a PAW web exclusive column
Lear 96 recounts his year of running cross-country with the
University of Colorado
By Rich OBrien
With the Buffaloes, by Chris Lear 96, is a gritty and engaging
behind-the-scenes account of the University of Colorado cross-country
teams 1998 season. The book, in Band-of-Brothers fashion,
brings alive the struggles, both aerobic and emotional, of a group
of young men training and racing at the very highest level. Dominating
the narrative are Mark Wetmore, Colorados charismatic, demanding
and extraordinarily successful coach and Adam Goucher,
the Buffalo star who in the fall of 98 was just coming into
his own as Americas best distance runner.
Running With the Buffaloes quickly became, as the Boulder Daily
Camera dubbed it, a cult classic, thanks to word of
mouth and word of mouse as running enthusiasts across
the Internet emailed friends and teammates with rave reviews and
clicked in orders to Amazon.com. Impressed with the books
grassroots success, Lyons Press bought Running With the Buffaloes
late last year and released it in hardback this fall. The first
printing, of 5,000 copies, has already sold out. (For more information,
Lear, a national-class
high school miler in New Jersey who went on to become a two-time
All-America and cross-country captain at Princeton, still runs seriously
on the roads and trails around his home in Boulder. Currently working
full-time in business development for zipsend.com, an email gift
service, he also writes about running for a variety of magazines
and web sites.
Online caught up with Lear by phone during his recent visit to his
familys old home in the town of Gobertange, Belgium.
PAW: Belgium? Youre
supposed to be a Jersey boy.
CL: My mother was born
in Belgium. She met my dad when she came to the States as a young
woman. He was from Newark. I grew up, along with my twin brother,
Tim 96 , and my sister, Frederique 00, in Summit, New
Jersey, but we went to Belgium every summer and stayed in my grandparents
house. I actually went to first and second grade in Gobertange,
in a one-room school house.
PAW: Did you always
want to be a writer?
CL: Not at all. I know
that a lot of people come to Princeton intending to be a writer.
I didnt. I never even took a writing class. I was a sociology
major. But I enjoyed working on my thesis [on the gentrification
of Hoboken, New Jersey] , and my adviser, Suzanne Keller, liked
it and encouraged me to keep writing. I began to think of it as
something I might want to do.
PAW: What was the genesis
of the book?
CL: Id always
been an avid reader of nonfiction sports writing. I loved John McPhee
53s book on Bradley 65 and John Feinsteins
Season on the Brink, about the Indiana basketball program under
Bob Knight which, obviously, was something of a model for
Buffaloes but I hadnt really found any writing like
that on running. Most of the books Id read were either how-to
training guides, or more spiritual in nature. It seemed to me there
was room for good non-fiction running reporting.
PAW: Did you set out
to do the book immediately after graduation?
CL: No. After leaving
Princeton, I joined Project 55. I spent 10 months in the San Francisco
Bay area working as an intern at the Ecumenical Association for
Housing, developing a computer-learning center for them. I didnt
know a thing about computers, but I learned on the job. When the
internship ended, I got hired as a director, setting up learning
centers for low-income housing projects throughout the area. I gave
myself a year time-line to get those up and running and then, on
July 6, 1998, I moved to Colorado to do the book.
PAW: Like Bob Knight,
the controversial larger-than-life Indiana coach who dominates A
Season on the Brink, Coach Wetmore comes across as a strong, controlling
type. Why did you choose his program, and how did he feel about
having you around for the season?
CL: I had met Coach
Wetmore when I was in high school. He had been coach at Bernardsville
High and had just taken a job at Seton Hall. I remember being amazed
at how much faster his guys at Bernardsville were running. I kept
in touch with him even after he went to Colorado he used
to recommend books for me to read, On the Road and others
and when I thought of doing the project, he seemed like the most
compelling figure out there. Plus, I knew America loves a winner,
and Colorado had its best team ever.
too keen on the idea at first. He felt it was taking a big risk
and he was worried about how I was going to treat his runners in
the book and also whether I could pull it off. You definitely have
to prove yourself to him. I think that when he saw I wasnt
going to be a pain in the ass but just a fly on the wall
he agreed to it. On one of my first days there, though, I
went to his office with a list of 20 questions about each of the
guys on the team. I could see him getting tenser and tenser behind
his desk, just going completely white-knuckle, until he suddenly
yelled, Lear! Its not going to be like this all season,
PAW: Some of the books
best moments take the reader along almost stride-for-stride with
Goucher and the other athletes on some truly astounding workouts
and races. Were you running along beside them with a notebook?
CL: I had originally
thought of the book as a kind of Paper Lion approach, in which I
would run with the team, but I had just had surgery on my foot and
was in a boot-cast. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
I got a mountain bike and basically reported on the fly. When Goucher
was on a 20-mile run, cranking it down to five-minute pace, I could
be right there.
PAW: Getting the book
published was something of a marathon in its own right, wasnt
CL: I was a real rube.
Before I started, I had pitched it to several publishers, but got
no interest at all. One guy actually laughed at me on the phone.
Then, after I had the manuscript in hand, I sent it to 10 or 12
houses, but got nowhere. Some said they thought it was a good story,
but they didnt think it would sell. I knew I couldnt
let it die, so I self-published the book and set up a website to
promote it. That was right around the time of the 2000 Olympic trials,
in which Goucher won the 5,000, and the book got mentioned in some
of the coverage. The hard-core running community started to hear
about it. Suddenly, I was selling 100-200 copies a day. Last winter,
Lyons Press, which had originally turned the manuscript down, came
back and said We made a mistake, and bought the book.
None of it would have been possible without the Internet.
PAW: Whats next
down the road?
CL: Im trying
my hand at business right now, but Im also continuing to write.
Id love to make a living as a journalist.