The Gift of Being Coached

By January 29, 2012April 11th, 2014Running Times Magazine, Selected Essays

The need for an objective look at your fitness

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the January 2012 issue of Running Times Magazine

A couple of years ago I got an email from a famous runner who’s been much maligned, someone about whom everyone has an opinion. He wrote, “In the end, I guess the most important person we need to answer to is the face we see in the mirror every morning.”

It’s one of those things that people say. It’s a cliche. And unlike most cliches, it’s dead wrong.

Think about what happens when you look in the mirror. Many of us tend to focus only on the flaws: I’m getting more wrinkles. Or on what we can fix: How do I get rid of that zit? Or we look only at what pleases us: Hey, it’s a not-bad hair day.

I’ve known average or even plain men who can look in the mirror and say: “Dude, you’re a good-looking guy.”

The fact is, most of us are not our own best judges.

I started running at age 30, jogged for a couple of years, and then I met Peter, who had been the women’s track coach at Duke before Title IX. A grizzled biologist, Peter started coaching me. He’d write personalized progressive programs and most days we’d do the workouts together. We’d go to the track Tuesdays and Thursdays, and on the weekends we’d do long runs from his farm in Durham, N.C.

Old-school Peter believed that you shouldn’t run a marathon if you couldn’t finish in less than 3 1/2 hours. Too hard on the body to be out there longer, he’d say. So he trained me to run a marathon faster than 3:30. It was gratifying, in a way, to be told exactly what to do. I’d always had jobs where I’d have to figure things out on my own. I’m accustomed to many degrees of freedom and an expectation of creativity in most areas of my life; having to follow a precise and rigid schedule was weirdly liberating.

Until it started to feel constraining.

Peter didn’t understand that I couldn’t make running my priority. My job required travel and I often had to miss workouts. When I was injured, I didn’t have access to a pool for the cross-training Peter prescribed. The truth is, Peter’s programs didn’t fit with the realities of my life. My choice was either to change my life or disobey Peter. So I would have him coach me for a while, and then I’d “fire” him. But after some time passed, and I wanted to prepare for a race, I’d come crawling back and he’d write another program as if nothing had changed but my level of fitness.

We did this for a number of years. On long runs we’d discuss politics and science and art and war. He followed the sports medicine literature and reported on recent findings. I understood his training philosophy and understood, too, what didn’t work for me. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a real coach, but any success I had as a runner is due to the fact that I got started with someone as intellectual and rigorous as Peter.

With writing, we generally know what’s working, and we know, too, when something isn’t. We tell ourselves that maybe we’re wrong–it’s really OK. Or that maybe no one else will notice the problem. Because writing is so painful, we tend to let ourselves off the hook. Whenever anyone tells me that they love to write my response is always the same: I probably don’t want to read what you write. Those who care about the craft know that what’s easy to read was hard to write, and know, too, we aren’t our own best editors. Those who care about writing well seek readers who will speak uncomfortable truths and push us harder than we will push ourselves. Once you tell yourself you’re good enough, you won’t be.

Being coached was like having an editor. Peter knew me, as a runner, better than I knew myself. He made it impossible for me to believe my own ego-soothing lies.

Ten years ago I ran my marathon PR of 3:14. After that, as my times started slowing, I found other ways to make my running meaningful. I’d lead pace groups, or escort friends for the last 40 miles of their 100-mile races. I’d help beginning runners by getting them out the door for jogs. During this time, I’d still tell myself that if I wanted to run fast, I could. I was simply choosing not to.

For the past few years I’d stopped running hard. So when I was invited to the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST) “Adult Running Retreat,” I said No thanks. Bill Pierce, Ed.D., one of the authors of the book, Run Less, Run Faster, had extended an offer to come and have my fat measured, my VO2 maxed, and my lactate pushed to its threshold.

At a glance, the program looked like the running equivalent of the Twinkie Diet, a painless way to get faster. I’m skeptical of the quick and easy fix. I didn’t want to run less. I cherish my junk miles; they were keeping me somewhat sane.

That the program had been featured in Runner’s World led my hard-core friends to think it wasn’t for serious runners, and some lingering, recondite part of my self-image was hard-core. It was easy to say no.

But I got to know Bill Pierce when I gave a talk at Furman University, and I’d met his co-authors, Scott Murr and Ray Moss, and I knew these guys were nothing if not serious runners. Pierce, the long-time chair of the Health Sciences Department, is the kind of guy, intense and disciplined, who can make others feel twitchy about their too-human ways. He stopped eating junk food in 1984 and has never since looked longingly at cake or ice cream. His wife, a business professor and high-level administrator, cooks healthy low-fat meals and stores them in weighed-out portions.

Pierce and his co-authors created a running program. Amby Burfoot profiled it for Runner’s World in 2005 and Rodale published the book Run Less, Run Faster in 2007. It’s sold more than 70,000 copies and has been translated into German and Portuguese. The second edition will be out in April. Pierce is also a kind, smart and interesting man. Talking to him made me curious about the program, and so, as an experiment, I decided to check it out.

Twice a year, in March and May, 16 adults come to the FIRST retreat. This isn’t running camp; it’s more like corporate boot camp. The attendees are well-dressed, well-heeled and serious about knocking minutes off their marathons. Many have started in the last few years, often around a milestone birthday–40 or 50. Nearly everyone has had injuries. They arrive with specific goals, often to qualify for Boston or bust out a PR. They tend to be folks who were never on a team, never had the benefit of coaching.

Greenville, S.C., in March looks like spring. The Furman campus is country-club beautiful, with a palette of flora that shocks and delights. This is a place you want to come to.

But not to lie flat and have the DEXA machine take the most revealing pictures you can imagine of your body. This is so far from porn that you’d have to pay people to bootleg copies. You get a picture of exactly where your bones are dense and a breakdown of your body fat by region. I expected my overall percentage to be low and it was–at the good end of excellent. But after years of referring to my skinny ass, I was surprised to learn the largest portion of my blubber is in my butt. This made me want to do squats.

To analyze my gait, a perky professor of physical therapy pawed over my body, measuring angles of repose and extension. Then I had to get on a treadmill to run while being videotaped. This wasn’t so bad.

The bad part was the VO2 max test. A number of times I’ve been offered to have this expensive test done on me for free. I’ve always declined, because 1) I’m not convinced it’s a useful measure, and 2) It’s freaking painful.

Before you show up at the retreat, you’re supposed to fill out an extensive questionnaire. I refused to keep a four-day food diary. I don’t need to be told that my diet sucks; I understand that Cheez-Its and Tootsie Rolls aren’t at the base of most people’s food pyramids. So I missed out on the personal analysis that parses your diet.

When it came to answering questions about my running–which had been the equivalent of Cheez-Its and Tootsie Rolls–I was almost as unforthcoming.

In other words, I went with a bad attitude. We could say that it had something to do with the vagaries of a complicated life, including a recent breakup with a bad boyfriend, or we could say that it’s because I am recalcitrant and intractable. Plus, I kept maintaining, I didn’t care about getting faster.

I was wrong. The data showed, to my horror and humiliation, I was even less fit than I believed. My VO2 max score embarrassed me. The tests did show, however, that I’m capable of pushing myself hard. One of the indicators is the RER, the respiratory exchange rate. The fastest male runner and I tied for the highest scores in the group, both of us needing help off the treadmill at the end of the test. My lactate had gone crazy-high. So even though I was out of shape, I was, like most serious runners, capable of withstanding plenty of physical pain. This is something I knew but had forgotten.

Since I’d read Run Less, Run Faster before the retreat, I knew the program: three high-quality running workouts a week, two cross-training sessions, and some strength and flexibility thrown in. The idea is that you go hard every single time. The cross-training should be non-weight-bearing and intense–biking, rowing, swimming. The book is fat with tables that, based on your 5K time, give you the exact pace for each workout: Tuesday track, Thursday tempo, and Saturdays long and at a specific pace, faster than most people do their long runs.

Over the weekend I learned, to my surprise, that I wanted to get faster. During the retreat, I beat my test-predicted times and Bill had to keep adjusting my workouts. This pleased me. It almost made me want a do-over with the VO2 max test.

I came home committed to training and decided to exploit Pierce’s kindness. I had agreed to run on a Corporate Cup team for the Bloomsday 12K in Spokane in May and asked Bill to help me for the six weeks before the race.

He pointed me to specific tables in the book for a schedule, which I sort of followed. When the weather was good. After each workout, I’d email him the results and he’d make encouraging comments and adjust the times as I got more fit. At first, I refused to go to the track, and took my Garmin to the dog park for repeats on the trail. I told myself that because I was running on an uneven dirt surface and having to dodge bounding dogs, my intervals would translate to faster track times. When I suggested this to Bill, he was polite.

When, toward the end of my tempo runs, I wanted to slow or stop, I’d remember that I was going to have to report to my coach. I wanted not to disappoint him; I wanted, in fact, to run harder than he thought I could. So I pushed.

My Bloomsday time was only 5 seconds slower than two years before (back when I was training and still cared about time), and good enough for eighth place in my age group. My pace was about a minute faster than my VO2 max test 5K pace. In other words, I’d gotten fitter faster than I could have believed. I was running no more than three times a week–and not doing cross-training.

Two weeks afterward, I ran my fastest marathon in seven years, without proper training, and qualified for Boston 20 minutes under my age-group time. In my prime I would have considered the result a bad day, but now I was thrilled.

What I’d learned over the first two months is my endurance far exceeded my speed. This wasn’t a surprise, given that I’d been running long and slow for years. And I remembered what I already knew: Each workout has a different purpose. I needed real speed work, which meant going to the track and not the oval at the dog park. I found a group who did weekly workouts coached by the girls distance coach at running powerhouse Mead High School. Having other people to suffer with helped a lot, and being the slowest person on the track was a good motivator for a competitive overachiever.

The tempo runs were hard, but achievable. The long runs were unlike any long runs I’ve ever done. Slave to my watch, I watched each mile tick by with an anxious desire to beat the pace I was supposed to be running; these weren’t the Sunday morning outings I’ve done in the past. Now I was running with a purpose.

The point of the FIRST program is to get rid of junk miles and use the cross-training days to get off your feet and work your heart. I understand the reasoning but can’t follow the plan. I hate water and cycling hurts my butt. So I took the days off and ran only the workouts, with an occasional dog-accompanied trot and lots of hilly hiking. I’ve come to understand that my hard runs have to be hard. Because they are, I was often too tired to go every day. I prepared for the next one by resting.

It was painful to accept that if I want to meet goals, I have to forgo opportunities. Because I’m still me, however, there were some things I “had” to do. Against Bill’s advice, in July I ran a 50K in the mountains of Montana, and did a Ride and Tie race on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Trail running and horseback riding weren’t good for my training, but they soothed my psyche.

At the retreat, I’d told Bill I had no running goals. I was never going to beat my marathon PR, and I didn’t care about running shorter races. But the more I trained, the more satisfying I found it. Knowing exactly what I was supposed to do each day made life seem less chaotic. Meeting or exceeding the times mattered not because I was working toward some goal but because I liked reporting in to Bill. I loved that there was someone else who cared about my running. During my Bloomsday training I went to hear New Yorker writer Susan Orlean talk about her forthcoming book. She said to get it done, she paid an editor to call her every day just to ask how the work was going. At a different point in my life, I would have found this nutty.

The most important part of my post-FIRST retreat experience has nothing to do with physical results. It was the reminder of the value of coaching; having someone invested in what you do is the best cure for slacking off. Being accountable to Bill has remade me as a runner. I’m entering my 50s as fit as I’ve ever been and think of myself, once again, as an athlete in training.

I’m now excited to go to the track, and to do my long runs so hard I spend the afternoon whimpering. I’m competing again, eager to race, not just pay for a bib number and socialize. The required discipline has seeped into other aspects of life. My writing production has increased with my lactate threshold and my house is less messy.

Some puritanical part of me believed I shouldn’t have to ask for help, especially since, after two decades of running, I thought I knew all this stuff. Needing a coach seemed a sign of weakness. Somehow I managed to listen to Bill with a beginner’s mind. I would ask him questions I knew the answers to, but tried to convince myself I was wrong. I couldn’t dismiss what he said: If you trust someone enough to have them coach you, the least you can do is follow their advice (well, most of it).

What I learned, other than the obvious insight that if you want to run faster you have to run faster, is that being secure enough to ask for and receive help is a hallmark of growth and maturity. You receive a more realistic image of yourself than the one in the mirror. Sometimes it’s hard to face, but most of the time it feels like a gift.

Postscript: I finished the Tri-Cities Marathon in 3:31:20, 21 seconds slower than my target time. The woman in third place beat me by 13 seconds. I couldn’t tell if I should be disappointed. I decided no.

I loved going to the track. I loved the sense of being a serious athlete again. And, of course, I loved having a coach. In my younger years, I would have thought the gap between 3:29 and 3:31 was as wide as the Columbia River. Not now.