An Ode to Great Coaches
Get you a coach!
I’ve had the blessing of having coaches all throughout different parts of my life. My first ever coach (besides my momma!) was a woman named Dot Harrop. The very first time I met her was the day I tried out for the field hockey team back in 1989. I was a new student at a boarding school in Dobbs Ferry, NY, and all I wanted was to be part of a team.
The first assignment Dot gave us was to warm up – five loops around the grassy field. I started out fast with all the other girls, but quickly ran out of breath before I had even finished one loop! I came in second to last on the warm-up and was stunned. It had been so difficult for me. We stretched and then did a timed mile, followed by what seemed like hundreds of speed, dribbling, and drive drills. During the line drills (which used to be called suicides), I was having a lot of trouble. I walked, I sprinted, I keeled over, on repeat for many rounds.
Coach Harrop had been running all over the field visiting with each new girl as we huffed and puffed our way through repeated sprints with no recovery. It was my turn for a visit.
Oh no. I don’t want to hear what she’s going to say.
She ran up to me, short hair bobbing with her light and easy gait. I was slogging my way through grass in shoes that were not meant for running, and certainly not on grass.
“Hey! You’re Mirna, right?”
I nodded, because I couldn’t breathe or talk.
“This is hard right?” she said, running backwards, confidently.
I nodded again, on the verge of crying because it was so hard, and I knew she was coming to tell me that I couldn't be on the team because I was so slow.
“Well, you’re doing it. Obviously you want to be here because you are working hard. Keep up the great work.” We high-fived and she went on to visit another new girl.
I was stunned, again. But this time it was because she hadn’t yelled at me or told me that I wasn’t good enough. She knew I was new at all of it. She acknowledged where I was and didn’t penalize me for being new. Also, she believed in me. And that was just in one interaction. I vowed to do whatever I could to stay on that team and prove that she was right to allow me to be a field hockey player.
In fact, the day after, I headed out to the field at six in the morning and did the five loops of the field by myself. There had been so much running the day before that I figured I should probably learn how to do it. I’ve always been a self-directed person, but hearing the coach’s words in my head pushed me even further in my own training. “Obviously you want to be here because you are working hard.” I don’t know what kind of psychology this is, but it worked!
I became a runner that year because I knew that it made me a better athlete, a better team member, and dare I say, a better person? Yes – all of the above! What I learned from Coach Harrop was and continues to be valuable to me.
Fast forward many years, and I am suddenly on the Hyland’s Boston Marathon Teacher’s Team. We had the option of working with the team coach, Mike Ehredt. I hadn’t worked with a coach since the late 90s, but in the intervening years I had become a run coach myself and delighted in writing my own mostly successful, if quirky, training plans for the nine marathons I had already run.
I was skeptical at first – did I really need a coach? I had been doing just fine, mostly, and my biggest concern was this: too many times people had looked at me and written me off as a non-athlete. They saw my marathon completions as twice or thrice-yearly flukes. They asked if I actually trained or if I just decided a couple of times a year to “run” – and they’d use big air quotes for this – a marathon.
As soon as I got off the phone with Coach Mike, I was both scared and amused. “This guy doesn’t know me, but we’ll see. He’s nice enough...”
The first two weeks of my training plan were easy, too easy. “Who does this guy think I am? I eat this mileage for BREAKFAST!” I complained to all my friends. “This guy thinks I’m a novice. I don’t know if this is going to work.”
But I did what he asked anyway, because the Boston Marathon is high stakes, even if you don’t have to BQ.
Then came the third week. “WHO DOES THIS GUY THINK I AM? I CAN’T DO THIS! DOES HE THINK I CAN ACTUALLY RUN THIS MILEAGE? HE IS NUTS!
I complained to all my friends, who looked at weeks 2-4 of my training plan with raised eyebrows as if to say, “Um, good luck with that!”
I did the mileage over the next two weeks. I had previously stuck with three kinds of workouts: a day of intervals and/or repeats, a few easy days, and my favorite – the long run. I excelled at the long run. I would run all day if I could!
Mike lengthened my weekday runs, mixed in hill repeats, intervals, and tempo runs. He also reduced the distance of my long runs. Somehow the mileage was much more than I had ever done in training.
I had just done the Marine Corps Marathon followed a few weeks by the NYRR 60K, so there were no crazy jumps in actual mileage. Of course, I figured this out a little later, after being indignant and shocked.
But guess what? I was able to do the mileage by restructuring my days, sometimes doubling up and running both morning and afternoon. I found I had more energy for my long runs, and that I could, if I wanted, lengthen them without being too tired. My mile time dropped, and I found myself running easier and lighter.
About two months before Boston, there was a serious buildup, and one week’s mileage was fifty miles. Now, for many marathoners, that number is quite normal, maybe even low. But aside from the one 100K race I had completed, I had never done that many miles in training.
WHEW! This guy is crazy. I hadn’t yet met Coach Mike in real life, but I just knew he was nuts. Did he really think I could do this? There was no question about whether I should do it – that, I had learned from training with him over the past few months. But could I actually do this? It would mean running doubles a few times that week. It didn’t help that I had to travel quite a bit that week, so I had to make it work. I didn’t want to disappoint Coach, but I really wasn’t interested in disappointing myself either.
I ran at home on my treadmill before my flight, at the hotel before dinner, and again in the morning before a long day of speaking and workshopping. I flew to another spot that week for another event and found a two-mile trail near my hotel. I ran loops of that trail in the afternoons and ran on the treadmill in the hotel gym in the mornings. That weekend I found myself running eight loops before a friend’s wedding so I could finish out the mileage Coach had assigned.
I finished. I thought it was miraculous.
“Mirna!” Coach said on our biweekly phone call, soon after.
“So you assigned 50 miles, MIKE.”
“Yep, I did. So did you do it?”
“Yeah, fine, I did it.”
“I knew you’d do it. How do you feel?”
“Fine, Mike. I feel fine.”
And it was true, I felt fine. Actually, I felt GREAT. I was in the best running shape I had ever been in. I was able to run hard-for-me-miles and recover quickly. I started to really enjoy doubling up on runs during the week – I actually looked forward to those days. I was a new runner, with stronger legs, a more expansive heart, and a new appreciation for the wisdom and experience of a coach that gave a damn about my progress. He’s a coach that looks at where you are and builds from there. He expects a lot, and expects you to be honest with yourself, to check in with yourself. Sometimes he’ll pull the rug out from under you and put a surprise in, but only when you’re ready. You may not know or think you’re ready, but trust me, Mike knows.
I will never forget the week that I spent with him and his family in Idaho. This guy can coach with his eyes closed. He’ll be quiet and let you struggle up a mountain at high altitude without even glancing back. Then at dinner that night he’ll go through every quarter of a mile: when your heart rate finally stabilized, what your gait looked like on that one hill climb… (“That one hill climb? It was all hill climbs Mike!!”) …how you could improve your trekking pole technique (this one involved some light-hearted cajoling, i.e., your form was great until it wasn’t, etc. I had never been pushed this hard since high school, except for maybe the time I got to run with an Olympian one-on-one and she pushed me to run my first distance over three miles.
The first day on that mountain with the “one hill climb,” Mike kept the pace, which I’m sure was pretty slow for him, but hellish for me. Even more than not wanting to let him down, I knew that he believed in me and that he wouldn’t set a pace that I couldn’t do. I may have said some untoward things to him under my breath, but I soldiered on. I mean, why wouldn’t I? With his honest, clear-eyed but big-goal-chasing, realistic coaching, I knew what I could do. I also knew where I could and should push myself. And I still had a lot to learn from this guy.
When coaches are great, they become an integral part not just of your athletic life, but every other part of your life as well. They influence your thinking, they ask you about your progress on your second book, and they force you to look within when times get tough. This is especially valuable when they hear you fall behind them, ask if you’re okay without looking back (because they know you’re fine), and force you to keep moving down the path to your own personal greatness.
Two years ago, I saw Coach Harrop at a school I was speaking at, and with teary eyes told her how she was responsible for my running career. Her beautiful coaching and gentle spirit had done that.She looked at me and said, “Wow, Mirna! I’m so proud of all you’ve done. I might have helped a little, but it was all you. You worked hard and when you saw an opportunity to improve, you did it, on your own, with guidance when you needed it.”
I’ve been through my ups and downs (more downs in the past two years!) with various injuries and fatigue from the awesome work I get to do, causing disruptions in my running life. But I will never again doubt the efficacy and benefit of an excellent, wise coach – one who inspires you to do better, shows you that you are way stronger than you think (even when you have a circular narrative in your head saying otherwise), pushes when they know you need to be pushed, and gives you to the tools to do it for yourself, and on your own.
It helps when they are good, beautiful humans, too.