The poetic equation

My foothold is tenon’d and mortis’d in granite,

I laugh at what you call dissolution,

And I know the amplitude of time.

-Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 20 (1892)

Did Walt Whitman just write my coaching philosophy for me? I wouldn’t rule it out.

I am one up-to-date CPR certificate away from being an RRCA-certified running coach (that’s Road Runners Club of America), and I learned my lesson well at my training workshop last weekend: the coach’s job is to prepare the athlete for the physical and emotional demands of the distance. If we’re training someone for a marathon, we need to give them high weekly mileage that builds slowly over time, as well as marathon-specific workouts. In order to run a marathon in the time the athlete wants, the physiology says, they need to practice what they want to do in the race. That means marathon race pace, marathon race pace, marathon race pace. They need to practice going more slowly than they want to at the beginning so that they preserve the energy they’ll need when the going gets tough. They need to learn to stay focused and positive when the going gets tough. Physical demands, emotional demands. The coach takes the athlete’s fitness level at the beginning of the training cycle and writes an equation that will produce the desired result at the end of the cycle.

What information do we need to get from the athlete when we set out to write his or her training plan? The instructor asked this question and hands shot up all around the room. Their current fitness level, for one: how much are they running and at what pace (though I would argue that’s not enough information to determine fitness level, at all)? And of course their goal: what time do they want to see on the clock when they cross the finish line? I raised my hand and offered that we need to know what the athlete truly wants here (“they want to run 8-minute miles in the marathon, aren’t you paying attention?”). Why are they hiring a coach? Why are they signing up for this event? Why are they running marathons at all? What do they need to get?

In short (and I think this is where I crossed a line) is their drive towards “success” as a runner (for which fast finish times are, I guess, a proxy?") stemming from a secret desire to feel accepted and loved by [parents/spouse/society]? The instructor was not convinced that I needed to know these things - too much responsibility for me to take on as a running coach, he thought. “Remember that our job is to solve for the physical and emotional demands of the distance,” he repeated, “not the athlete.”

Here we are, RRCA Hyannis, June 2019. 30 more running coaches enter the world, pretending to be sharks.

Here we are, RRCA Hyannis, June 2019. 30 more running coaches enter the world, pretending to be sharks.

Ooh, but here’s the thing. Without questioning any of what I learned about exercise physiology, all of which was fascinating (and gave me an even greater appreciation for my own coach’s training plans and how precisely designed they are), I don’t think I have it in me to solve for the distance before I solve for the athlete. In part, that’s because I’ve been the athlete who did everything right in training from a physical standpoint and still got stood up on race day in a way that really shook me. I’ve also been the athlete who just assumed that I wasn’t working hard enough and took on MORE work, hoping that I could basically beat my body into submission day in and day out until I learned to just shut up and TAKE IT over 26 miles. I bought Pfitzinger and Douglas’s Advanced Marathoning, because harder workouts would result in better results! But you already know that that didn’t happen. Back then, I needed a coach who knew the distance and its demands, sure. But I also needed a coach who wanted to coach me as the person that I was, not me as the person I thought I needed to become. And I also needed a coach who would hear in the “right” answers I was giving (I wanted to work hard and get more better faster) the true answers that I wasn’t (I was afraid of being the unathletic one in the family forever unless I broke 4:00 in the marathon because that would really show everyone, right?).

I understand why the a certifying entity doesn’t want to tell aspiring coaches that they have to do that kind of work; all you have to do is take the athlete at his or her word when they come to you and say “I want to run a _ : __ marathon” and assess whether that’s realistic in whatever short term they’ve dictated. That’s part of the work. And yet, as I discovered in my struggle to make a fake training plan for a fake person who had only given me limited information (recently divorced and super into fitness, wants to run a 3:30 marathon in 12 weeks, currently runs 35-40 miles a week and does hella spin class and hot yoga), I wanted to know so much more. About where that 3:30 number came from, for one thing (the Boston qualifying standard for their age group, but do they actually want to run Boston - in which case we really need a 3:25 - or does just meeting the standard seem satisfying?). Also, how do their runs feel - is the 7:30-9:00 pace that they insist is their easy pace really easy for them, or are they basically redlining every workout? The pace numbers don’t mean as much as it’s tempting to think they do. but more importantly about what they got out of exercise in general. What are they getting out of what sounds to me like a pretty grueling weekly schedule (that much mileage plus yoga and spin is a LOT)? That little tease about their recent divorce - how is that playing out? Is there anything about this newfound commitment to high-intensity exercise coming from a place of trying to prove something? Trying to look a certain way? Trying to fit into a new community such that they will be loved and accepted? The response I got when I raised these questions seemed to be that I was overcomplicating matters - take the person at their word, train them for their 3:30 marathon, and shut up. But what if they run the 3:30 marathon and it doesn’t effect the change they were secretly hoping for? What if it’s 80 degrees on race day and the 3:30 doesn’t happen? What is that going to do to this athlete, and how can I help them be physically and emotionally prepared for all possible scenarios?

The athlete is not a series of variables in an equation, to me. The athlete is a text. The athlete is poetry. I have to read between the lines. Every detail matters (except for the ones that don’t). I have to be really, really curious and patient. I have to assume there is always more to learn, and I have to want to learn it. “To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,” as Walt says. “All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.”