Bruce Lehane served as the Boston University coach for over 35 years. During that time, he coached 50 NCAA Division 1 All-Americans, two NCAA Champions and two Olympians. This past Saturday, Lehane passed awayat the age of 68 after a bout with ALS. Bruce wasn’t only a long-time coach with a long list of accolades, but he was a big part of the Boston running community as well. Katie Matthews, class of 2012, wrote a tribute to Lehane after running under his tutelage for five years in college and for the start of her professional running career, as well as serving a stint as an assistant coach at BU.
It wasn’t until late into my high school career that I considered running for a Division I track program. As I reached out my feelers into the world of collegiate running opportunities, very few top level coaches saw the potential in my 5:04 mile PR, lack of Footlocker XC appearances, or my recent stress fracture.
But Bruce Lehane did. In fact, he told me later that he saw something in me the day I ran to a dismal 40th place finish at a Footlocker regional meet, something I’ll never quite understand.
His recruiting philosophy had always been to place the most time and energy to those individuals already voicing interest in Boston University and his team. I was one of those prospects. Boasting a strong academic focus where major and class selection was valued over practice commitments, it seemed like BU would be a perfect fit for someone like me, where running was giving me an opportunity to afford to attend a very expensive private university but wouldn’t be my main reason for heading to college.
I ran well the first two years at BU, but nothing stellar. However, I developed a strong relationship with Bruce through hundreds of talks in his office, van rides to Franklin Park practices and always picking his brain for advice. I had the somewhat unique experience of entering the team with Bruce’s son, Elliot, and some of his Brookline High teammates from the revered 2008 NXN class who knew Bruce previously. I don’t know if it was befriending them that helped me feel comfort, or having girls who had such respect for, belief in, and success with Bruce take me under their wings, but the team instantly felt like a family.
Whenever Bruce got to telling a story, we usually received much beyond training philosophy. His talks morphed into Boston running history lessons: tales of his former coach Billy Squires leading Salazar, Rodgers, and Beardsley to early success, and the way the running landscape here had changed in the years since. We heard about him growing up in Southie in the 50s, building the famous BU indoor track and from what was the old Armory on Commonwealth Ave., and anecdotes of his sons and home life.
Plenty of his stories focused on collegiate athletes he had coached before us — those whose workouts we were mimicking or who had set records. He always emphasized their character and worth ethic above all else. I learned what being a blue-collar runner was really about. When questioned about training trends or new technology, his favorite catch phrase was always ,“the way to get better at running is by running.”
I soon found I wanted to know everything he could tell me, and eventually what he imparted on me clicked.
In a Hartford Courant article from 2013, Bruce was asked about my jump in performance. He’s quoted as saying “She just transformed. She was sixth in the America East as a sophomore in the 5,000. The next year, she was sixth in the NCAAs in the 5,000. She just took this gigantic leap.”
What Bruce humbly brushed off as a coincidence and no minor fault of his own was anything but. Bruce motivated me and led me to success in a way that was truly unique. He rarely celebrated victories but simply wanted his athletes to learn from each race and move on to the next challenge. Receiving a hug or ‘congratulations’ from Bruce was something my teammates and I used to track for its rarity. With that being said, every single athlete on the team wanted to perform well and better themselves for him. Getting a loud shout from Bruce to pick it up during the last 800m of a race really carried some weight.
Bruce had a way of making each athlete feel like the most important one on the team. He looked for and saw the best in each runner he coached. He guided us all to make strong decisions about the way we spent our energy balancing the many facets of college life and in pursuing of our own goals outside of the sports arena. He put the responsibility in our own hands to become great or remain mediocre. Countless times we were given a workout or race plan to follow through without him in attendance. Whether it was because we were missing practice due to a class commitment or because he was with the other half of the squad at a different track meet, it was on us to figure out the logistics of getting the work in.
On the flip side, Bruce was always willing to come to the indoor track early or stay late into the evening to oversee a workout. Usually it would be a bread and butter workout like 600, 600, 800 x 2, with him quietly reading the splits from the sideline. If we were sick or an injury was nagging, we simply missed the workout for that day and proceeded in training as if we had done it. If we missed more than a couple workouts, we did not race, as Bruce always err on the side of caution. If we were to become injured, as I did during my 2012 season, it wasn’t because of too high mileage or intense workouts, it was due to failure on our part to be smart in recovery and training load.
Track trips became opportunities to explore different parts of the country. Whereas some coaches would have their athletes rest in the hotel for days leading up to competition, I traveled with Bruce to Niagara Falls, the Space Needle, Pier 39, the plains of Texas, and the Oregon coast to name a few places. If we wanted to come into his office and just chat, not about running but just about what was going on in our lives, his door was always open. Under his careful guidance, I eventually lowered my PRs to a 9:05 3k, 15:42 5k, and a 32:44 10k.
In the running community, Bruce was known for his laid-back demeanor. However, the way he loved his athletes was anything but. I’ll never know if I would have had the same athletic achievements under another coach, but I do know I wouldn’t have forged the same relationships, career path, and life philosophy as I have now. Given his humble attitude, he wouldn’t accept me saying so, but I owe so much to this wonderful man.
I remember one day, early in my professional running career, we were having a chat in his office. I had been lamenting over some petty dating woes and off handedly mentioned wanting to be single and not have to deal with finding a partner. Bruce became serious, and threw away a comment I said about being “independent.” He said, “But you do need to find someone — sharing your life with someone is one of the most beautiful gifts you’ll ever receive.”
In the years since, I’ve come to realize he was right. It doesn’t matter if you have all the stories, money, skills, or fortune in the world, if you don’t have anyone to share them with, they don’t matter. And Bruce had lots of people to share his life with.
Watching someone I love battle with ALS throughout the last couple of years has been heartbreaking. My thoughts and heart go out to his wife, Lesley, and sons Blaize, Elliot, and Aidan. Thank you for sharing your husband and father with me and so many others. We are all better people for knowing him.
Bruce, wherever you are, I hope you are getting in some quality miles.