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.

Whoever sneezed on me…

…a pox on both your houses!

I’ve managed to pick up my second cold of the year. Unusual for me since I rarely get sick. Or, rather, when I get ill, I get seriously ill. But that only happens about once every 10-15 years or so.

So, here I am, semi-horizontal, alternating between feeling sort of okay and feeling like garbage. My sister has introduced me to Gan Mao Ling, a Chinese herbal remedy for colds. I can’t say it’s helped with the malaise, but it has kept my head from turning into a phlegm machine. I’m sure it’s loaded with something like benzine or mercury or formaldehyde. Being from China and all.

Sister and niece are done with the rounds of colleges and are off gallivanting in the city. I skipped the Sarah Lawrence tour on Friday since I got sucked into three hours of phone meetings, then decided to go for a nine mile run. I’m sorry I missed it, because it sounded hilarious. It’s the most expensive private university in the country, with a tuition of $57,000 a year (that’s not a typo). The kids take three (three!) classes a year, one option of which is Playground Games. Yes, they actually play dodgeball, etc. with each other as part of the curriculum. The student tour guide also touted the vegan bar and its once per week availability of avocadoes. It’s hard to believe that Rahm Emanuel went there (dance major, no less), but truth is often stranger than fiction.

It’s actually probably good that I didn’t go, since I’m sure I would have had giggling fits and embarrassed my poor niece. So, it’s settled now — NYU is her first choice, Barnard second, and she’ll apply to some California schools as backup. I’m pleased that not only did she get the wanderlust gene, but that she’s wandering in the direction of New York. I think she should not stop here, but continue straight on to Europe. But it sounds like she’ll have ample opportunity to do that for a bit if she ends up at NYU.

I felt so crummy today that I decided I may as well do the work that’s been hanging over my head like a Microsoft Office-based sword of Damocles for the past few days. I have to give a presentation to an executive on Tuesday morning about my progress on a project that deals with a knowledge area in which I have very little understanding. In other words, I must do the corporate equivalent of faking my way through a tap-dancing audition. This is the second time I’ve been put on this project at my contracting gig at Massive Nameless Global Corporation. The first time around, I failed spectacularly (or at least I thought I did), but here I am, putting on my tap shoes again. I think it’s just that no one else wants to deal with it. At least it paves the way for another 12 month contract renewal for 2009.

Anyhoo, my PowerPoint presentation is done, my pithy speaker’s notes written, and the whole pitiful mess sent off to my manager for any last minute critiques. In other news, I had a nibble of interest on a content strategy/writing project at Huge Well Known Non-Profit Foundation — something that’s been dangling in mid-air for about four months. I figured it was dead in the water, but, no! It lives!

Also — I like to bury the lead — I hired a running coach. More on that in an upcoming post…

Life, and a little running

Not much posting of late as I’m playing host to my sister and niece as they tour some NYC area colleges for said niece to attend in about a year and half. It seems like just yesterday that my sister was visiting me while five months pregnant with Annie. Gads, how did I get so old so quickly?

I skipped the Barnard walkthrough yesterday in favor of a 12 miler, some shopping and a few hours of work. But today I went in with them to tour NYU. I went to NYU for my grad degree in the mid-nineties and it was interesting to see how differently they market to teenagers vs. adults. Teens (and parents) get an emphasis on safety, social/club opportunities, studying overseas and the ubiquity of free food. Graduate school prospects (at least in my dept.) were sold on professional networking, potential for good incomes and more professional networking. Snacks were never mentioned.

The rest of the day was spent at a display of gothic fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology (which was a great show, actually; I have a new appreciation for haute couture). Then a trip to TKTS to get them tickets to a show and then a stop at one of my all-time favorite places in the world (after the Swiss Alps), the Oyster Bar in Grand Central, where we ate very expensive oysters and I had the rare martini.

Tomorrow I’ll tag along on a tour of Sarah Lawrence, which is just down the road from us. Then the academic vetting is behind us and we can go have some more fun. Fortunately, my sister and niece share my morbid genes, so we have not one but two graveyard visits on the agenda (the Hartsdale Canine Cemetery AND Woodlawn!), as well as some more typical touristy stuff, like Ellis Island, the Brooklyn Bridge, et al.

Since this is a running blog, here’s the relevant running portion of this post: I ran around 48 miles last week, including two easy runs of nine miles (8:45ish pace) and a delightful 11 miler on Sunday that started slow and ended at an 8:00 pace). Not exactly hard running, true, but enough to feel like an effort. I expect I’ll have around the same mileage this week. My legs feel good and I’m looking forward to gearing up for the next training cycle as well as doing some winter racing.

In other notes, I’m always reading a running-related book. On Ewen‘s recommendation, I picked up an out of print copy of “Guide to Running” by Grete Waitz and Gloria Averbuch. This book is utterly charming. It’s a combination of memoir, training guide, cultural criticism and “lifestyle” guide (which has the effect of making me wish I lived in Norway, at least circa 1980). There are even recipes for making Norwegian snacks (although you’ll need to find gjestost).

English is not Waitz’s native language, obviously, but that’s part of what makes her writing voice so appealing. She is also remarkably frank when talking about what it was like to be thrown into world-stage competition as a teenager, the pressure to medal “for country,” and her discomfort with fame. As an added treat, you can pick up lots of great little Norwegian sayings (“It’s so secret; it’s no secret” and “Hurry slowly”). Maybe it’s having a distant Norwegian heritage that makes me slightly biased, but this is a great little read.

Pinch me. Is sanity restored?

I’ll let my political beads drop. I am ecstatic — ecstatic, I tell you — with Tuesday’s election results. A blue sweep across New England, a blue sweep of both houses of Congress, and…a black family on the White House Christmas card!

I went out for a run on Tuesday morning to try to get my mind off the fact that it was pointless to watch television until at least 8PM. There was definitely something in the air. People were walking around with smiles on their faces. We all knew. We all just knew. And we were all in really good moods.

If this keeps up, we’ll have a woman and an atheist president (perhaps in the same person?) in my lifetime. The only dark cloud was the passage of gay marriage bans in states that should know better. So I’ll add “gay, lesbian or bisexual person” (heck, let’s throw in transgendered as long as we’re dreaming) to my list of people who need to be president before I die.

The Rabid Fox 5K

There’s a great idea for a race in here somewhere.

2008 NY Marathon: the view from the curb*

What’s more exciting: running a marathon or watching one? You can’t do both at the same time. But you should do at least one or the other once in your life. I’ve done the former four times, and now, the latter once. Here, I provide my awestruck impressions of watching the fastest people in the world running within 10 feet of me yesterday morning.

First of all, it was a total pain in the ass to get to the Bronx yesterday. I did it the wrong way, taking a train to Fordham and then walking about a half mile along Fordham Rd to the 4 line. That took forever to arrive and then I discovered that it doesn’t stop at 138th St, where I wanted to be. So I had to get off at 149th, walk into the bowels of the subway system to catch the local 5 train and endure another 15 minute wait in a rat- and cockroach-infested dungeon. I found myself wondering if it was all worth it.

Here’s the right way to get there from Westchester: Take the train to 125th St, walk two blocks, then hop on the 6 line north for one stop to 138th St and 3rd Ave in the Bronx.

I arrived at about 10:30 and milled around for 20 minutes, carefully setting up my camera to take poor quality pictures. I planted myself on 138th, just east of 3rd Ave (and just after the 20 mile mark), before a water table, thinking perhaps they’d slow a bit at that spot.

This little area was not the “dead zone” in terms of spectators I’d expected. There was a crowd on 3rd Ave and a band, and a few pockets of people to the west. But it wasn’t like the scene on 125th St in Harlem, where I went and hung out after I’d seen all the elites go by.

Here I will admit that I suck as a photographer. I may have learned never to experiment with new shoes or fueling strategies for the marathon, but I threw caution to the wind yesterday and experimented with the camera that I don’t know how to use properly. I tried the “burst” mode, which I thought would take a series of full sized shots of each runner in motion. Instead, I got a series of postage stamp sized shots. All of my runners are tiny.

So, I’m not going to embarrass myself further by uploading tiny photos. Especially when there’s a perfectly good series right here. Since I have no intention of running this race in the near future, I’ll go watch again next year and I’ll learn to use my camera properly by then.

The elite women

The excitement builds in the minutes before the first runners arrive. Someone barked “Ten minutes!” into a bullhorn at 10:50. Then, at 10:55, a new update: “Radcliffe first, Petrova second, Goucher third.” A few minutes later, we saw and heard the helicopter, followed by the roar of police motorcycles. They came around the corner and there was so much noise and activity that the two runners (Radcliffe and Petrova) were lost in the mayhem around them. The motorcycles and camera truck passed and suddenly it seemed very quiet.

The two women passed by me and I was struck by the fact that I could actually hear them breathing. Radcliffe, although only 5’8″, seems much larger in person. And she runs like a fucking machine. Petrova was hanging off her shoulder, looking like a little bobbing tugboat, but a tenacious one. One look at Paula and you knew she was going to win. Goucher came through about 15 seconds later, also looking larger than life, and wearing a facial expression that was, paradoxically, both relaxed and determined.

Incidentally, Petrova, 40, broke Priscilla Welch’s 1987 masters world record for the marathon yesterday by over a minute, with a finishing time of 2:25:43. I don’t think this was mentioned once in the televised coverage, which was too bad.

Tune came through shortly thereafter, followed by Wami (who is one of the most light-on-her-feet runners I’ve ever seen, and tiny). I was expecting Catherine “The Great” Ndereba next, but instead saw Jeptoo. Then a few others: Simon, McGregor and Morgunova. Then a big pause and the last few women who I would recognize came through: Lewy-Boulet, Scotswoman Hayley Haining (who is built like a tank; I wonder if that’s what I look like under my 24% body fat) and 19-year-old newcomer Ilsa Paulson, who is a tiny little wisp of a woman. I was disappointed to not see Kim Smith of New Zealand; it appears she dropped out just after the 30K mark.

The elite men

With the second-tier elite women straggling in one by one, the excitement began to build anew: In a few minutes, the elite men would start coming through. Once again, you could tell when the moment was near, with the arrival of a helicopter and phalanx of cops on bikes.

I was rooting for the Brazilian, Gomes Dos Santos, to win — and here he was in the lead! Goumri was right on his heels and looking very strong. Next up: Bouramdane, Tergat, Rono, Kirui, Macharia. And, finally, some Americas: Abdi, Rohatinsky, Lemkuhle. After that, I stopped recognizing people, with one exception: I saw James Carney, who looked awful. He was jogging along, looking slightly bewildered. He turned and asked another runner, who was passing, a question, and I thought, “He’s about to drop out.” When I got home and watched the coverage, I could see what happened: He went nuts and led the pack from the start, running like a rocket straight into a head wind for the first half mile or so.

Some familiar faces

Just a few: Takashi Ogawa, a friendly age group rival of Jonathan’s, was powering his way through to a 2:50 finish. He looked good when I saw him. A few minutes behind him, I spotted Zola Budd. She is no longer the barefooted rail that she was during her cross-country and track days. Perhaps 20 pounds heavier, she still managed to break three hours in her first marathon yesterday. Finally, after I switched positions to go watch the throngs in Harlem, I saw fellow running blogger Pigtails Flying (who I have not met, but who sent me a picture so I could look for her). She also ran a huge PR yesterday (42 minutes!), breaking 3:55. Go Pigtails!

*In honor of Paula Radcliffe, maybe I should say “kerb.”

The problem of losing fitness

And I’m not talking about running fitness. I’m talking, of course, about drinking fitness.

Since I’ve been watching the calories to keep from becoming even more manatee-like during these weeks of post-race recovery, I had not a drop of alcohol all week. Until last night. I thought I was being restrained: two sets of a beer and a vodka shot (a trashy favorite of mine; Yuengling and Svedka, if you must know). I thought I’d be fine.

Woke up at 4:30 with a raging headache. I managed to get back to sleep until about 8:00, but felt like warmed over Alpo. I was surprised — I’m a complete lightweight after a mere week!

Since I had a 10 mile run scheduled for this morning, I forced myself out the door at 10:30 and, lo, it was good. I managed an 8:29 pace at 80% max heart rate. Over a somewhat hilly course, no less.

I still have a headache, but I feel much better than I did a few hours ago. Honestly, if you can get your head out of the toilet and your ass out on the road, a good run does wonders for a hangover.

I’m planning to go out and watch the NYC marathon from the sidelines tomorrow. I’ve never actually “spectated” a marathon before, so I’m curious. It’s also probably the best assemblage of elite women in the race’s history. How can I sit at home and miss seeing them fly by live? I’m going to hang out in the Bronx near the Willis Avenue Bridge: Mile 20, aka “The Wall”. Since this is the point in the race where a runner’s fate over the remaining miles becomes most evident, I’m hoping it will offer a dramatic vantage point, both for watching the elite men and women as well as the “Joe the Runners” who will follow them. If I get some good snaps, I’ll post them here.