My stepdaughter T and I are assistant coaches for a local middle school track team this spring. T ran track and cross country in middle and high school and made state several times, and she’s very good at giving the kids useful, relevant guidance on training, pacing, stretching, and meeting goals. I didn’t start running until I was 37. I’m very good at yelling. The good kind of yelling, that is, the motivational stuff; the head coach is a friend of mine and she told us she would do all the bad yelling. Any kid being ornery, disruptive, or just plain whiney, we send them to her. That leaves us free to tell them what kind of workout is best right before a big meet (T’s department) and to scream “GOGOGOGO YOU GOT THIS KEEP GOING KEEP GOING PUSHPUSHPUSH YESSSSSS!!!” (mine).
Fortunately there’s seldom any true orneriness to deal with, and disruptions usually are minor verbal ones—mouths running off when feet should be. As for whining, oh yeah, plenty of that. Whatever workout we announce for the day will always be greeted with groans. “400s? Noooo!” “Would you prefer 800s?” “Noooo!” It’s mostly just part of the routine, though; when it comes time to run, even the whiners frequently go all out. Sometimes, in fact, they go too all out. One of the challenges of coaching younger runners is that they often have no sense of pace whatsoever. “Fifty percent effort for the first lap, building up to 90% for the last” we’ll say, and the tiniest 5th graders will go charging across the track the moment we say go, like there’s cake and ice cream at the end of the straightaway.
Not surprisingly, most of them clamor to be put in the 100 meter race. The 800 is long-distance to them, and the 1600 is for those few weirdos on the team whom everyone likes but also treats a little like they’re from another planet. At the last meet there were only three of them, a quiet 8th grade boy who went to state, a quiet 6th grade girl with thick glasses and a Hogwarts sweatshirt, and another 8th grade boy who really wanted to do the 100. “I love the 100! The mile is so hard!” he declared, over and over. None of the coaches were swayed or fooled; the boy was much better at distance, and despite his declarations there was clearly a note of pride in the way he said the mile. The mile was hard—four whole times around the track! Measured in minutes and not seconds! A race so long they could eschew the metric system and call it a mile!
Thing is, three of his four coaches are marathoners. Our recent races were measured in hours, not minutes, and there was a time in my running career when I even considered races that were measured in days. We didn’t flaunt any of this, though; none of us wanted to be the kind of coach that constantly touts their own achievements or tries to make the kids feel like wimps for “only” doing “short” races. The focus is them, not us, and that’s one of the things I like about this gig. Runners frequently have very healthy running-related self-esteem, witnessed by the way many of us insist on calling ourselves runners and bristle to the point of violence if the word “jogger” is used instead. When you take on distances that everyone else finds exhausting even to cover by car, you tend to believe your own hype. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with feeling good about an accomplishment, there’s also nothing wrong—and really a whole lot right—about shoving all that aside and supporting someone else seeking their own accomplishments.
Interestingly, when the focus does shift to us because the kids decide that getting us talking about our races will delay their having to hit the track again, the questions don’t necessarily reflect reverential awe for our running prowess. “Why do you run marathons? Who would run 26 miles for fun?” This from the 8th grade miler who claimed to hate it.
I tried to keep my answer brief, since he was too young to realize why do you do it is a dangerous question to ask a runner because, well, they’ll be only too eager to answer it, in only slightly less time than it takes them to cover 26.2 miles. “At some point, there’s a feeling you get in a long race that you can’t get from a shorter distance. At that point, it feels good.”
“You must be a masochist!” He shook his head. “I like the 100.” A little later, “What’s the toughest part of a marathon? Which mile is the hardest?” And still later, “You enjoy that? See, you’re masochists.”
And like any good pain-loving distance runner, he kept coming back to the subject. “The hundred-meter is the best. The mile is so hard. And you do 26 of them back to back? Why?”
Why do we do it? It does hurt. I am anticipating plenty of pain next Saturday when I take on my next marathon, and despite what that unwilling miler believes, I don’t enjoy pain. I’m hoping to power through it and turn the suffering into an accomplishment, a big one, but that’s easy to say and another thing entirely to achieve. Despite having run over 30 marathon-or-more races, I’m still learning, and one thing I’ve learned for this race is that, paradoxically, perhaps the best way to achieve this goal is to shove aside thoughts of glory and think about the other great things about running. The friends I’ve made. The bonds I’ve strengthened. The people I can help. And of course, the food I can eat. I couldn’t easily explain any of this to the kid, though; some things you have to experience for yourself.
He shook his head emphatically. “No way. Not me. Never.”
“I think he does protest too much,” I said to T in the car after practice was over.
She nodded. “Oh yeah. He’s a distance runner for sure.”