Friday, 19 May 2017 21:43

​Beloved Houston Running Coach Dies at 86

Olympic medalist Al Lawrence was an encouraging, endearing presence in the community.

Oor years, as runners rounded the turn on the quarter-mile track in the shadow of downtown Houston, they saw their coach in the distance.

He was sitting on a wooden bench, always the second from the left in the row of four. It was his spot.

As the runners got closer, they listened, hoping their coach would call out their split time, but Al Lawrence just couldn’t find the right stopwatch.

Maybe it was the one on the far left, or second from the right, or the black one tangled up with the other black one.

The runners would be rounding the next turn when they’d hear their split.

But on Wednesday, no one was yelling the times. The second bench from the left at Houston’s Memorial Park filled up with bouquets of flowers, notes, and a pair of running shoes worn during this year’s Boston Marathon.

Al Lawrence, an Olympic medalist and renowned running coach in Houston for more than three decades, died Monday at his home surrounded by family. He was 86.

Two days later, runners gathered at 5:30 a.m. and again in the evening for memorial runs to remember the man who wore up to 16 stopwatches around his neck.

The post-run smiles came easily as the clubmates remembered the nicknames Lawrence gave, his ability to strike up a conversation and that tangle of stopwatches.

“An alarm would go off and he would not know which one,” Ryan “Smitty” Smith said. “We’d be freaking out.”

Casey “Casey at the Track” Gage laughed and said, “But you know, any time he’d missed your split he could guess what it was and I’d look down at my watch and he was always right on.”

Born on July 9, 1930, in Punchbowl, New South Wales, Australia (a suburb of Sydney), Lawrence became a distance runner, winning the bronze medal for Australia in the 10,000 meters during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

Then Lawrence hit the track at the University of Houston, where he won the NCAA and AAU cross country national championships in 1959 and 1960. He set two world records six days apart, for the indoor 2-mile and 3-mile.

He also competed in the 1960 Rome Olympics, placing fourth in the 5,000 meters and 54th in the marathon.

Over the course of his career, he broke more than 10 Australian records from the 2 miles to 10,000 meters. He was also the first Australian to break the 14-minute barrier for 5,000 meters and the 30- and 29-minute barriers for the 10,000 meters, according to the Australian Olympic Committee.

In the early 1980s, he became an American citizen and created the Al Lawrence Running Club.

But it’s not just the credentials that stuck with those who trained under him. It was Lawrence’s constant encouragement for runners, who he often called “love” or “mate.”

When Christie Billings joined the club, she couldn’t even run 200 meters.

“It’s okay, love. You can do it,” Lawrence told her.

Fourteen months later, she ran her first marathon in 3:52. She married a member of the club. Her four children even trained under Lawrence’s stopwatch.

When Bernie Tretta emailed Lawrence, explaining she wanted to join the club despite lacking talent and speed, he responded: “I don’t only coach fast runners. I only coach runners.”

When Christie Billings joined the club, she couldn’t even run 200 meters.

“It’s okay, love. You can do it,” Lawrence told her.

Fourteen months later, she ran her first marathon in 3:52. She married a member of the club. Her four children even trained under Lawrence’s stopwatch.

When Bernie Tretta emailed Lawrence, explaining she wanted to join the club despite lacking talent and speed, he responded: “I don’t only coach fast runners. I only coach runners.”

And no workout was complete without a post-training hug and a kiss from their coach. Then instead of goodbye, he’d say, “I’ll count the minutes until I see you again.”

Despite having pancreatic cancer, Lawrence was out supporting his runners at races as recently as last month—a presence of commitment, a symbol of encouragement.

Runners from marathon champions to former UH teammate Ian Goldfoot gathered to remember a funny man whose impact will leave a “crater-sized hole” on the Houston running community.

Lawrence’s runners will pass down stories to their children. His stopwatches will become lore. His bench will become occupied by those who need a rest from their own track workout.

And the minutes will count down until the members of the Al Lawrence Running Club will see their beloved coach again.