Coach, redefined

It’s been 35 years since I’ve been under the influence of a coach. Then, playing high school baseball, I listened only out of fascination over how this guy thought his berating and belittling was motivating us. He was a study in growth-stunted, ex-jock, why-didn’t-i-get-drafted psychology.

I’m in a much healthier coaching situation now. I listen because I know that no matter how painful six repeat 400-meter sprints up Washington Street bordering Fred Fletcher Park might be, or how goofy his “crazy feet” drill may seem, there’s a means to an end with what Tim Clark is putting us through.

Tim is 52, used to be a highly competitive runner. PR in the 5K: 15:01 (and he came in third, to give you an idea of the competitive circles he ran in), and 31:45 in the 10K (a race in which the winner was a good 3 minutes faster). You don’t get times like those by simply wracking up miles; You put some thought into how to make the best use of those miles. Which is where Tim comes in; He has us on a plan.

By “us,” I’m referring to the dozen or so in the Advanced Runners group in the Fit-tastic program run by The Athlete’s Foot in Raleigh. Fit-tastic started last fall with the goal of taking non-runners and training them to run a 5K in 12 weeks. There were about 80 runner-wannabes in that first session. This is the third Fit-tastic session, there are now 120 participants, and the program now caters to a variety of levels: from pure walkers, beginner walk-to-runners and intermediate walk-to-runners, to runners and advanced runners. I’m in the advanced runners group because I’ve been doing a six-mile trail run once a week for about a year. Plodding though that run may be, it puts me among the most experienced runners in the program. (And, again, none of us consider ourselves runners. Yet.)

“So, we’re going to do five repeats on this hill,” Tim told us at last night’s practice. (Thursdays, under Tim’s tutelage, are dedicated to hill sprints, Mondays to “strides.” On our own, we’re expected to do one 40-minute recovery run and on the weekend, a longer run, in my case the 6-mile trail run at Umstead.) We peered up Van Dyke Avenue: a steep initial climb of maybe 110 meters that disappeared over a rise.

“Where does it end?” someone asked.

“It ends up there … somewhere,” Tim replied. Hmm, run at 90 percent up a hill that we could tell was at least 110 meters, but be hiding another 400 meters beyond what could  be a false summit? How could you not follow a coach like that into battle? I found this somewhat amusing, certainly more than I would have in high school.

Three nights earlier Tim had led us on a two-mile warm-up run through a light drizzle. “Take your shoes and socks off,” he instructed as we came to a stop in a field of bent grass at St. Mary’s College. For the next 20 minutes or so we did what Tim called “strides” but which felt suspiciously like sprints on this lush carpet of wet grass. Running barefoot in grass was reward enough, the dew heightened our sense of feeling like kids playing tag in the backyard during an afternoon rain. We’d sprint — sorry, “stride” — for about 80 yards, recover for 20, stride another 80. All in wet, dewy grass. At one point I broke out laughing at the simple joy of it (something I don’t recall doing during my high school baseball days). Our strides were followed by a likewise barefoot session of “crazy feet,” in which we walked 10-yard stretches with our feet in a variety of odd positions.

“It helps build your calf and lower leg muscles,” Tim kept answering to the repeated question of, “Why are we doing this?” He added, “You might feel this one in the morning.” Boy howdy. My sore, knotted calf muscles threatened to rebel at the slightest provocation.

There’s no belittling, no berating. It doesn’t work on kids and it certainly doesn’t work with adults. There’s occasional cajoling and a white lie or two (“We don’t have that much farther to go …”). Mainly, there’s solid advice from someone who’s been there, someone who’s fine with the fact he isn’t there now (a bad meniscus tear four years ago and osteoarthritis have put Tim on a bike), someone who gets a true kick out of helping others try to reach their goals. Someone I wish my old baseball coach had met.

Tim is good. But is he good enough to get me to my goal of sub 8-minute miles at the Fit-tastic graduation, the 5K Monster Dash on Oct. 25? And don’t you like how I’ve shifted the responsibility of reaching my goal to the coach?

Coaches may change, but the coached?

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