Remembering Van Townsend

by: Weldon Johnson,
January 15, 2015

The sport of running has lost a great ambassador.

We at received the word on Tuesday that friend of runners across the globe and us here at LetsRun, Van Townsend, has died.

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My initial reaction was I was pissed. Van’s the type of guy who shouldn’t die. I never saw him without a smile on his face including at the Olympic Trials in 2012, when he told me he had cancer and the doctors thought he would be dead already. He clearly didn’t die and looked to be in great health and told stories of how cancer let him get on EPO and shock the doctors with how long he could ride a stationary bike.

Van called me this fall about an article he wanted to write, and I was supposed to get back to him. I figured like the smile on his face, Van would keep on living.

Van was such a fixture in the Tennessee running scene that the local TV station in Chattanooga did a feature on Van’s death and what’s the first thing you see? A smile on Van’s face.

If you never met Van Townsend this smile is all you need to know.

If you never met Van Townsend this smile is all you need to know.

In person, I interacted with Van less than 10 times in my life and yet I can definitely say he had a positive impact on my life.

I called Robert to see if he had heard the news and he said he had heard it too, and he was pissed as well. He couldn’t believe it. This fall, he did speak to Van about the piece he wrote and Van didn’t say a single word about his cancer being back. Van clearly didn’t want sympathy. Employee 1.1 emailed with Van on January 3rd and Van did mention his cancer but only as an aside – much like the weather as hidden in the middle of the email he wrote, “My Cancer has turned wicked.”

Sadly I didn’t know about that email or this messageboard thread (- Van Townsend’s health in decline. Great article by Cook ) and didn’t get to tell Van how much I appreciated him.

When Robert spoke to Van in November, Van wanted us to link to a fantastic article he wrote on doping on entitled “THE QUEST FOR AN UNFAIR ADVANTAGE” which started with the lines “Using EPO is much easier than many running fans imagine” and ended with a great close as well; “Running is a primal sport. No gym equipment. No Studios needed to twist and contort our bodies. No obstacle courses to surmount. Just plain natural. Let’s keep it that way.”

We aren’t sure if we hyped the article or not, but want to do so as it really is a great read so please read it now.

If you didn’t know Van, I highly recommend this article by David Cook of the Chattanooga Times Free Press as it nailed Van perfectly when it started out:

“Are you a runner?

Then you probably know Van.”

Since this is an international website and Van couldn’t know every runner in the world, I’d amend that to, “Are you a runner? Then I wish you knew Van.”

A few weeks earlier, Cook also nailed when he wrote of Van and said, “(Van) is a punk-rock-patron-saint of local running. He didn’t just coach the ultra fast, but anyone who asked. And he did so joyfully.”

Now that Van has passed I think we can reveal he was the author of “Fear and Loathing at the Olympic Trials” that was a viral hit in the summer of 2012. In Hunter Thompson style it skewered just about everything in the running world Nike, USATF, Galen Rupp, Alberto Salazar, running fans and

“The Brothers Johnson, my afore-mentioned bosses, ran a website for running junkies. sounds like a platform for shiny, happy weekend warriors, but it was actually a haven for the seriously unwell. These addicts jammed the site’s Message Boards with such pressing concerns as “Should I masturbate before a race?” and “Why won’t Suzy Favor Hamilton give me the time of day?” It didn’t take long before Web marketers and advertisers saw that they could exploit these hapless dreamers by shoveling performance-promising hyped products down their gaping throats. The Brojos made such a WallStreetesque killing that they could both sit back in their Texas lounge chairs and send errand boys like me into the fray of actual live events.”

Van clearly “got” But we didn’t know Van as well as many of you so we’re creating this page and this message board thread to remember Van and all he meant to the sport and your lives. Many of you my first and foremost think of him as a great high school running school coach, but we think of him as a friend. Van you’ll be missed.

Here are some of the emails we received telling us of Van’s death.

Jeff Edmonds (owner of that published Fear and Loathing at the Olympic Trials has written a nice eulogy of Van here: “Eulogy of a Great Coach: Van Townsend”):

“I learned about letsrun through Van, and I feel like he was the quintessential “letsrunner.” I know that he knew both Wejo and Rojo.

I just wrote this eulogy for him and thought the letsrun might want to publish it. He was one of Squires’ boys, a friend to Schumacher, and at the center of HS and college coaching across the Southeast.
Jeff (from Logic of Long Distance)”

Hunter Hall: “Maybe it’s just me, but he had a great impact on the running community and maybe there should be some sort of memorial on the front page.

I wanted to pass a few articles along to you guys.”

(We agree. Hope Van finds some humor in having to die to get the QOD on

Michael Green: “A friend of Van Townsend here just letting you know he passed away yesterday. Most likely the biggest Letsrun fan ever.  Chattanooga is sad.”

We wrote Michael back asking how he thought we should honor Van and he said, “I’m not really sure. Every time he came in my store , he brought up something on the message boards. He loved those boards and the craziness. Maybe just a Pic or something with the quote of the day.”

Share your memories of Van here: RIP Van Townsend: Share Your Respects Here

WRCBTV Video on Van: (How many high school XC coaches do you know of who get a TV feature when they die?)

One last thing, if you are an alum of Dartmouth, Columbia, or live in the Chattanooga area, Van’s son Oliver is donating up to $20,000 to the Make A Wish foundcation if you can break 60 (or 58 if you went to Dartmouth/Columbia) in the 400: Charity: Dartmouth, Columbia, and Chattanooga Area.

More Van: Van’s obituary is here and says, “A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Baylor Schools Chapel this Saturday, Fast Break Athletics is arranging a morning run; please go to Fast Breaks facebook page for details. The service will be available for viewing: In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Multiple Myleoma Research foundation at: Visit to share condolences.”

Chattanoogan article on Van: John Hunt: Paying Tribute To My Friend Van Townsend: “There was never anyone quite like Van Townsend.” 

More: RIP Van Townsend: Share Your Respects Here

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