Running With The Buffaloes At 20: Author Chris Lear Reflects On the Running Cult Classic In An In-Depth Interview
20 years ago, Adam Goucher won the NCAA men’s cross country title for Colorado. That feat and the entire Buffs season would soon be immortalized by author Chris Lear in his cult classic Running With The Buffaloes. This week we are catching up with Lear and many of the Buffs and asking them to reflect back 20 years later.
SPOILER ALERT: If you have not read Running With The Buffaloes and do not want to have major points of the book spoiled, do yourself a favor and buy the book before reading this interview.
By Jonathan Gault
November 27, 2018
Twenty years ago (last Friday, to be precise), the University of Colorado’s Adam Goucher captured the NCAA cross country individual title. It had been a trying season for Goucher and his Colorado teammates, who managed to finish third at NCAAs despite the tragic death of their #2 runner, Chris Severy, a month earlier. And with them through it all was 24-year-old author Chris Lear, a former Princeton runner (and college roommate of LetsRun.com’s co-founder Robert Johnson) who had convinced Buffaloes head coach Mark Wetmore — then a rising star in the coaching industry — to give him unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to a top Division I cross country program. Lear packed up his belongings into his Saturn sedan, named Dixie, and moved to Boulder in July 1998.
The result was Running With The Buffaloes, a day-by-day account of the 1998 Colorado men’s cross country team that has to be mentioned in any discussion of greatest running book of all time. Since the publication of the book, Colorado has gone from program on the rise to perennial distance power, Goucher went on to compete for the United States at the 2000 Olympics, and Wetmore has become one of the most decorated coaches in NCAA history, with his teams earning five men’s and three women’s NCAA cross country titles, the most recent of which came less than two weeks ago as his women dominated the field in Madison, Wisconsin.
To celebrate the book’s 20th anniversary, we at LetsRun.com thought it would be fun to catch up with the key figures in the book. Today we’ve got a lengthy interview with Lear, who discusses how the book came to be, how he got Wetmore and the athletes to open up, and what the book’s legacy is 20 years later. Later, we’ll have a separate article with updates from members of the 1998 Colorado Buffaloes.
After Running With The Buffaloes, Lear went on to write a second book, Sub-4:00: Alan Webb and the Quest for the Fastest Mile, which detailed Alan Webb‘s freshman year at the University of Michigan in 2001-02. Now 44, he lives in the Boston suburbs and works as a medical device salesman.
JG: How did you come up with the idea?
CL: I was a big fan of nonfiction sports literature. Books like A Season on the Brink, Friday Night Lights, Paper Lion by George Plimpton, you could go on and on. I would just kind of devour those and I especially did in the two years after I graduated college in ’96 when, outside of the confines of the college curriculum, I had time to read for my own gratification. The Miracle of Castel di Sangro is another one. It just occurred to me that it hadn’t been done for running and running was the one sport I felt like I had some intimate knowledge of. And I felt a cross country season would lend itself really well to a story of this kind with the team aspect.
I thought about it for quite some time and then I vividly remember one day being stuck in traffic on the Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco. I was living in San Mateo [and finishing up a project for my job in the Bay Area] and I just made up my mind and said, You know what? Screw it, I’m gonna do this book. And then it was a matter of finding, after that, what team I wanted to write about.
What was your writing background before the book?
Not extensive. With running through college, I never worked for the student paper or anything. I was busy all three seasons. And really I got most of my writing experience from my [senior] thesis [at Princeton], which was 100-some pages. I felt like that process prepared me well. I learned how to take a topic and formulate the outline and really see it through. So that was like a novella when I turned that in. And I really don’t think I would have even contemplated attempting to do the book had I not had a good experience doing that. My thesis advisor was really complimentary about what I had done when I finished. And that really took me by surprise. And it was kind of gratifying and I think that was really the bulk of my writing experience that really paid off.
The other thing I really benefited from was the guy that ended up becoming the editor of my book, Andrew Goldstein, was a friend of mine from back in middle school. And he was probably the best writer I had been around and I did quite a bit of work with him, just assignments with him when I was an undergrad. And I learned a lot from him about how he approached writing and he went on to become a writer for Time magazine he’s now got a huge team, he’s on [Robert] Mueller’s team in DC on the Trump investigation. So I give Andrew a lot of credit too because just to see how he approached it and then the success he had as a journalist afterwards, and to be able to work with him while I was doing it and to be able to trust him implicitly, that really worked well.
This is kind of tangential, but it’s kind of neat to think about it now because the way we worked was really old school in that I was taking notes all throughout the season, every day. And every night, I would be sketching things out. I had saved up enough money to last me for four or five months. I knew I had a rough idea that I would write it almost like a diary format, kind of day-to-day as books like A Season on the Brink had been written. I thought that would lend itself well to this.
So I was taking notes every day, but I really didn’t feel like I could write the book until the season was done. Because you’ve gotta wait until you see things play out to separate the wheat from the chaff. So for instance, some guy might tweak a hamstring in the second week of September and I might note in my notes that someone felt a small irritation in their hamstring but it was no big deal and then two months later, that person’s out for the season because of that. So all of a sudden, in retrospect, that takes on some added significance.
So I didn’t really start the writing of the book outside of all my notes and sketches until after the season was over. And then as I would write them, as I would get a bulk of chapters done, I would print them out, put them in the snail mail to New York, and Andrew would get them and he’d get a red Sharpie and a few weeks later, I’d get his edits back. And I’d go through it and sometimes there was not a lot, and other times entire chapters would have a big X through them. But that was our cadence and it worked well for us.
Why did you choose Colorado?
I considered a lot of different teams at the time. But at the end of the day, it seemed to me to be the most compelling narrative. Americans hadn’t really won much in a long time, individually or as a team. And here with Colorado you had a collection of all American kids that, individually and collectively, were trying to do something that no one had accomplished in quite some time. So I thought there was some intrinsic appeal in that and then the fact that there was one big alpha male in Goucher that everyone seemed to be riveted with and really wanted to know more about him. And then at the same time, from a collective standpoint, you had unknown guys like Mike Friedberg that were poised to go from being walk-ons to All-Americans. And I thought there was just as much appeal in that. And the fact that they were legitimate contenders and I felt like Mark was really an uncommon coach. So when I put all that together, that seemed like it fit.
And then I went about trying to persuade Mark and the guys to see if they were cool with me coming out and spending the season writing the book. And that took quite a bit [of persuasion]. Eventually, Mark kind of acquiesced and said, if you’re serious about it, I won’t get in your way. That was about as close to a yes as I got.
(Editor’s note: It certainly didn’t hurt that Lear already had a relationship with Wetmore dating to Lear’s high schools days as a 4:09 prep miler in New Jersey. Lear’s high school coach, Meg Waldron, was coached by Wetmore.)
What other schools did you consider?
Stanford. Vin Lananna was the coach at the time and they’d had quite a successful run. I knew Vin, I met him when I was in high school at the Green Mountain Running Camp and was always really impressed with him as a coach and what he was able to do at Dartmouth where they finished second at the NCAAs as a non-scholarship school, which I think is still the highest. I’m not sure what year that is. As a Dartmouth grad, it’s up your alley, you probably know.
1986 and 1987.
Yeah, I thought that was impressive. And he was obviously able to take the success he had at Dartmouth and implement that right at Stanford. So I thought they would make a lot of sense, they would be a good narrative.
And Arkansas, [John] McDonnell, during my college years they won  out of 12 NCAA team titles [across XC, indoor, and outdoor track]. So they were just a dynasty and they were certainly a team that I thought would make sense.
That was probably the shortlist of teams when I looked at it, what would be the most compelling team to spend time with, it probably came down to those three.
So as we’re talking here, Wetmore has just won his eighth NCAA team title in cross country. He’s coached a lot of decorated alums who have gone on to big success like Dathan Ritzenhein, Jenny Simpson, and Emma Coburn. Did you expect him to achieve this level of success when you were working with him back in 1998?
I did. I absolutely did, because he’d had success prior to Colorado. I felt like I kind of got there right on the precipice of him becoming a real big star. Arthur Lydiard passed through Boulder a couple weeks before he passed away. And I went to hear him talk, and I think I had written the book at this point, I had my manuscripts completed, and I had a chance to speak with him when he was doing a signing of sorts after his talk. When I told Lydiard what I was doing, he said to me, “Mark my words, Mark Wetmore is going to be the greatest coach America has ever seen.” To me, that meant a whole heck of a lot coming from Arthur.
Wetmore has a reputation these days of being tight-lipped. How did you get him to open up? Do you feel like you got him to open up for the book?
[With] the guys on the team, you use persistence and attendance. As I recall, there was a chapter in the book, the four qualities to being a good distance runner, and attendance is one of them. And from the time I got there in July, the guys were loosely training together and I went up to their training camp. I remember with the guys, there was one run in particular where they got lost, I think it was in Buena Vista, and they ended up climbing like 3,000 feet and I was on a bike because I had had surgery on my foot and I couldn’t really run much at that point. And I’m trying to take this heavy-ass mountain bike up the mountain with them and I was just dying. And I had a camera, a notepad, a tape recorder. On one of the downhills, I ended up biting it big-time and just Superman-ed over the handlebars, knocked the wind out of myself. And the guys thought that was hilarious of course, but at the same time, I got back up and brushed myself off and I showed up again the next day. And so I think the guys just saw that I was serious about it, that I wasn’t just going to fly in one day and decide one day that I’m not going to do it.
And with Wetmore, I think it was more of the same. I think you kind of earn having people open up. For me, with that, I think it was just something that was organic and it just came with time. Getting there early I think was critical. And just the way I went about doing it. There weren’t too many times where I was just sitting in his office asking questions for an hour. He kind of let me know early on that that wasn’t really going to fly. And it wasn’t really what I intended to do. I think I got really lucky — really, really lucky — that he was that open and gave me that kind of access. I think it was kind of unheard of in a lot of places.
How did you convince a publisher to take it on, and how did that process play out?
That was a bear. From the time the season ended until I had a manuscript was probably another year, year and a half until I finally felt like I had completed it. It was only at that point that I said, Now what do I do? I didn’t have an agent and I was kind of young and naïve and stubborn, so I didn’t really solicit one. Instead I looked all those books that I really liked and looked at who published them and blindly sent unsolicited manuscripts to these various publishers and most of them had guidelines that said “we don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts.” So at the end of the day, it was no surprise that every one of them came back with a rejection letter. But a couple of them came back and whoever it was actually read the book. And they said, “we don’t do running books, but we really like it.” And I could tell from what they had written that it was genuine, that it wasn’t a form letter. So I guess that encouraged me not to give up.
The other big thing that happened is I remember one day going to the Village [Coffee Shop] with a bunch of the guys and I had the manuscript on loose leaf type paper and I gave it to the guys and I just let them pass it around. And I was like, “All right, here’s the deal: I got no takers right now. If you guys are gonna be my biggest critics, let me know. If this is a piece of shit, I can take it, and let me know. But if you don’t think that’s the case, then I’ve gotta find another way.”
And fortunately in the long run, they came back and the feedback was like, Hey man, this is it. You captured the essence of what we went through. That emboldened me more than anything. I was like, if they feel like this is an honest account, then I feel like there’s an audience.
Because at the time, all I would hear is that running books don’t sell. It was this mantra that was taken for granted. If you went to the bookstore, sure enough, all you would see were self-help books like how to run a 5k. And even Once a Runner, right, that was the Bible back then for serious runners, good luck finding it in a bookstore. It was like word of mouth. I remember meeting John Parker at the Green Mountain Running Camp and buying a copy from him there.
So at that point, the internet, around 2000, was getting going and there were a couple companies that were doing something novel that was called publishing on-demand. And you could essentially test market your book and keep the copyright and then either it stays like that or you could sell it to a traditional publisher. So I decided to test market the book. I started a website at the same time as LetsRun.com. And actually back then it was leading into the 2000 Olympic Trials and Weldon and Robert had started LetsRun in Flagstaff and I had, I think it was RunwiththeBuffs.com. And we were both doing interviews and kind of sharing interviews back and forth, and so I was just trying to drive eyeballs and people to my site to drive attention to the book.
(Editor’s note: Here is an interview that LetsRun did with Lear in 2000, one of the first published on the site).
Fortunately for me, the book ended up selling really well really quickly. At one point it was like #400 on Amazon on the bestselling rankings with zero advertising and just kind of word of mouth. Then Dick Patrick of [USA Today] called me one day. He’d gotten word of the book and decided to write a feature story on it. And I remember being floored at that because I was living in my little tiny apartment in Boulder with my girlfriend who became my wife. And on our answering machine one day, I remember her telling me, “You got a phone call from USA Today.” And I was like, “No way.”
And then Dick Patrick ran a story right before the NCAAs and in it he had a line about this being to running what A Season on the Brink was to college basketball. So that was really, really nice to read. So at that point, I had tangible sales numbers, I had some good reviews. And literally that next week, I was sitting in my office, I was working for a dotcom startup in Boulder, and my phone started ringing from some of these publishers that I had originally sent the manuscript to saying that they wanted to publish it. So that’s how that all came about.
What surprised you the most from spending a season with them? What defied your expectations the most from what you thought it was going to be like going in?
Well it’s interesting because at the time there was really very, very little information as to what Arkansas does or Stanford does. It was really a black box. People just did not know what it was that these top-level teams did. So I don’t think I had many preconceived notions about what it was that they did. I just knew that it had to be different. Whatever I was doing wasn’t working out. Most of my college cross country days, I’d end up on the sideline.
In 1994, I spent the summer in Boulder and I did run with those guys and while I ended up that fall on the sideline with a stress fracture some of the guys that I was jogging with like Clint Wells [ended up as] an All-American. And I was like, What the hell, man? What happened between August and November? So I don’t think there was anything that really surprised me. I just honestly didn’t know. I was just really curious, like, what are they doing differently?
And I think if there’s one thing that stood out, and it was probably what formed the structure of the book and why I wrote it the way I did, is it was just a daily grind. It was every day, man. There’s no secrets. If you want to be that good, you’re getting after it, on some level, every single day.
One of the saddest and most powerful parts of the book was the death of Chris Severy. How difficult was it to handle that?
It was really hard. That was the hardest thing for me to handle. No one goes into a project like this thinking that something of that gravity is going to happen. It caused me to kind of question everything, just like the guys were trying to grapple with this what’s appropriate. How do we handle this? Do you put a patch on your uniform? Do you stop competing? Do you keep competing? These kind of existential questions, what does it all mean?
I had the same thoughts with regards to my work. Like, am I a dick if I’m sitting there, while these guys are crying and struggling, with a pen and paper, documenting this? Is that really callous? I didn’t know.
I just tried to stick with what I was doing and I think in a way, the team, the way they handled it, informed the way I handled it. They came together pretty quickly and I were sort of like, look, what would Chris want the team to do? And he’d want us to see it through — talking us, meaning the team. I just kind of adopted the same attitude for myself. I was like, well all of a sudden this project is bigger than me, it’s bigger than the team. All of a sudden in some ways I’m preserving some memories. Maybe this will be important. So I guess the best way to say it is I handled it gingerly and it I think it really sharpened my focus afterwards because I felt like I really had an obligation to see this through.
What was your favorite memory from that year?
Lots of good memories of Chris. I have a memory of sitting in a hot tub with him before he passed and just getting to know him and talking about his life and his ambitions. And I remember his little brother Jon coming to one of the races at CU, it might have been the Shootout. And I remember seeing them after the race do a cooldown together and run beside one another. And then a few years later, I think it was Jon’s fifth year in college at CU, he was a very unexpected top 20. You’d have to go back and see where he finished (21st actually, in 2004). But I remember he finished way higher than where the form chart would have suggested he would have finished. And I remember seeing a photo of him and he had the eye of the tiger. And Jon is a very laid-back guy, so this one picture that was taken captured this competitive edge that I had rarely ever seen. To see him, I think they might have won NCAAs that year by, like, a point (Colorado upset the famous Wisconsin dream team, 90-94). And Wetmore always said there’s no miracles in running, and I agree with that. By and large, I agree with that. But it was hard to see that performance on that day and not think that there was some guidance from above and that just fulfilled Chris’ dream of winning the NCAA title.
My other favorite memory, I think the way the team performed so valiantly at the NCAAs and seeing the team come together after that race and just knowing, just being satisfied with the fact that they left it all out there. I just remember that was a good feeling to see them. I knew that on some level, I captured something, that a group of young men that were working with a singular purpose. It’s just rare to find any group of people working collectively like that. To see that they felt good about it in the end, I at the end of the day as runners, that’s all you can really ask for. Not a single one of us ever ends our career thinking, Oh man, I wish I hadn’t accomplished more. But I think if you can end it feeling like you laid it all out on the line, then that’s the level of satisfaction that you have control over. And I got the sense then that these guys felt like they left it all out there.
And certainly Adam winning. To see him pull it off was pretty unbelievable. Just the daily grind, what he did on a day-to-day basis. I put what he did back then up against just about anyone because it was just a remarkable thing to witness from one day to the next. He was such an absolutely fierce competitor and I feel like I was really lucky to get to see that up close and personal.
What was the best story that you couldn’t include?
I guess if it wasn’t included in the book, I’m not going to reveal it here. But I will say I have gotten asked through years, Oh you didn’t put all the partying and everything in the book. And in that era, I think a lot of top teams, pretty habitually, it was part of the culture back then. Work hard, play hard. I’d say a lot of the top teams on Saturday nights are getting pretty banged up and having a sixer. It was not uncommon for guys [on other teams] to have a sixer every Saturday night.
I got asked about that, and that just didn’t happen. I think there’s something about having to run Magnolia Road at 6:30 on a Sunday morning that makes you want to go to bed at 10:00 on a Saturday night. Or 8:00 on a Sunday morning. It was usually around 8:00.
Did you expect it to achieve the level of success that it has? It’s clearly a cult classic among runners.
No, not at all. I wrote it with the purest of motives. I really felt like there was a story to tell and it pissed me off that I could go to the bookstore and I could find all these books on other sports and yet people thought that there was nothing interesting about running or cross country running. And I felt like they were dead wrong. I really didn’t think about having an agent or anything until the manuscript was done. I didn’t really give much thought to how it would be received in the market. But the fact that it’s still being talked about 20 years later and I still hear from people that are reading it for the first time and saying that man, they really like it, that means a lot to me. There’s something timeless about it, about the story and the journey and that’s tremendously humbling and I feel real fortunate to have been a part of it, of those guys’ journey. It’s really humbling. I can’t believe that it still has an audience 20 years later.
I’m grateful to everyone who’s read it and enjoyed it. Every once in a while I’m lucky enough to hear about people that say [it’s] had some positive influence on their lives or on their running. And who can ask for more than that? It’s pretty awesome.
I think for the most part, it’s one of those books that, when you get into running and you make the jump from being a casual runner to taking it more seriously and you start getting inquisitive about content and what’s out there, I think that’s the time at which, generally, people get exposed to this. And that’s cool.
That’s definitely what happened to me, summer of 2006, first time I read it. After my freshman year of high school, my high school coach gave it to me and that was when I really was deciding to become serious about it and that was certainly part of it.
Nice. That’s awesome. There you go. That’s very cool. And I think one of the things that’s kind of related to that is there’s been this mythology throughout the years that oh, all distance runners are these big nerdy, uncoordinated dorks. And that’s just not the case. Certainly I think one of the best things about running is I feel like any high school team, they tend to be one of the most inclusive groups on any high school campus and welcoming groups. And I think that’s tremendous. I think, as runners, we have to foster that, that part of it is really, really important. It is something that makes me proud to have been a runner, that I was part of this eclectic culture.
But at the same time, at the very top level of the sport, these are real athletes. Steve Slattery could dunk a basketball. Steve could have been a high-level Division I athlete in any number of sports, and I think that’s just one example. But I think if there’s one thing in an intangible way that really made me the happiest is that the book, on a very small level, to the right person, made running feel somewhat cool and not like you’re this social outcast if you choose to pursue this.
Has a movie ever come close to happening? Do you think that might happen one day?
I think it has all the elements to be a really good film. Obviously the way the narrative is structured, you’d have to have a screenwriter translate it to film. It doesn’t lend itself on a one-to-one basis, to go from print to film. But I think if you look at the great sports movies, they all have a team element, a lot of them have an iconoclastic coach. It’s an underdog story, you’ve got a big victory in the end. Think of Miracle, for instance. So I think the elements are there. Through the years, I’ve been approached about the movie rights off and on. Not in a while now, but I’m holding out hope that maybe one day the right group of people will come and decided that hey, this is worth trying to translate to film.
I know you did a follow-up book with Alan Webb at Michigan. Have you considered writing another book since then? Why or why not?
Yeah, I came close to writing another one. And another author ended up pursuing it and doing it. Things fell through for me with that project. I have not published another book. I’d say never say never, but part of what made both those narratives work is that I was physically capable of running with those guys, at least on their easy days. I ran a half marathon in about 1:09 something as part of a marathon relay in Austin, Texas, right before I went to Michigan. I had quit running, but I spent five or six months trying to get in shape with the sole purpose of wanting to be able to keep up with Alan on his easy days. Obviously at my age, there’s no way I could run with those college kids. So that type of narrative, I don’t think I could do. I just don’t think I have the physical means. But I did really enjoy the process of doing it but I’m at a different stage of my life now. I have no imminent plans.
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
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More: From The LRC Archives: 2000: ONE-ON-ONE WITH CHRIS LEAR