I don’t think I would have survived as a high school coach if I hadn’t, at some level, mastered the art of forgetting about previous seasons and starting over every September. That’s not to say there’s no continuity year-to-year, but every new season brings an influx of novice runners who haven’t had exposure to any of the things that experienced runners take for granted — progressive increases in mileage, warming up and cooling down, running strides or hills or intervals, or anything, really.
In the first week of any season, all my attention will be directed towards learning about the team, and especially the new runners. It takes me a few days to get all of the names down, but much longer to figure out what brought these particular kids to this strange sport that seems so simple and pointless. Meanwhile, I stand up in front of them, or — more rarely — take them aside one-by-one, and expound on the things every runner should know, trying to remember if I’ve told them this stuff before because after fifteen years, I can’t quite remember if I’ve mentioned that on workout days it’s best not to have the extra-large cheesy burrito at lunch, or if I’ve given them the lecture about why we don’t race our long runs.
I like to think that I’ve grown wiser over the years and that I have a better understanding of the way-stations on the path to becoming a runner. But I try to avoid having this understanding become calcified because, however familiar it is to me, to my runners all of these experiences are brand new, and a source of potential excitement and the joy of discovery.
Well before the season started, I had already created a master calendar that began in what I expected to be the heat of late summer and ended with what I feared would be the cold slop of November, I blocked out all the meets on our schedule, as well as school holidays and other events that required workarounds. I identified days for staging long runs, hill workouts, and tempo runs. And among all those other hopeful notes, in the box for September 23rd I wrote the words, “first interval workout.”
Not all of the plans I hatched in August have been realized, but sure enough, on September 23rd — it seems so long ago now — the entire team jogged over to South Meadow, a small and under-utilized park about a mile from Concord Academy that includes a couple of athletic fields and several quiet walking trails. With minimal effort, I had measured out a 600m loop, and my intention was to have different groups do different numbers of repetitions with different amounts of rest — something for everyone, from my most accomplished and ambitious runners to the novices who had no idea what it was all about.
That was a month ago, but I remember it well. It was a beautiful day for running, but I was anxious about our plans for the day. In spite of having sketched out this workout weeks in advance, I felt misgivings and wondered about the wisdom of having the new folks doing this particular workout on this particular day. We had raced on Wednesday (our first race of the season) on an especially hilly and demanding course. It had beaten us up, and the next day most of the kids were complaining about something or other hurting. Some would shrug it off, but for others, it was a crisis that had them wondering if they were doing something truly dangerous.
It’s often the case that inexperienced runners lack the ability to distinguish between routine discomfort that follows a hard effort, and more serious pain that requires professional attention. Although experienced runners aren’t always the best at heeding these indications, they have some experience with the risks and tradeoffs of training in a less that fully rested state. But new runners have no idea what’s normal and what’s not, and so they are prone to over-reacting to the moderate fatigue and under-reacting to things that are really worrisome, like that small, sharp, point-tenderness in the shin bone. Arranging for their safe training feels a little like sending them into the forest with instructions on how to distinguish the edible mushrooms from the ones that will kill you.
When everyone was finally warmed up, when drills and strides had been done and the coaches had divided the mob into groups, it was finally time to get going. I watched as the first two groups set off on the 600m loop, and then joined the third group myself, intending to help set a reasonable pace.
Often people ask me whether I run with the kids, and my answer is that on most easy days, I do run with one or another group, but that, as a rule, I stay away from participating in their harder workouts. I have two reasons for this: first, there’s an inherent conflict of interest in pursuing my own fitness goals and continuing to function as a coach. I think the most important role of a coach is to observe and process what’s happening in real-time, not just the times, but the way the athletes look both during and between the repeats. It’s hard to do any of that when you, yourself are suffering from interval-induced exercise stress. Second, the logistics of a workout with so many runners can be complex. If a workout needs supervision, the supervisor can’t be out on the course hammering away in a state of sweaty distraction.
But on that Friday I made an exception to my rule. The group I joined was mostly runners who had never in their young lives run an interval workout of any kind. I knew the pace of the group wouldn’t be terribly taxing, so I would be free to watch, to listen, and to process what was happening. Each of the four groups had a coach, and each of the coaches had attached himself or herself to a group. We would all be observing the workout from the inside out.
On the first interval, I ran in the middle of the pack, mostly quiet except when I shouted out “single-file!” as we approached a narrow stretch of trail. The group finished more or less together, with me yelling out times that I knew, at this point, were just meaningless numbers, but would take on greater significance as the workout progressed. I was pleased to see that no one struggled too badly. I glanced at my watch again, keeping track of our rest.
In any interval workout, it’s the second interval that gets your attention. If you have experience of such things, you know that it’s on the second interval that you get your first real inkling of how the rest of the workout is going to go. I decided to lead the second interval, and set a steady pace that was approximately the same as the first interval. Immediately our group strung out, and I knew that not everyone had recovered from the first 600. I also knew that after this second bout of fast running, I would begin to field the inevitable questions from runners experiencing a level of distress that made them wonder whether it was my intention to make them do more. I’ve never found a formula for answering such questions. With only a few seconds to think, I try to evaluate whether the runner in front of me needs a reprieve or tough love. Most of the time, I opt for telling them to try one more. Sometimes, as in the case of someone who has been dealing with a bona fide injury, I’ll declare them done for the day. If I had time to think about it, I’d be terrified at how much rides on this snap decision. Will this be the moment that the kid remembers twenty years later, a moment when a coach guessed wrong?
But there’s no time to dwell on that. Decisions are made. Our group, slightly smaller now, goes to the line for the third interval. This is the part I love, the quickening of the blood and the narrowing of the focus — this one will feel harder, but distractions will melt away and our only concern will be the running, and not letting the pace drop until we’ve passed the orange cones marking the end of the loop.
And then another, and the questions and concerns are coming at me quickly: “How many more?” “What if I have a cramp?” “I’m dizzy” “Is there anything I can do to stretch my calves?” A few of the runners are excused, and told to wait for us to finish.
And then a final one, prompting a few of the runners in my group to kick at the end. And all of a sudden, I can see that the discomfort of a few moments earlier has been replaced by a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. In the training log, it won’t seem like much — 5 x 600 — or less, for some. In the weeks to come, the workouts will become longer, the rest a little less generous. But the process of learning to tolerate speed has begun.
It’s funny that I can remember very few things from my classes in high school. It’s not that I was indifferent; I definitely enjoyed learning. But I haven’t had much reason to re-visit those academic moments much, nor have they had much to teach me about life after high school. But I still think about workouts I did with the cross country team, about the hill repeats up Memorial Hill, about the 800-meter grass loops we ran next to the stadium at UMass, about the post-long run strides on the field in front of the school.
Those moments live on in my memory because they made the fall days come alive so many years ago, and they have the same effect on me now. Funny how it all comes back when there’s a new crop of students showing up to experience it all for the first time.