Ultrarunning Back in the Day
Q&A with Ultrarunning Pioneer and Coaching Legend Jim O’Brien
Jim O'Brien and a knackered Larry Gassan at the 1996 Angeles Crest 100-miler. O'Brien paced Gassan the last 25 miles. Photo courtesy of Larry Gassan
(This article first appeared in Ultrarunning in 2003.)
Jim O’Brien, coach, ultra legend and unrivaled Angeles Crest 100-mile record holder announced his retirement from private coaching September 1, 2003. O’Brien cited professional and familial reasons for disbanding his Team Blarney, which was synonymous with running achievement here in Southern California. There wasn’t enough time in the day. In addition, Jim’s daughter, Erin, is now 10, and time is always short.
Professionally, while coaching track at SoCal’s Arcadia High School with 85 runners, he also coaches at Pasadena City College, where he’s coaching track and cross country and teaching PE classes.
At Team Blarney, Jim coached a spectrum of runners and distances at his memorable Monday (and then Tuesday)-night workouts. The distances spanned red-hot 10Ks through the 100-milers, and included runners from their late teens into mid-60s.
Jim brought a high level of ethics and honesty to his craft. That alone would make him a standout. But his athletic accomplishments backed it up, big time. His 17:35:48 Angeles Crest 100 record of 1989 is the benchmark that all of us have measured ourselves against. And that was when the course was almost two full miles longer than it is now.
At Leadville in 1989, his epic surges up Hope Pass on the way to Winfield completely buried four-time winner Skip Hamilton. Then on the way back it was rain and mud to a course record that stood for five years until Juan Herrera took it in 1994 ... on a clear and calm night.
To flesh out some of these details, I caught up with O’Brien on a recent Tuesday night at Pasadena City College.
Q&A with Jim O'Brien
How did you get into ultrarunning?
I was in San Diego in the late 70s-early ’80s, going to school at San Diego State University getting my BS in PE. At that time I was road racing. I’d heard about a Run Across America. Unlike a stage race, it was first to the finish. It got me thinking, so there was a year’s leeway to prepare for the event. However it later got cancelled due to sponsorship problems.
In ’85 I’d moved up from San Diego to Monrovia and got a job at Cal Tech in Pasadena teaching PE. Tried the Mount Wilson Trail Race, an eight-mile uphill grinder from Sierra Madre up the Old Mount Wilson trail to the observatory. I won my age division.
I met local ultrarunners like Jack Slater, Ralph West and Judy Milke. At this point I had run 13 marathons in a year, mainly to demystify the marathon process. I raced two and ran 11 as training runs. I’d also heard about Ken Hamada’s idea of putting on a 100. 1986 was the inaugural Angeles Crest 100. I set my sights on ’87, and tried to get in but Hamada wouldn’t let me in—no 50-milers under my belt, and only a string of sub 2:30 marathons.
So for my first 50, I did the Mile Square 50 in Fountain Valley, which was 10 loops. I set a goal of 33 to 35 minutes per loop, for a sub-six-hour finish. By 26 miles I had lapped everybody, and won it in 5:58. The steady pace was the key to a good performance.
So, what happened at AC100 in 1987?
I ran it with bronchitis and finished third in 19:51 behind Jim Gensichen, with Jim Pellon seven minutes in front of me. Afterwards I took to bed with pneumonia. What I learned was that solid food in a race is inefficient, but I had done it out of deference to common knowledge. I started to really research liquid nutrition.