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 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.

8 Responses

  1. How utterly exciting! I applaud your reasoning for hiring him – excellent writing skills are proof of a good brain and that’s a requirement for someone telling you what to do. I will be locked onto your blog from here on in (not that I wasn’t already, but now I’ll be drooling, too).

    Interesting that he’s doing away with doubles, I’m curious to see how you’ll like that. I never did know if you enjoyed doing doubles or if it was just something you accepted. They always sound chore-like to me, so I’d be thrilled with no doubles, but then…I’m nowhere near your mileage level yet, so that’s only conjecture on my part.

    Anyway, congrats on the choice, I’m sure it was the smartest think you could do at this point and the quickest way to new heights. Woohoo!

  2. Don’t get me wrong — there will be doubles, just not nearly daily like I was doing. About a month from now, I’ll be doing doubles once or twice a week (because that’s probably the only way to safely get the mileage up there).

    And remember that this is just basebuilding (which is a little frightening, considering that I’ve got three+ “quality” days a week to look forward to). Apparently more doubles are on the horizon when we get toward the peak of training in the spring.

    The best time to try doubles, I think, is when you’re running relatively low mileage. See if you like it before assuming that you won’t.

  3. I didn’t even realize this was basebuilding. Wow! Three quality days is going to make you one super strong woman by the time peak rolls around! I can’t wait to train vicariously through you.

    Smart advice on the doubles. I’m inherently lazy so we’ll see how much mileage I ever get to. I know if I ever want to do anything interesting, I’ll have to, but if running becomes a grind (my fear), I’ll settle with mediocre mileage. 🙂

    What’s your feeling on high mileage living? Has it been enjoyable for the most part?

  4. Well, I’d much rather engage in high income living, but high mileage living is okay. It was tough this summer, because I’m just one of those people who doesn’t run well in heat and humidity. I love running in the cold, so I’m chuffed to get up to 90 mpw again in the dead of winter.

    High mileage, if it doesn’t injure or exhaust you, is better than not running enough miles. That’s why I’m doing it. I know it can take years to get completely adjusted to it and reap the full benefits. That’s where the “enjoyment” will come in, for the most part.

    I did get used to running twice a day and came to look forward to its head-clearing properties. But I’m enjoying having one longer run — I love a good 8-12 miler before work, and with this plan, my wish is granted more days than not.

  5. From what I know of him, you’ve made a good choice. The big thing is trusting the coach, trusting their training philosophy, and being willing to put yourself in their hands.

    Give him detailed honest feedback on how you’re feeling; coping with the sessions and weeks. I think you’ll do well. Better with Kevin than the Russian!

    My one experience with being coached was positive (I selected a good coach) – most of my PBs were run at that time of my running life.

  6. Verry good choiche you make for training, good luck!.
    Groet Rinus.

  7. […] run faster! You’re fitter now!” I know that it’s the mileage plus faster running over the past eight weeks that led to this bump in fitness. What’s interesting is how such advancements sometimes make […]

  8. […] Two years ago,  I hired my first coach. I was still on a post-race high from running 3:19 at Steamtown. I also had a cold. […]

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