Getting professional help

I hired a coach about two weeks ago: Kevin Beck. He was one name on a short list of other possibilities, all of whom I ultimately rejected for various reasons. More on that in a moment.

Why did I hire a coach?

But first a note about why I decided to work with a coach. Over the last couple of years that I’ve been training for and racing marathons, my finishing times have steadily (and dramatically) improved. But something went very wrong for the last race, in terms of the training and my experience of the race itself. I never felt adequately rested during training, nor did I feel that my “quality” workouts were going well. For months I had a nagging suspicion that I wasn’t as fit as I wanted to be, something that was confirmed on race day when I succumbed to fatigue in the last eight miles of the race.

A few years ago, a friend of mine went to see a strange Russian man whose business was helping people to stop smoking once and for all. The “treatment” consisted of going into a room with five or six other clients, handing the Russian a crisp, new $100 dollar bill, closing your eyes, and hearing the Russian say to you, “When I snap my fingers, you will have lost all desire to ever smoke again.” Sounds hokey (and a little shady), but it worked for her.

The reason I share this story isn’t because I think there was anything magical the Russian did. The effectiveness of the treatment had everything to do with the power of suggestion. Going to see some weird Russian to stop smoking, deciding to go to a therapist for help, hiring a coach — they all share the element of a catalytic action, and the raised expectations that come from having taken it. In some ways, I feel that’s just as important as the guidance you get. And, in the end, you’re the one doing all the work. Sometimes the thing you need most is for someone to say “go.”

Why did I hire Kevin?

I don’t know how you people shop for goods and services, but here’s what I tend to do: I decide I want to buy something. Then I look at what’s usually a pretty small universe of candidates. At some point fairly early in the shopping process, some thing (or combination of things) tips my interest in the direction of one candidate. At that point, although I’ll continue to do some research on the others, that activity drops off a cliff and I’m basically looking for reasons not to go with my favored choice.

I had a few leads on other coaches, some of them quite well-known, but I rejected them all for various reasons, including:

  • A young woman posted to LetsRun.com about her experience of approaching one of the coaches on my list and offering to pay him upwards of $500 a month for his services. His response was to suggest she work with one of his runners instead. Her response? I want an actual coach, not another runner helping me.
  • One of the coaches I was considering wrote a recent article that was so poorly written that I actually complained to the editor in chief. If I’m going to work with someone remotely, he or she needs to be a skilled and conscientious communicator.
  • I checked out the “remote coaching” site for another well-known person, but (and this will sound odd), it just looked too slick. My impression was “coaching mill.” I just got the sense that I’d get a training plan that might be slightly more individualized than what I’d get out of book, but not much more.

While I was busy rejecting the other candidates for these and other reasons, I had other forces tipping me toward Kevin. They included:

  • The fact that another writer/blogger whom I respect, Matt Fitzgerald, had also decided to start working with him. Realizing that a guy who writes books about training is working with a coach was sort of equivalent to the time I read about the fact that Adam Clayton (U2′s bassist) still takes bass lessons.
  • Kevin coaches through Pete Pfitzinger’s online DistanceCoach site. Pfitz’s book with Scott Douglas, Advanced Marathoning, is (in my humble opinion) one of the best training books ever written. Using it resulted in my best marathon experience (and biggest PR) thus far. So Pete, and anyone associated with him, can do no wrong.*
  • I have enjoyed Kevin’s writings over the years, most notably in Running Times. Here’s a particularly good article, but a Google or Running Times search will yield other goodies too. I also loved this page on his site for the clues it yields on his approach to running (and, presumably, coaching), specifically this snippet (emphasis is mine):

There will always be those who do not adopt mad training regimens simply because they do not want to. There are no demons flitting about compelling them to do more, ever more, and to make running a top priority in the face of swirling relationships, occupational and scholastic concerns, and what have you. These are legitimate issues often at odds with consistent training. And I do not believe that a runner can be taught to hunger the way some of us do. It may be as innate as the color of our eyes. It is not something upon which judgment need be placed or for which merit points ought to be allotted. There are runners and there are competitive runners, and there are racers.

Don’t get me wrong. I love running for its whole spectrum of benefits and the range of experiences I’ve had, many of them outside the competitive milieu. But I have one basic reason for doing what I do. The rest is gravy, basting the raw, tough, but often tender and delicious meat of competing against the rag-tag army of my alleged constraints — going into some awful yet welcoming zone, headed straight into downtown Hell to rip it up yet another time.

Once I’d gotten to the point where I was ready to look for reasons not to hire Kevin, I submitted him to a grueling litany of emailed questions. He answered them all in great detail (and with humor and humility, which was a bonus). Besides, he’s a writer. So he likes to write and writes well. As a writer myself, I’ll always be biased toward a writer in any area where I have a choice. The pre-PayPal phone call sealed the deal.

What did I get?

My next marathon is roughly seven months away, so I wasn’t ready to leap into a 31-week training program. Instead, I asked for a plan to rebuild my mileage over the next couple of months to lay the groundwork for the eventual training plan I’ll get. And I’m glad I did. The plan is radically different from what I designed for myself last time around: it’s high mileage, but with almost no doubles. It features lots of longer runs, pretty much every day, and a ton of shorter, faster work incorporated into at least three runs per week. Matt F. has a good summary (although, obviously, his plan has been customized in ways that are quite different from my own).

Three days in and so far, so good. I’m handling the challenging runs (despite running with the tail end of a cold) and feeling better than I did when I was grinding out doubles every day. On the other hand, I’m coming off five weeks of recovery, so come back in about a month…

*Incidentally, Kevin’s also written a book, Run Strong, which I have not yet read, but I will soon.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 36 other followers