First marathon: the role of a coach

“If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.” – Emile Zatopec

Deciding to take on the marathon – like getting a tattoo – has to be a personal decision. It shouldn’t be something one does on a dare or feels compelled to do because of others’ expectations. It has to be about you, your goals, and who you want to be. That said, when asked, “Do you think I can do this,” my answer is yes 99% of the time.

Two years ago, my boyfriend asked me that question. Up until that point he was a runner who felt he could be satisfied being a half marathon finisher. Then he joined a running crew with a lot of marathoners. Plus, he saw me doing it. Perhaps that took away some of the mystique, made the whole concept a little less out there.

While I try not to influence runners to take on the marathon per se, I will always outline the life-changing aspects of doing one (and I will always encourage non-runners to become runners). Running a marathon is so much more than simply doing it. Running a marathon is life changing (read more about that here).

So, two years ago my boyfriend decided to run Chicago 2018, his hometown marathon, and asked me to be his coach. We faired well in this new aspect of our relationship because he was being smart. I love smart runners! Too often people have unrealistic expectations and set goals beyond their immediate abilities. It’s so important to be patient and take the time to build toward realistic goals (read more about establishing SMART goals here). He was giving himself a full TWO YEARS to prepare for the distance.

This past Sunday, October 7, he became a marathon finisher! While there are certainly lessons learned for both coach and client, the goal was achieved – and he did remarkably well! I knew he would. He’s a disciplined, focused, and experienced runner. And all of that helped him in his training and on race day. He gave me lots of credit as his coach – most of which I didn’t feel I deserved since he did all the real work himself.

What did I do? The same things I would do for any client:

Provided the structure to follow. I customized a training plan, creating something he could follow for an entire year including build-up and post-race recovery. His training focused on building up endurance and minimizing injury risk. I recommend most first timers focus on covering the distance, not achieving speed. So other than a weekly 10k tempo run, we stayed away from speedwork, which I felt held too much a risk of injury. From there I answered questions and tweaked the plan based on the questions and feedback week-to-week.

Provided emotional support. Often the most important part of coaching is helping the athlete stay focused, grounded and calm throughout the ups and downs of the training cycles. A coach helps the athlete overcome the more challenging long runs and creates an environment where they believe in themselves and their ability.

My boyfriend and 44,000+ other runners moving through my Chicago neighborhood. Lakeview East. Chicago, Illinois. October 2018.

Honestly, he was such an experienced runner (having run races for 20 years including 22 Half marathons prior to the big race day), that I felt there was very little metaphorical “hand-holding” (actual hand-holding is something else entirely; there was a lot if that <3). Coaching your significant other could present some challenges. Luckily for us it did not. He listened to his coach when he needed to, and I respected his experience as a runner.

There may have been a couple times when I was too much supportive girlfriend and less coach than I should have been, like when we both ran the Chicago Half two weeks before the marathon. We were supposed to be running at “marathon pace” and wound up running 15 seconds per mile faster than that for the first 11 miles and then I could tell he was itching to give it his all the last 2 miles and I let him go do it. As his girlfriend, I knew how good that would make him feel. As a coach, I should have advised against running a half marathon on the concrete of Lake Shore Drive entirely.

When I asked what difference I made as a coach, he said, “I would not have attempted this without you and could not have completed the training or the race without you.” That’s where this line between coach and girlfriend is blurred a little, although I do like to think that’s something I potentially offer to all clients.

On race day however, I think I was more girlfriend. I managed to get out to six spots on the course, with a big sign that would help him find me. I offered encouraging words and a kiss when he took a second to stop (not all coaches do that and let me be clear, this is the only client receiving this level of support from me lol). I navigated through crowds to meet up with him at the reunion area near the finish and I drove his weary body home.

The one thing that is the same regardless of my perspective, is how his finish made me feel. There is a lot of self-satisfaction that comes from seeing someone accomplish such a big goal and knowing the influence you had. And as I said, completing a marathon is so much more. Yes, it gives you membership in an elite club that only half of one percent of the population can claim, but what it does for you emotionally gives you such a boost to achieve other things you once thought were impossible. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Me in position at mile one.




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