Gavin Coombs: Getting paced by the best

I figured Gavin was a good runner. He was, after all, one of our coaches. But it wasn’t until Saturday’s training run that I discovered just how good he was.

Gavin Coombs and Sean Kurdys coach the half-marathon training program I’m in. Like other running programs that have sprouted the last few years, it’s intended to get you from Point A (the starting line) to Point B (the finish) in 12 weeks. Our program, designed by Sean’s FAST (Functional And Specific Training) Coaching and run through The Athlete’s Foot in Cameron Village, is roughly divided into two more specific A-to-B programs: Sean coaches first-time half-marathoners whose goal is to simply run and finish 13.1 miles, Gavin coaches experienced half-marathoners who want to improve their times.

At the start of the program we were given a sheet with 12 weeks worth of workouts. Some days call for speed work (six sets of 800s on a local track, for instance), some call for tempo work (running at race pace for 30 minutes), some for running a given amount of time.  Last Saturday, Gavin’s group, the one one I’ve gravitated to, was scheduled for a 9-mile run on greenways fanning out from the N.C. Museum of Art. One thing I especially like about the program is that Gavin, Sean and several mentors from The Athletes Foot racing team act as pacers. That’s how, three miles into Saturday’s run, I found myself running with Gavin, who tried to help me set an 8:20 pace.

“So,” I asked, “what’s your marathon experience?”

“Actually,” answered the tall, lanky, 24-year-old, “I just began running marathons this year.”

Over the next mile or so I learned of Gavin’s varied running past: Started out running the mile and two-mile in high school, got to N.C. State where they were flush with distance (5K) runners, so he switched to steeplechase. What he didn’t tell me and what I Googlediscovered later was that in high school he was a three-time national champ in the indoor mile, two mile and outdoor mile, and a 17-time state champion in Connecticut. He also neglected to mention that he was three-time All-ACC. Had I known all this, I might not have been quite as surprised by our next exchange. Getting back to the marathon discussion, Gavin mentioned that he had run in the inaugural Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary in March and the KeyBank Vermont City Marathon in May.

“How’d they go?” I asked

“Well,” he said, “I won my first race.” By “won” he didn’t mean that he’d won his age group or won some kind of first-timer trophy. He’d won the whole race, with a time of 2 hours, 25 minutes and 50 seconds — fast enough to have won the Boston Marathon as recently as 1958. That’s a 5 minute and 34 second pace, meaning he ran each of 26.2 miles at a pace most people can’t keep up with on a bicycle going downhill.

“My second race didn’t go so well,” he said. And he wasn’t talking about the fact he’d only come in second in Vermont, shaving nearly four minutes off his Tobacco Road time. He was talking about winding up in a medical tent on an IV afterward. “We went out way too fast on that race,” Coombs said of he and fellow TAF teammate John Crews, who won with a time of 2:17:51.

We talked more about the races, about his training (his long runs are 18 to 22 miles), about what a great resource Umstead State Park is (“The hills are the best preparation for races. Hill miles count for a lot more than flat miles.”), about his next race, the Twin Cities Marathon in October. He hopes to break 2 hours and 19 minutes in Minnesota, and not for some arbitrary reason: 2:19:00 will qualify him for the 2012 Olympic trials.

“Really, though, I’m shooting for the 2016 Olympics,” he said. “I’ll be 30 then,” he said, a peak age for marathoners.

And I’ll be 60, telling anyone who will listen that I used to train with Gavin Coombs.

Photo: Gavin Coombs at the KeyBank Vermont City Marathon.

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