Bart: You mean running kind of being the tool to success?
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RD: Yeah, you did that in your own life by using running to help you overcome a problem with alcohol as a young man.
Bart: I certainly did and you know if I had to use one word to sum it up, I think it would be inclusion. I think running is very open to include everyone and runners go out of their way to accept people into the sport. And you only go somewhere you feel wanted and accepted and feel like you’re a part of something. I think running has done a great job of that. An example would be wheelchair racing, blind athletes, and other physically challenged athletes. I mean when you go to the really big races, there are a lot of people in these categories. You know wheelchair racing is really like bike racing. It’s a wheel machine that they power, but bicycle racing doesn’t want these athletes, but we do. We accept them, we love including all athletes. We thrive off of the inclusion of everyone. If you ever go to the larger races the crowds just go crazy when the wheelchair racers begin their early start. They love it. And the runners are just so inspired by the determination and athleticism of the physically challenged participants. For us, inclusion is just mainstream, but in other sports, it just doesn’t go on.
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RD: Your book My Life on the Run, I really enjoyed reading it. The humor, frankness, and honesty with sharing your life story and then all the various runs that you’ve done…it was just great. It’s funny how we put well known sports celebrities on pedestals and never really contemplate how they got there. In your book, you share a lot about issues you had with your dad which lead to your use of drugs and alcohol at an early age as a means of coping with the situation. I think it’s so important for today’s youth to know and understand that even people of celebrity status just didn’t have things fall in their laps. For many, they too had hardships and struggles to overcome before eventually reaching their current status.
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Being "Bart Yasso", I just assumed that you must have been born a runner. But by reading your book, I was quite surprised and humored that a girlfriend’s dog is actually responsible for your running career! Walking and chasing after this dog each day made you realize that you actually enjoyed running and you started running regularly on your own. Have you ever wondered what your life would be like now, if your then girlfriend didn’t have a dog?
Bart: Oh yeah, I think about that quite often. Actually I was asked this question recently at a big gathering and my answer was “I don’t know, but I’d almost be scared to think about it.” You know obviously I would not be in the place I am now. I wouldn't be as well off as I am now, physically, mentally, the job I have. So yeah, I don’t know.
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RD: You’re such an optimist, that it probably doesn’t even to occur to you to think of what-ifs or to dwell too much in the past.
Bart: Yeah, you know I was obviously the same good person back then, I was just going down the wrong path. Thank God, I changed when I did and ever since that day, things have gone to the better. I tell runners all the time, my tagline is “Never limit where running can take you” and I truly mean that physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. Thirty-some years ago, I just went out to run with Brandy the dog and it’s changed my life forever. Literally running has taken me all over the world and I have the greatest job and if it can happen for me then it can happen to anyone. There aren’t a thousand jobs out there for Chief Running Officer, but there are a lot of opportunities in running today, a lot more than there were when I started 33 years ago.
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RD: Tell me about the process involved in writing your book?
Bart: Well, when I committed to writing the book, I was very adamant about putting my faults up front in the book. I wanted to get it all out there. I didn’t want to start with all my running accomplishments and then have the life history be an afterthought. It was important for me to show how I got where I am today and to truly do that, I needed to be an open book and share it all. I think people think you’re much more approachable if you come out with all the things you’ve done wrong first and then let that play out to all the things you’ve accomplished. You’ve got to tell the whole story. You can’t leave pieces out. People that have known me for years, said, “Hey, you put it all in print?!” And my response was, “That was the point.”
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RD: In reading your book, it seemed like your optimism popped up again in 1997 when you discovered you had Lyme disease. I know you must have had your down moments, but it seems like you’ve dealt with the situation pretty well. How has it limited your running, if any?
Bart:Yeah, you know, I am a total optimist. I always feel there are so many people worse off than me, so I just feel very lucky for what I have. I never complain about the disease. In fact it’s surprising how many who’ve known me for a long time didn't know I had the disease until the book came out. I never really talked about it publically until the book came out. People I work with here at Runner’s World have seen my struggles physically, trying to walk. Even to walk around our building or to just walk to the copier back in 1997 was a huge struggle, so my colleagues were aware of that, but for me it was never something to put out in the public. It was something I had to deal with. You know, no one can really know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes until you’re there yourself. I talk to cancer survivors all the time and I just can’t imagine what that’s like to get that diagnosis and to hear that you’ve got cancer and then to have to fight for your life. I was never a world-class runner, but I was a good age-group runner (a 32:00 10K guy, a 2:40 marathon runner and a 1:12 half-marathon PR). To go from being a 32:00 10K runner to a 52:00 10K runner with my illness was an adjustment, but I was able to fight back. The meds my doctors put me on helped and I crossed trained like crazy and did everything I could to stay fit. I still had that drive. I still wanted to be a good runner.
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RD: And there it was again….running helped you through yet another life obstacle.
Bart: Yeah, and I think when it (running) was taken away from me, it’s what really gave me the drive to get back into it. And it completely changed my perspective on how I would look at races from then on. I no longer cared about my finish times. From now on it’s all about the honor of crossing the finish line and the honor to be a part of this great sport and to embrace every person that I meet along the way. Before I got ill, it was certainly more of a competitive sport for me and this change was a blessing. You know I’ve actually run a couple of good races since being diagnosed. When I was 46, I ran a 2:42 marathon and that was pretty good for me at that age, but time really isn't my focus any more.
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RD: That would be awesome for me at any age! Is Lyme disease intermittent or do you deal with it on an ongoing basis?
Bart: It’s caused a lot of damage to the right side of my body in my ankle, knee, and hip joints, and I have paralysis in my face on the right side. As a result, I just don’t have a smooth stride anymore and I’m in pain. My right leg is always in pain. It's kind of like if I get out there and get in a groove, I forget about the pain and enjoy hanging out with the runners. It’s pretty painful, though. But, I still thrive on it. Some of these races I was almost 2 hours slower than my personal best, but when I got to the finish line, it was the same feeling as when I was first racing. I really got excited and felt honored and privileged to do this.
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RD: Just recently didn’t you do a marathon kind of on a whim and do pretty well?
Bart: Yeah, and that’s where this whole Comrades Marathon idea sprouted from. I wrote in my book that the Comrades ultra marathon in South Africe was my only regret and I never really knew if I’d get there. Just didn’t know if it was a smart thing to do with my leg.
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I got a cortisone shot in my leg, which helped by giving me some increased range of motion. It didn’t really alleviate the pain, but I could move a little better. So, feeling pretty good (shortly after) on Thanksgiving Day, I ran a traditional 5-miler with some buddies. When I got to the 5-mile marker I was hurting but oddly enough, I felt really good too, like I could go a little more. I decided not to push it, but that made me think about my next trip. I was going to Huntsville to be the guest speaker at their pasta dinner and the host for the weekend and that’s when I got this idea that I could actually run Huntsville. So I did. I got to the starting line not really knowing what to expect or if I’d even make it. I decided to start out slowly and take it easy, enjoy it and see what happens. I actually finished the thing in 4:32.
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RD: That’s amazing. You hadn’t even really trained for it.
Bart: Yeah, I try to stay as fit as possible with cross-training, but yeah, I hadn’t specifically trained to run a marathon. But that Huntsville thing kind of opened my eyes that I enjoyed that race. I felt good. So given that awesome experience, I decided I’ve got to do this (run Comrades). Since Huntsville, I’ve done 9 other marathons. That’s really all the training I’ve done. It’s kind of funny when you average it out. I’ve run about 400 miles since then and it averages out to about 11-miles per week, but many of those miles are the races so, I’m hoping that’s enough to get me through Comrades. Comrades just has this allure and to me it’s the greatest footrace in the world.
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RD: I had heard of Comrades, but really didn’t know a lot about it until I read your book. It’s a 56-mile point-to-point marathon in South Africa. Actually it’s approximately 56 miles. One of the unique things about the race is that the actual distance can vary from year to year. It’s truly a point to point race, but where the actual finish is located can vary and as a result so can the total mileage. It’s a grueling course that reverses direction each year. So, one year it’s more of an up-hill race and the next it’s more of a down-hill. But, even on the down-hill year, there are some pretty major hills to climb. The race takes place between the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban and the race has a very strict 12-hour cut-off. They actually shut the gate at 12 hours and no one is allowed to cross the finish line after that time.
Bart: Exactly. It is a crazy race. I’ve run over 1,000 races in my career, so how can I end my running career without adding it to my list? The race originally had an 11-hour cut off and I’m going to shoot for that. I’m not sure if it’s possible. If not, I’ll shoot for under 12. And, if I don’t make the 12, I’ll be happy with knowing that I tried.
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RD: Runner’s World is chronicling your quest for Comrades with a series of webisodes. Currently, I think there are 3 of the video clips posted. They are awesome. The first one does a great job of explaining, just how alluring the race is with its changing course and strict time.
Bart: The real allure to the race is that fact that they do actually shut the gate to the finish and the race just shuts down at 12 hours. I mean can you image if Boston, just closed the finish at 4 hours and runners were turned away? Comrades is just a completely different way of thinking about racing. The other thing is that it’s huge. About 24,000 runners will run at Comrades. Even more applicants were turned away. The largest ultra in the US is JFK and it has about 1,000 runners.
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RD: How do they determine who gets in the race?
Bart: They have a category where if you’ve run the race before, then you’re automatically allowed to run it again. Then they open it up to the newbies and that’s first-come-first-serve. The newbie allotments filled up in something crazy like 10hours. It’s a tough race to get an entry into. I had to act quickly once the newbie registration opened. They also do something that no other race does and I think other races should do this. After you finish 10 Comrades, you get your race number for the rest of your life. No one else can use that number and if you decide not to run again, the number is retired. Our big races that have great histories could easily do this. What a unique and cool draw and appeal that would add to a race. I think it’s a brilliant thing to do.
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RD: How do you think Comrades will compare to Badwater that you ran many years ago?
Bart: When I ran Badwater over 20 years ago, I was in pretty good shape. I wasn’t running 100-mile weeks yet, but I was logging probably 70. So, even though I had never run past the marathon distance, I was pretty confident I could make it to the finish line. I don’t have that same kind of confidence with Comrades. I’m literally sitting at my desk with 20-some days left to go to the race and I’m absolutely scared to death. Not scared to try it. I’m anxious and excited to try it, but I just think it’s really going to be a grueling experience and brutal and don’t know if I can make it under that cut off. But, as I’ve told my wife, I’m either going to get to that finish line or they’re literally going to have to carry me off that course. There’s no middle ground.
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RD: I have no doubt that you’ll make if, but if you don’t, at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you attempted it.
Bart: That’s so well put, the way you said that. I’ve done over 1000 races in my life and with each of those, I always had a vision of a time that I was shooting for. This is the first time ever in 33 years of running that all I want to do is get to the starting line and then whatever plays out will play out.
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RD: You’ve done so many different races in your career. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read in your book about the Bare Buns Fun Run you ran at a nudist camp. We used to have a similar race called the Pride in Your Hide 5K that took place at a nudist camp in a neighboring county. The guys in my running group used to tease each year about running it, but no one ever would. That is until one year, I decided to shock them all and run it. I was scared to death, not knowing what to expect. When I arrived, I kept my shorts on while registering and getting my race bib number (for all you wondering, you tie it around your waist with a piece of string.) Then I realized I was much more conspicuous with my shorts on. So, when in Rome…. I had a blast. It was actually a challenging trail course. There were runners for which nudism was a way of life, but there were many others there just for the run. I was surprised to see several of the area’s elite runners at the race. Interestingly enough, it was one of the oddest, funniest, scariest, and most liberating things I’ve ever done. What was your experience like?
Bart: I’d have to say, very similar. Most people think it’s this big nude fest, but in reality it was like most any race. You had the people in attendance, like you said, for whom it was their lifestyle, but for the runners, it was just another race. Although a race that they’d be able to tell stories about. “Liberating” is a good word for it. It’s funny, when I talk about that race in my presentations, I don’t get any questions about it during the Q & A section, but the minute I’m done and leave the room, I get a ton of questions about the Bare Buns Run. They never want to ask about it in a big group, but once in a smaller forum, they hit me up with questions about it. I get a lot of email from runners who say they thought they’d never do that kind of run, but then decided to do it for their 40th or 50th birthday because they read about it in my book and wanted to do something crazy and it was a liberating thing for them too.
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RD: Well, of all the many races you’ve done, which one or ones over the years have stuck with you as being memorable?
Bart: My wife and I did the Rome Marathon two days after we got married in a small village in Italy. My mom was there for the wedding and that trip was a life altering experience for her. She finally got to go out of the country and visit places like the Vatican and she's a very religious person, so it meant so much to her. Most of the people in the wedding party were marathoners and also ran the race with us, so it was a pretty cool race. The course itself is absolutely beautiful. The other memorable race would have to be Big Sur. I’ve been quoted as saying, “If it could only be one marathon in my life, Big Sur would be it.” And I stand by that quote. I’m more of a natural beauty kind of guy more than a big city guy and seeing the waves crash in on that rocky coast along that course is just a beautiful site. So, Big Sur domestically and Rome internationally.
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RD: I mentioned earlier how I meet a lot of runners through the blog that have such inspirational stories. Who are some runners you’ve met whose stories have really stuck with you?
Bart: Two people come to mind right away. There’s a guy by the name of Brian Boyle who has a book out called Iron Heart. Brian was in such a horrific car accident. His heart was removed from his body and they kind of assembled him together and got him to the hospital and kept him alive. He was in a coma for 2 months and in that time he was pronounced dead 8 times. So horrific, you can’t imagine. And now, last fall he did 5 marathons in 5 weeks—minus a kidney, minus a spleen, and still numerous other health issues. When I met him he said to me, “Mr. Yasso, you’re my hero. I want to do Badwater. I want to ride my bike across the U.S. I want to do all the stuff you do.” I was like, kid you don’t understand. You’re the hero. You’re everyone’s hero. He’s a pretty inspiring kid. The other person would have to be Sarah Reinertsen who has a book out now called, In a Single Bound. Sarah’s been a buddy of mine for a while now. She was the first above-the-knee amputee to do the Hawaiian Ironman. She was on the cover of Runner’s World and one of our first Heroes of Running. I feed off of Sarah and Brian a lot. Those are people I cling to when I’m struggling. They really show that you can beat all odds and overcome a lot. You just have to really want to do it and persevere.
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RD: Currently, I’m working with a great bunch of beginning runners. None previously were runners, so they were really nervous when they started. Now that they’re in their 5th week, they’re seeing that they can really do this and they’re gaining confidence as they begin to run further and further. I’ve been running for 25 years, and you kind of forget how hard it is and intimidating it is to start. Watching them has truly been inspiring. What advice would you give a new runner or someone maybe whose just contemplating the idea of beginning to run?
Bart: First off, just commit to and go for it. Don’t be afraid. Everyone is scared at first. Second, you’re in control. Run within yourself. Be your own person. Don’t let the big picture get in your way. Someone’s always last and someone’s always going to beat you no matter your level. It’s going to happen. Just enjoy it. When I stood at the start of Badwater and the race director said, “1 minute until the start!” I suddenly realized I had never run past 26.2 miles ever. This race is 146 miles! At first I thought, “Whoa! This is pretty scary!” But then I chilled and told myself, “You can do this. Just keep it fun. If you enjoy it, it will come to you. Pace yourself and enjoy every step.” And, that’s what I did. It’s hard to image that running 146 miles, every step can be enjoyable, but it really was, and I think it was because that’s the attitude I started the race with. The mental side of our sport it a huge part of it. When you’re able to control the mental side, you can do great things. One thing about running is that there are no short cuts. It’s an arduous sport. You’ve got to be happy with little gains along the way and just keep working at it. If you can do that, you’ll be around a long time.
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RD: Do you have a follow-up book to My Life on the Run in the works?
Bart: Yes, I do have a sequel planned, but I don’t have a title yet. My wife did gather some pictures of me with various hair cuts over the years and had a mock cover made titled My Hair on the Run. She surprised me with it and it gave me a good chuckle. You can actually see it on the website. Pretty funny. The new book will start off with Comrades and then I also want to include a lot more of the people I’ve had contact with throughout the years in this great sport and more of their stories and just how inclusive this great sport is so we can inspire more people to get involved.
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RD: I look forward to reading it when it comes out. When do you think we can expect it?
Bart: Probably in the spring of next year. That will be the perfect plan if it all works out.
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RD: What can we expect with the upcoming webisodes chronicling your training for Comrades?
Bart: We’re going to give more information about the race and interview more Comrades runners. You know I don’t’ want it to be all about me. I really want the viewers to get a good sense of what Comrades is all about and hope some put it on their life-list to do. And I also hope that others with Lyme disease or other chronic illnesses can look at this and say, I can do this. I can beat this thing. I just need to get out there and make it happen.
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RD: I appreciate you taking this time to talk with me and share more of your story.
Bart: Hey, no problem. Keep up the good work man and I love what you’re doing.

To learn more about Bart, be sure to check out his website and blog. Below is the first in the series of webisodes chronicling Bart's quest for Comrades. To see the second and third webisodes[click here]. Comrades will take place on May 30th. Be sure to send good vibes Bart’s way on that monumental day.
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Thanks again Bart, for taking the time to share your story with RunnerDude’s Blog!

14 comments:

onelittletrigirl said...

Great interview!! I love Bart and live close to the RW HQ. It certainly would be my dream job!!

Scott Brown said...

Yes, Dude terrific job with that, as usual. I put a link to it and this blog on my most recent post. Hope you don't mind. I liked it and do this blog and wanted to share.

Thanks

Scott

RunnerDude said...

Hey onelittletrigirl! I'm jealous you're so close! Road Trip! LOL!!

RunnerDude said...

Hey Scott! Thanks man! Adding the link on your blog is awesome! Thanks!

Keri said...

Great interview! I read Bart's book and met him at a race expo the day before my first marathon. He is great!

Malcolm said...

Great job Thad,

Delighted you got to meet him and loved the questions you posed too. Thanks for sharing it with us all.

Dena said...

Good interview. I'll have to pick up his book. There are so few really good memoir books out there on running but this looks like it may be one of them.

RunnerDude said...

Hi Keri! It' so cool when you meet a famous runner before a race like that. I met Frank Shorter before I ran NYC one year and it really pumped me up for the race.

RunnerDude said...

Hi Keri! It' so cool when you meet a famous runner before a race like that. I met Frank Shorter before I ran NYC one year and it really pumped me up for the race.

RunnerDude said...

Thanks Malcolm!

RunnerDude said...

Hey Dena! Yep, check it out. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Actually read it in one sitting!

ShutUpandRun said...

I loved reading this. You came up with some great questions and what an honor to interview Bart Yasso!!

Nikos Neo said...

Great interview! Nikos

Rachel said...

fantastic interview! definitely gonna pick up his book asap. comrades sounds incredible, too - may just have to add it to my to do list!