Here's Part II of Chad Austin's interview with 1968 Olympian Van Nelson. The interview is the first in a new series where DtB will catch up with past greats in Minnesota running and track & field.
Read Part I of the interview HERE.
Find two great photos of Nelson in his racing prime HERE and HERE.
Find tons of great interviews that Austin has conducted on his own web-site, Running Minnesota, HERE.
DtB: What was your training like?
Nelson: First, we never missed a day. It didn’t matter if it was cold or raining. We just dressed appropriately, but we never missed a day. I ran two-a-days all the time. The mornings would be an easy 10-mile run, right around 60-63 minutes. The evenings would be another 10 miles, either on the roads in around 55 minutes or intervals on the track.
I never ran anything over 220-yard intervals with a 220-yard jog. I’d do like 30-36 of them. My coach would time them and they’d only vary a tenth of a second on either side. Depending on how I felt, they’d probably be around 30.1 to 30.3 with about a 50 second jog. And the last 220 was always all-out in like 26 or 27 seconds.
DtB: Wow, you never ran 440s, 880s, fartlek workouts, etc?
Nelson: No. Speed was for speed. If it was going to be a long, hard run, then we’d be out on the roads running 10 miles in 55 minutes. There wasn’t anything in between.
DtB: Is that how you think most people trained? Did you ever compare notes?
Nelson: I don’t know. I just know that’s what worked for me.
If we were there for speed, we were there to get the knees up. Why drone on at half-speed? We tried 440s a couple of times, but they didn’t seem to work. We wanted that quickness. I’d do some shorter stuff, like jogging the curves and then high knee lifts down the straight-aways.
We always ran how we felt. If we were tired one day, we’d just step it down and adjust the time of our 220s. Instead of the 30.2s, we’d run 32.5s. Otherwise, trying to run faster than your body will allow just defeats you mentally and you’re shot.
DtB: What was your longest training run?
Nelson: I’d very rarely go over 10 miles. Maybe twice a month I’d run up to 15 miles. But it was 20 miles every day, so I was running 140 miles per week. Everything was quality and pushed hard, except for the mornings.
DtB: What about easy days?
Nelson: Easy days would occur during our taper leading up to meets. And some meets we’d train right through without a taper. I’d run 10 miles in the morning and then the meet in the afternoon.
When I did taper, I’d run my last interval workout 5 days before the meet. Then during the last 4 days I’d only run once a day; 10 miles, 5 miles, 3 miles, 1 mile. There was no speed work on those days.
DtB: Do you run now at all?
Nelson: I do some light jogging, walking, and biking. Years ago I’d get together with Steve Hoag for a run around the lakes. We’d watch little old ladies and kids pass us and we’d just laugh and say something like, “It sure was nice [when we were fast]."
DtB: Who was your biggest influence throughout your career?
Nelson: My coach, Bob Tracy. He was much coach at St. Cloud State as well as at the Olympics. Unfortunately, he passed away last spring at the age of 80.
DtB: How do you think your life would be different without running?
Nelson: Well it gave me a lot of confidence. I was a shy kid. Running was a confidence booster and it’s carried over into the rest of my life. As a teacher, it’s helped me get up in front of a group of students. And the work ethic I developed through running has carried over to my teaching too.
DtB: Can you tell us about your family?
Nelson: My wife, Lynda and I got married in 1974. She taught too, but is now retired. We have two kids, Adam and Katie. Adam graduated from Mankato and is teaching preschool autistic children. Katie lives in California and works for a merger and acquisition company.
DtB: What has your non-running career been like?
Nelson: After graduating, I taught in Maple Lake for one year and then got a job in Edina where I’ve been for the last 38 years. I’ve been teaching health education for the last 25 years. I have two more years before I retire and then I plan on traveling more. I also like to go biking, go to antique shows, and fishing with my brother Richard.
DtB: Finally, what are some of your fondest running memories?
Nelson: My best race memories would be running in the Olympics. That is, of course, a highlight of my career.
I also remember running outdoors in the Toronto Maple Leaf Games in 1967. It was the fastest 3-mile race for a group of runners EVER in the world at that time. I ran a PR of 13:09 and was able to beat 5 other Olympians and came in 2nd to Ron Clark.
Setting two Pan-American Game records and winning two gold medals in the 5,000m and 10,000m races in 1967 in Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada.
In 1965, setting a new U.S. freshman record for collegiates, 13:45.8 for 3 miles, in Sioux Falls, SD.
Three years of double gold medal races at the Drake Relays and twice winning the Drake Relays' Outstanding Athlete Award.
But, probably the fondest memories that I have as I look back would not be all the records. My fondest memories are the ones I have of traveling the world and running the races with and for my coach, Bob Tracy.