Runner’s World’s Bart Yasso Has Run a Long Way, But Come Even Farther

An Adventures by Daddy Interview with Runner’s World’s Chief Running Officer

“Running isn’t about how far you go, but how far you’ve come,” that’s how Bart Yasso concluded our interview, and pretty much summed up his outlook on life.  Talking with Bart, you quickly discover that to him, running is just a tool – a tool for travel, a tool for self-discovery, a tool for personal redemption.  Continue reading for Bart’s perspectives on running, travel, South Africa, and more in my interview with Runner’s World magazine’s Chief Running Officer.

Bart Yasso "My Life On The Run" image provided

I had the chance to chat with Bart Yasso at the Pittsburgh Marathon Health and Fitness Expo.  In addition to his role at Runner’s World, Yasso’s a member of the Running USA Hall of Champions, and has developed a widely adopted marathon training workout known as the Yasso 800’s – pretty heady running credentials.  However, by the time I started reading Runner’s World in the late 1980’s, Yasso was already an established “running personality.”  I never really knew his background and how he got into running.  We began our chat with Bart explaining his inauspicious start.

It was a simple, but crucial beginning for him, and similar to what many beginner runners undergo.  Thirty-five years ago, Bart stepped out the door to run a single mile.

I was a young guy at the time, 21 years old thinking, I got in a bad lifestyle, so I had to make a change.  When I went out to run that mile, I just fell in love with running – the motion, breaking out in a sweat, I just loved it.

The “bad lifestyle” Bart alluded to was high levels of alcohol use and abuse.  Running turned him around and consequently saved his life.  Soon after that initial mile, Bart got his first taste for racing when his brother George challenged him to a 10K.  Bart lost, but that was the only race he lost to his brother, and another milestone in his career.  After that 10K, Yasso dedicated himself to training, and ended up running all over the world – literally.  Yasso’s one of the few runners who has completed races on all seven continents.  “I’ve run races at Mt. Everest, Antarctica, the Arctic Circle, over 100 countries, literally all over the world,” Bart emphasized.

Bart Yasso runs the Arctic Circle Marathon - photo provided

 

Even with such a prolific running resume, one destination and race stood out above the rest.  When I asked him what race was his favorite, Yasso quickly said “Comrades Marathon” – the 56 mile ultramarathon race held each year between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, South Africa.

Comrades Marathon, the world’s oldest ultramarathon – first staged in 1921 with 34 runners as a memorial for the fallen comrades of “The Great War” (World War I).  The race has grown into the world’s largest ultramarathon with over 19,00 registered entrants for the 2012 edition on Sunday, June 3.  When discussing Comrades, it was clear the race was significant but secondary to Yasso’s experience of traveling to and around South Africa.

To me it was a race I always wanted to do, but I refused to go to South Africa during Apartheid.  Then, in 2010 I realized my running career was winding down, and for me to cover the 56 miles under the cutoff of 12 hours, I better do it now because I’m not going to get any faster.

Bart Yasso 50 miles in to the Comrades Marathon - photo provided

 

Yasso’s a student of Comrades’ history, and the intertwined relationship of the race to the opening of South Africa.  In 1975, the race’s 50th anniversary (no races between 1941-1945), the event was finally open to all, without regard for race or gender.  Apartheid continued until 1994.  Thus, for nearly 20 years, Comrades was one of the only events in South Africa where blacks participated side-by-side with whites.  The Comrades Marathon changed the landscape of South Africa, and allowed black citizens to understand they could not only participate but also flourish alongside whites.  Yasso recalled,

When you go there, you’re standing at the starting line, and you look around and the race is 60% black citizens.  Then you think back to 1973… which doesn’t seem that long ago to me… I can’t imagine one of those athletes not having the right to do the race.

Shipwreck and View of Table Mountain from Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa © 2011 South African Tourism. All rights reserved.

 

Yasso reflected and expressed amazement at how running became the vehicle to take him around the world and introduced him to different people, their history and culture.  He explained how running in foreign lands was special, but understanding a new culture was the greatest reward.  For example, Bart toured Nelson Mandela’s jail cell in the prison on Robben Island with a guide who was also a former inmate.  How that guide, who swore he would never return to the Island once freed, was compelled to return and share the horrors that occurred in order to prevent them from recurring.  Yasso continued,

It’s like living history, you go there and you feel the emotion of these people when they talk about it and the horrific things that happened to them.  But they’ve overcome.  They’ve put Mandela’s real story and passion – forget the past, let’s move on, and he’s taught his country that, and these people live that.  When you feel that it’s so powerful, and when the tour ends you end up in Nelson Mandela’s cell where he spent 20 of his 28 years that he was imprisoned.  Wow, the hair stands up on your neck when you’re in there.

Nelson Mandela's prison cell. Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa © 2011 South African Tourism. All rights reserved.

 

Running, it was running that allowed Bart to stand inside Nelson Mandela’s jail cell, and upon seeing the cell reminded him to never take for granted that he is able to run, to travel, to experience diverse cultures.  Yasso emphasized, “because in many of my travels I go to places where people are suppressed in every way.”

Bart continues to struggle with his health even after overcoming alcohol abuse.  Twice, he has contracted Lyme Disease, paralyzing the right side of his body and face (Bell’s Palsy), but Yasso quickly adds it’s just “one of those things that you have to deal with.”  As Runner’s World “Chief Running Officer,” he spends approximately 48 out of the 52 weekends of the year on the road at races.  Nevertheless, this travel energizes rather than drains him.  It’s at these races where he meets and talks with fellow runners, learns their stories, and receives inspiration.  “Forget about the finish line,” he says, “they’ve overcome so much just to commit to being a runner and train for a race.”  Yasso recalled speaking to a Livestrong group at the Boston Marathon.

There were 400 people in that room, and every single one of them were cancer survivors.  Of the 400 – 300 were actively being treated with chemo- or radiation, and the next day they’re doing a marathon!

Bart insisted, “running isn’t about how far you go, but how far you’ve come.”  He continued,

No one becomes a marathon runner in one day.  You can’t wake up and say, ‘I’m a marathon runner.’  It takes drive, determination, and a long time, and that’s why whatever you end up doing on race day – that’s the icing on the cake.

The “Chief Running Officer” may not compete in races as much, but it’s clear he still has incredible passion for the sport.  Bart added that when he does compete in a race he gets the same sense of accomplishment, excitement, and feeling of being part of something bigger than himself as he did when he won the US National Biathlon Championship in 1987, or the Smoky Mountain Marathon in 1998, or completed the Badwater 146 across Death Valley, or finished South Africa’s Comrades Marathon in 2010.

Bart Yasso has raced from 1 to 146 miles, but he has come much farther than any of those distances.  He dug out of a pit of alcohol abuse, travelled around the world, and served as an inspiration to many.  I want to thank Bart Yasso for taking the time to speak with me, and share some stories of his career.  If you want to read more of Bart Yasso’s stories, check out his book My Life On The Run: The Wit, Wisdom, and Insights of a Road Racing Icon.  I’ll let Bart’s own words conclude our interview, “never limit where running can take you – be it geographically, physically, or spiritually.”

For more interviews and motivation from personalities around the sport of running, click here.  Please follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page also to keep up with all our running adventures, family travel news, reviews, and trip reports.

About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.