Training with a running coach can change a person’s life in more ways than one. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation in preparation for my first career track, I needed to learn how to experience my work (and, by extension, my life) like the cliché goes: as a marathon, not a sprint. I was worn down and tired and I am a sprinter, metaphorically-speaking and in terms of body type, so learning this lesson took some doing on my part. But my dissertation was clocking in at just under three hundred pages, I was teaching three classes per term at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque (a job I loved very much, labor-intensive though it was) and I was preparing to enter the academic job market the following year, which would be when–as it happened–right as the hiring numbers took a swan dive.
I needed to learn how to pace myself and I needed to be able to focus on the right-in-front-of-me as I struggled to make it towards a faraway and nebulous finish line that, at the time, wasn’t even a blip on my horizon. I didn’t quite know what to do, to be honest, and the stress was breaking me. However–and this will never change–I am a fighter and I am strategic. So I thought it out and, after considerable deliberation, I decided to find a running coach.
Why on earth would this be so radical?
Well, I am an awful runner, for one thing. When I started to train I gravitated towards the gym without even really thinking about it. I fell in love with the weight room immediately and I found a lot of support and camaraderie within the bodybuilding community. Running had never been on my radar. I don’t have the body shape for it and I never was attracted to it. But what I needed was to find a new sport and it had to be something…well, something that I’d be terrible at, funny as that may sound. I am super competitive, so if I started working with a bodybuilder as my trainer (as I had done in the past and would indeed do again in the future) I knew that I would get really driven to get rid of my dissertation-writer’s burgeoning pudginess and to achieve my fitness physique again. I didn’t have the time or energy for that, though. So I figured that if I tried something that I had no way of really being good at, then I could be semi-ferocious but not 110% competitive. Maybe I could just enjoy what I was doing and not try to be the best at it, I thought. So–decision made–I went to my usual gym and asked for a running coach as a trainer, rather than a bodybuilder. And this is how I met my Coach Shaun.
When we had our interview to see if we were a right fit for each other, I told him that I needed to get my inner ferocity back. Normally, I told him, I am a total ferocious tiger when it came to goals and competition and iron self-discipline. But lately, I explained, I was tired and overwhelmed and way too frozen by anxiety. My inner tiger felt like it was gone, disappeared, crushed. And if I have no goals to work towards I am not happy but the goals for my career were too far away and I needed some structure and something to work for right then and there. I said that I have never been a runner so I wanted to aspire to a couple things that we could achieve after at least three but probably more likely six months of training. We had to go into it knowing that I’m not going to be wonderful, but that I would be dedicated. I just wanted to get my inner tiger roaring again, that was all.
Shaun and I ended up sticking with each other for my final year at UNM and, even now, over a decade later, his lessons are still with me and remain valuable to this day. And as I’m really getting into gear with my second career, I’m revisiting the things I learned from my coach. This isn’t going to be the last Coach Shaun blog post by far–there is so much to say about the things I learned from our training.
Isn’t that how a great coach is, though? You learn things you keep for life. And if it’s really a good exchange, the coach will learn and remember, too.
We decided that my goal could be to run a mile under eight minutes and a 5k race in under 30 minutes. To these ends, I met with him for private coaching once a week and I ran with his running club at least a couple times per month. We quickly realized that learning how to run a sub-eight mile for me was going to be a huge task, as would a sub-30 5k race. What I loved best about Shaun though was that he understood me. He understood my personality and what I needed. I have always been aggressively competitive–not against others, but instead against myself. I want to be the best at what I do and I love to compete with myself as I achieve my goals.
Shaun was in Albuquerque for his own personal reasons at the time but he is from Australia. He ran for their national team at the Olympics in 1996 and 2000, and he broke Australian records for the 3000m Steeple and the the 10,000m. Of all the funny places, Albuquerque is a hotspot for distance runners because the high altitude makes it a great location to train and it’s cheap to live there. So Shaun at the time was continuing to train for his own purposes and he coached running clients with a variety of different goals and needs. I like to think that I was one of his favorites, even though I was technically one of his least talented. As mentioned above, though, I was fierce and competitive and determined and that, in my opinion, counts for a lot. And the day of the 5k came quickly. I first ran a 3k, by myself though he was there and competing (so he finished before I got to the 1k mark) and my time was respectable. For the 5k, though, I was nervous but my coach ran with me to pace me. He also took pictures, which was kind of funny if you think about it–for me, this was a huge deal and for him, it was just a jog in the park.
And as I look back on it now, I think that what I loved the most about Shaun was that he recognized me and saw me for who I truly am. He understood me and he celebrated me for being aggressive and driven. He used to say that he’d never met a regular person (as opposed to an elite athlete) who was as competitive as I am, and he would say this as a compliment. That meant so much to me! It’s been rare in my life that I’ve been supported for this characteristic and it is pretty intrinsic to my being. I realized, from our conversations on this topic, that there was nothing wrong with me and that my personality was just fine as it was. Shaun even used to say that if someone had paid attention when I was younger and noticed that I was fast, that I could have been an elite sprinter. This, too, made me happy. I didn’t know it before we started but I learned: I LOVE to sprint and I am FAST.
The day of the race was hot and dry–typical New Mexico weather. Just before I got in my car to drive out to the race site I got bitten by a fire ant on my leg. When I got to the race I was good and anxious and the lump on my quad was getting bigger and redder by the minute. But damn it, I was going to make my time and so I ignored any and all distraction. The race got off to a great start, and even though I was nervous about my ability to keep pace for the full half hour, I had my coach with me and that was all that mattered. As I think back on it, I can remember the camaraderie and energy of the event–people were there to have fun. And though it wasn’t an obstacle course by any stretch of the imagination, the heat and the dust did make things challenging.
The first half of the race was pretty easy. Really, all I worried about was how things would go at the end–would I be able to hold back and not tire myself out early so that I could sprint the way I loved to at the end? I knew that if I had enough reserve left for the very last bit, I’d be fine. For me, though, judging that balance between fast enough and not too fast was not at all easy. What tired me out, even then, was the effort to plan things out just right. And as I ponder things now, I have to say that this is something I still think about and refine as the course of my life unfolds. And I’m not alone in this. I see it in my coaching and training clients and I see it in friends and associates. Don’t we all work at pacing ourselves and learning right balance? I think that the answer to that is a resounding “Yes!” But practice makes perfect and clichés become so for a reason. My personality as a sprinter within a life that’s a marathon is a work in progress and a great one, at that.
As I got to the second half and started rounding towards the end I got really tired. Yes, I was keeping a good pace and no, I was definitely not the slowest runner on the course, but the final stretch was up a slight hill and a dust storm started to kick up. There was one guy behind me that was making pace at about the same rate as me and I left a good few people behind…and a significant number of runners zipped right on by me. But all I cared about was that I was staying in my own lane and staying the course. And–most of all-it was here that the urge to perform well for my coach kicked in and it kicked in hard. I wanted so badly to make time, not just for me but for Shaun. The dust was blowing and my legs were aching and my lungs were burning but I wasn’t going to give up.
I can’t remember now–though Shaun might–which goal we achieved first: the 5k or the sub-8 mile. And my sub-8 minute mile and my coach’s lessons (and his great mantras that he’d write out for me that I STILL HAVE TO THIS DAY because yes, they are THAT AWESOME) are for another blog post. Today is the day for some memories of the 5k and a few of the fun pictures, blurry as they may be.
At the very end, as I was rounding into the final stretch, I started to feel like I wasn’t going to make it. Yes, I knew I’d finish–that wasn’t the issue at all. But would I make it in at under thirty minutes? Truly, I am not a runner. I’m short, I’m hourglass shaped, and I spent my late teens and my twenties being trained to put on muscle and not do anything with it other than to stand in a pose and look good. I am one big fast-twitch muscle fiber too, so if it’s not a sprint, it goes against my grain on a physiological level. In sum: nature and nurture hadn’t ever been on my side for running. But the other side of the coin made things just as propitious for me to succeed: great training by my Coach Shaun, my same body but funneled into the right running speed, and my intrinsic personality all came together to make things work. In final blast of iron self-discipline, I remember letting fly just when Coach told me to do, running as fast as I could and feeling like my lungs would explode from the effort and my heart would burst with the joy of competition and ferocity and success. Coach Shaun used to say that he loved watching me on the final sprint to finish whatever distance he’d set me to for the day because then, he said, I was in my element. And it’s true–I do love that crazy, outrageously fast burst of energy more than words can say. Even now, and as I write, I know that it’s time for me to connect once again with my inner tiger.
What about you? Do you need to connect or reconnect with your inner tiger?
Looking back on this particular day and remembering my coach right now (as the rain comes pouring down outside and the thunder rumbles on a mid-May morning in Austin, TX) makes me smile and wonder at the age-old nature vs. nurture question, too. How much of it is what we are and how much of it is how we are shaped and trained? And what can (and what will) I do–now that I am about to finish my second round of graduate school–so that my life’s marathon and its intermittent sprints are in right balance for a strong finish (and a good recuperation for the next leg of the journey)?
If you want to read the answers to these questions, stay tuned for more Coach Shaun stories to come…
Happy trails and good running to one and all, meantime ❤ ❤
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