“That first 200 was pretty good,” Tim said as he followed me on his bike, “but you need to pick it up for the last 400.”

Right, I gasped to myself. And you can pick up my lung when I cough it up.

It was my first “coached” running workout and a whirlwind of thoughts rushed through my oxygen-deprived brain as I did the third of my four prescribed 600-meter sprints (bookended by a pair of 1,000-meter dashes). Will I be seeing that tuna wrap I had for lunch again? was foremost. Why am I doing this? was a close second. By “this,” I meant hiring, at age 54, a coach to drive me, push me and to make my body feel like it hadn’t since I’d last crossed paths with a coach in high school some 35 years ago.

Quick background: Back in my 20s, I ran — a lot. Mostly 10Ks, about 30-35 miles a week. When I turned 30 my back and knees simultaneously quit; I turned to swimming, cycling and other less-pounding pursuits. Then, last fall, the bug to run, which had never entirely disappeared, surfaced when I started reading about where running was headed. Out were the days of long, meaningless training runs intended solely to rack up miles. Today, the smart runner runs less but makes every mile count. Less emphasis on long pounding runs, more on interval training. I was also inspired — as have been countless others — by “Born to Run,” which, among other things, repudiates the heel-strike movement of the ‘70s in favor of a running stride emphasizing a forefoot strike.

I enrolled in the Fit-tastic walk-to-run training program, which promises to take non-runners and make them capable of running a 5K in 12 weeks. My plan: Prove to myself that I can still run a 5k, then go back to cycling. After three months of training I figured my knees and back would renew their protest and force me back into less impact-insistent activities. Three months of knee and back cooperation, that was all I asked for. Then they could protest all they wanted.

Oddly, that didn’t happen.

In fact, I regained my dormant running form and did pretty well in my 5K return, finishing third in my age group in my first race. I kept running through the winter, upping my mileage. In April, I did a 12-mile trail race. Inspired, I enrolled in the Fast Coaching half marathon training program over the summer. On Labor Day weekend I exceeded my expectations, running the Virginia Beach Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in 1:45. I was happy, my knees and back were happy. What next? I thought.

The Second Empire Grand Prix 2010 Fall Series, it turned out. The series is a collection of eight races, ranging from the mile-long Magnificent Mile to the Anna’s Angels 10-miler. Most of the races, though, are 5ks, which set up the obvious scenario of trying to improve with each successive race. That meant doing a lot of the “smart” training, with long runs interspersed with intervals, that I’d been reading about. And that planted the seed of hiring Coach Tim.

Back in the ‘80s, Tim Clark was a competitive runner. He’d nearly broken the 15-minute barrier in the 5k, did 31 minutes and change in the 10K. Tim knew about effective training, and what he knew he’d been passing along to others for the last 15 years. (Tim had coached our Fit-tastic group.) And because Tim had been a competitive runner, he knew what it took to meet a goal: someone riding your butt, indifferent to the fact you were beet red, out of breath and about to come un-wrapped.

Coaching adults, even ones who are paying you, is no easy task. First and foremost, they are adults. They take grief daily on the job; they aren’t up for more, well intended as it may be, come playtime. The trick, then, is to be encouraging and demanding without coming off like a high school football coach. You don’t handle a sulking adult who balks at doing that last 400-meter interval by getting in their grill and questioning their manhood. Rather, you do what you would do with a challenging employee: you gently tell them they’re doing good, then throw in the “but” — “but you need to do better.” Especially if they hope to achieve this dubious goal of being 18 again.

At first, I wasn’t entirely sure why I’d hired Tim. Because everyone is doing it? (The American College of Sports Medicine says taking on a personal trainer/coach is one of the top 10 fitness trends for 2011.) I didn’t have long to mull it over; the first question Tim asked was, “What’s your goal? What are we shooting for here?” So I made one up on the spot: I want to break 21 minutes in a 5K. Tim created a workout routine aimed at helping me do just that. And that’s when I realized how Coach Tim differed from Coach Lucifer back at Gateway High: When you’re in high school, the coach gets you to do what he wants you to do. When you’re an adult, a coach helps you achieve what you want to do. Therein lies the danger of hiring a personal coach:

Be careful what you ask for — a coach will make you work for it.

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