John Hunt: Paying Tribute To My Friend Van Townsend

Outstanding Runner & Coach Died Monday After Battle With Cancer

Wednesday, January 14, 2015 - by John Hunt

There are days when my timing just isn’t very good.

It was about a week ago when I ran into my old buddy David Cook at the downtown Y and we started talking about Van Townsend and the tough fight he was having with cancer.

We both agreed that we should make it a priority to go see the former running great while there was still time, but I never got that chance as I found out on Tuesday morning that Van had passed on Monday afternoon.

I’ve had the wonderful fortune of covering running in the Chattanooga area for a lot of years and I’ve had the opportunity to interview quite a few people.

There was never anyone quite like Van Townsend.

Granted, some people are hard to interview after a tough race, but Van never fell into that category.  And nobody ran harder or competed with any more intensity than did Van.

I’m sure that he won more than his share of races, but I remember him more as being the runner-up or the guy who finished third or fourth.  But he always had something to say, no matter what the results were.

I’m really sorry that I never got that chance to visit with Van in recent weeks when I knew that his cancer had returned and that his time on earth was most likely not very long.

Van was an ultra-successful runner for many years, but started biking about 10 years ago.  He was in a horrible wreck one day when he got hit by a car, suffering a broken back, ribs and collar bone.  He proved that day just how tough he was and how great his will to live really was.

It was during that time that doctors discovered his cancer.  It went into remission for several years, but came back in 2011 and doctors basically told him that he had about three months to live.

Reminding me of another former great Baylor cross country coach named Jon Chew, Townsend basically refused to accept that prognosis and he lived a whole lot longer than anybody in the medical field expected.

When I heard about his passing Tuesday, I decided to talk to a bunch of folks who knew Van, those who ran with and competed against him and folks whose lives he had touched.

Just like David’s column said so truthfully last Wednesday, everybody knew Van.

Lee Davis and Van were best friends long before either one moved to Chattanooga.  They had competed in Boston, were active in the Boston Athletic Association and both were outstanding runners.

Van was responsible for introducing Lee to Heather Ott, who has been his wife for a long time, but Lee and Heather were on the phone when Larry Hale announced that he was stepping down as the Baylor boys cross country coach.

Van later got that job and coached lots and lots of great runners during his time there.  Even in recent months when his health had gotten worse, he was still coaching, even via text messages or email addresses.

“This is really a sad day for everyone who knew Van,” said Davis Tuesday night.

“It’s difficult for me to process information like that and hard to believe living in a world without Van Townsend.  He was my best friend for sure.  Even in the last week of his life, talking about running totally lit him up and that’s what sustained him at the end,” Davis said.

Alan Outlaw is a co-owner of Fast Break Athletics and he was one of the many runners that Van coached.

“He was my coach when I ran the Chicago Marathon a couple of years ago and he was hilarious.  He helped make my expectations as a runner become reality as he was my running buddy,” Outlaw said Tuesday afternoon.

Joey Howe, a sales associate at Fast Break, had similar experiences with Townsend.

“I met Van when I came back to work for Dick (at Fast Break) a few years ago.  His son Oliver worked here during the summer and Christmas break, but he was a rock star in running and everybody knew him.  All he ever wanted to do was coach other runners.

“I met Bill Squires (one of the greatest running coaches in the world) in Memphis one time and introduced myself as being from Chattanooga.  He then said, “You must know Van Townsend.” That story says it all about Van’s influence with people,” Howe nodded.

Dick Dillard was the Fast Break owner before selling out a few years ago and he too had fond memories of Townsend.

“When you lose a close friend or a loved one, you’re just overcome with shock and that’s the way I feel about Van.  We knew it was coming, but you’re never prepared for it.

“He was something else.  Van always had plenty of time to talk with beginning runners and he was always an encourager.  That’s what impressed me the most about him,” Dillard said.

Chad Varga, another outstanding runner who is now the proud owner of Front Runner Athletics – Fast Break’s main competition – also had unique memories.

“Lee Davis and I were training for the 100th Boston Marathon in 1996 and that’s when I came in contact with Van.  He had never even met me, but he made arrangements for me to stay with some of his friends for the weekend in Boston.  That’s the kind of people person he was.

“We trained together in the late 90s and he was a great training partner and always a lot of fun to be around.  We all were able to get faster, but Van would talk your ear off.

“What a great guy he was.  Everyone has a Van story, but his enthusiasm for the sport of running was unparalleled.  He was so positive and he got so many kids involved.  That was his legacy as much as anything,” Varga remembered.

Jan Gautier followed Townsend as the Baylor coach.  She too had lots of memories to share.

“One thing is for sure and that’s the fact he touched a lot of lives in the running community.  He was willing to help anyone who loved the sport and he made an impact on lots of folks.  He did a lot of good in this world and I commend him for that, but he also had three amazing kids.

“When you think about the running community, you have to mention his name.  But he was well known in running circles, not only as a coach but his own outstanding running ability,” Gautier said.

Bill Brock, who has served as the president of the Chattanooga Track Club this past year, got to know Van when their two sons were students at Baylor.  They did some running together.

“I got to know him when my son Hutch was at Baylor with Oliver.  I got to know him on a more personal level, but he was always laid back and just a wonderful guy.  I later found out the impact he had on our running community and I had a lot of respect for him.  Van knew everyone and was really a fascinating person,” Brock noted.

A memorial service has been planned for Saturday afternoon in the Baylor chapel.  A short run is being planned for the Baylor cross country course that morning.  Van may not be there in person, but he’ll surely be there in spirit.

His passing serves as a reminder to us all.

Life is fragile.  What may be wonderful and okay one minute may not be the same in the next minute. 

No matter where you are in life, make sure you tell those people in your life who you love and care about the most that you love them and appreciate the impact they’ve made on your life.

Make sure you do it today because you might not get another chance.

As has been said by so many, Van Townsend made an impact on lots of lives.  I’m just thankful he had a chance to impact mine as well.

(Email John Hunt at

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