by Stephanie Imig
Books about running are in no short supply, and if you are at all like me, you have read many--if not all--of them, whether for the stories or the science or the dream of the precise training hack that will unlock our running potential. I surely hoped that if I read the books, I would have all the information and support I could possibly need to continue to develop as a runner. I was certain a book-coach was all I needed (or deserved). I am far from an elite. I am not yet drawn to run 100 miles (or more for that matter). I don’t run that far or that fast. And yet, I want to get better. I want to climb faster and run with flow and determination. I want to be the best runner I can be. All these books could help me accomplish that amorphous goal, right?
Rather than increasing my knowledge and building a solid foundation, I found myself drowning in a quagmire. Each book or article offered me something else I should add to my training--5 minute leg strength; 5 minute core workouts; 6 minutes of hill sprints; 1-2 times a week of short intervals; tempos every other week (which, to be honest, I never did because if something has to go, I will happily avoid tempo runs); long runs every week….
And don’t forget a track workout and weight lifting and cross training...and 5 minutes of meditation a day.
I wasn’t getting smarter or faster or stronger. I was getting lost. And exhausted. What book could I turn to now?
I am sure it is obvious to you--that there is something (or someone) other than a book-coach out there. Because the thought did cross my mind more than once. What about a real coach?
My response to that question was rapid and decisive. I had a slew of reasons not to hire a coach:
I am not an elite athlete
For a nobody-aging amateur like me, hiring a coach was prideful, presumptive and ridiculous.
I am a coach (ok, soccer, but close enough). I am a teacher (not sure why that is a reason, but for some reason it was). I can figure this out.
I should be able to translate my coaching and athletic background well enough that I do not need a coach.
I am on the downward trajectory of age and injury, and this is the best I can be. It is not a coach that I need; it is acceptance of my reality.
These cans and shoulds and rationalizations obscured the beauty of possibility. The veil began to be pulled back one day when my climbing partner and I were chatting as I gathered my energy to attempt a difficult route, and he, very clichely and profoundly, told me to “stop should-ing on myself.” Outwardly I chuckled, but inwardly, the wheels which had so rapidly spun out the reasons I did not need (or deserve) a coach, started slowly reversing directions.
What is it about the adult world that we imagine we no longer need or are worthy of a coach? We would deem any of our kids worthy of a coach, regardless of athletic skill or ambition. We would assert vehemently that even the most talented young athletes have something to learn and gain from coaching. There is no litmus test that would drive a distinction between those that need (or could benefit from) a coach, and those who do not. In fact, advice to young athletes might literally be as simple as: 1. Develop the daily habits that feed your larger successes, and 2. Work with a coach.
As a teacher, I tell my students many things--most of which are true. I tell them that they are not in this alone; that asking for help is a sign of strength and courage rather than the weakness they imagine; that humility is one of the most admirable traits; that we all need to feel supported; that I believe in them unconditionally.
Maybe it’s that time in the semester when a lot of my students begin to struggle, so I have been chanting these mantras more than usual, and they couldn’t help but whittle their way into the recesses of my mind. Maybe it is the hours I spent with Danielle Snyder along the PCT in August, chatting about training and life, where I couldn’t help but feel that even though I was there to support her, there was no doubt she was offering advice and supporting me at the same time. Maybe it was the stark reality that my far-from-personal-best finish time at my last race of the season dangled before me like a mirror in which the image reflected back to me was not one I wanted to see. Whatever was the force that reversed the directional spin of my internal monologue, I am not sure, but somewhere a question churned to the surface, and I actually entertained it; sure, I know all the reasons why not to hire a coach, but why might I?
What if I need to not feel like I am in this journey--by whatever parameters I have defined it--alone? What if I could manifest a different form of strength and courage by asking for help? What if this was a beautiful moment to practice humility? What if I needed to feel what it felt like to have someone believe in me like I believe in others?
And then the list of what ifs began to grow. What if hiring a coach allowed me to express belief in a friend and her expertise? What if I could feel focused and guided in my training? What if I could feel less scattered and anxious? What if I could discover something new about me as a runner and a human? What if spending time as an athlete being coached could make me both a better teacher and a better coach, maybe even a better partner and better parent?
The stream of what ifs--like sun rays splitting clouds-- began to dazzle and dance with possibility. I could feel their energy mounting, and let myself be swept up in their tantalizing exuberance. Quite simply, it feels good to lean into hope and possibility. It feels good to abandon the stagnation of doubt and dismissal.
My journey with a coach is just beginning. I have no idea what its results will be, but I do know that romping in the great unknown, on the borderline of our capabilities, is so much of what draws many of us to this sport to begin with; for me, in this particular moment, working with a coach feels like a way to playfully prod that border. It also feels like a new way to embrace our running community, to see how we can support each other as athletes, how we can mentor one another, and how we can each grow into our potential in ways we may not have imagined.