Below is why I decided to use a coach for the first time for my 9th marathon. While my main motivating factor was the desire for a faster time (BQT), by far the most important benefit was that I remained healthy. In my experience, a qualified coach in many forms (group, individual, online, etc.) can help you enjoy running more and reach your goals.
I ran my first marathon in college because I needed motivation to exercise; signing up for a race 7 months away seemed like a bold yet ridiculous plan. I think my original goal was to keep running and not stop. Later in my training, I found out that Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs was running the NYC Marathon that same year, so I modified my goal and just wanted to beat Puffy. I trained completely solo from a program I got off the marathon website. I remember getting really caught up in the entire marathon race excitement; my family traveled to Richmond to see me, and I went out way too fast for my first race. But I guess sometimes there is strength in ignorance. I thought it was supposed to hurt like hell the entire way. I surprised myself with a 3:15.
I didn’t even know about the Boston Marathon until I talked to a pacer after my race. I thought that a bigger race, one I would need to qualify for, seemed even more exciting. So I made qualifying for Boston my goal. I signed up for another marathon the following spring. I did worse. I got injured early in training and didn’t know better, so I kept the same goals I had started with. When marathon day came, I went out at the same pace. Soon after, I entered another race. It was even worse than the previous one.
This cycle continued for the next 10 years. I could run a pretty good half marathon--or string together a month of solid running. It seemed that the second I felt like I was bursting through a plateau, I would be laying on the PT table within a week. I thought my body couldn't handle speed workouts and that I could cross-train my way into marathon shape. I think anyone who strives to better themselves will come to the ultimate conclusion: “I’ve peaked.”
Deep down I thought that if I could stay healthy for 3-4 months, I could BQ. I asked around about training programs. As I planned my 9th marathon, I thought I’d complete a form of the plan I had used before: find a training plan, water it down, and adapt it to my comfort zone; make the easy runs harder, the hard runs really hard (when I felt like it) and rely on getting super jacked up for the race itself. There are many types of information and coaching plans out there--books, online coaching, group programs, individual, etc. Each are situated towards a particular budget, goals, and motivational style. I knew that I needed a plan of what to do each day, but also someone to prevent me from deviating. Otherwise I knew I would fall into the trap repeating the same 6-mile loop at relatively the same intensity.
I ended up getting in contact with Mike Moran, Manager at the Dilworth Charlotte Running Company. Mike was developing a summer training program (26BQ) designed specifically to get a BQ at a fall race. Our initial conversation was good, with both sides trying to influence the other: Mike trying to convince me to change Raleigh City of Oaks Marathon as my goal race and me trying to lower the mileage, limit the number of days, no track work. I quickly realized that if I did my own thing, then I would get the same results.
Mike gave me an overview of the plan: “Every run has a purpose. You don't need to fully understand why it works.” Then, Mike laid out the high level plan for the training program. The schedule each week was one tempo or track day, one middle-long run, one long run, and two other middle runs. He also had the entire 15-16 weeks planned out, but gave me the workouts in 2 week increments.
At first I was skeptical of this and the first few weeks of the program were really hard. I wasn’t used to a faster run each week. It was early summer and I struggled through my first few attempts at tempo runs. I figured out how to make a Garmin watch set a pace range that chirps (happy/sad) when you are fast/slow. During the first 2-3 weeks of runs that had a specific pace, I heard nothing my sad chirps. It was the middle of the summer and it seemed that I couldn’t wake up early enough to beat the heat. Then, suddenly, a turning point; I started to feel better. The workouts got more intense but manageable. Once I felt comfortable with tempo runs, then it was to the track. Since I was preparing for a hilly course, I started to run as many hills in South Charlotte as possible.
Ultimately, I grew to enjoy getting the piecemeal workouts. It allowed me to focus on each run, be present, and not worry about a more difficult run later in the program. I knew that I would become a better runner by then.
To put it short, having a coach gave me a plan that I couldn't make myself. I put complete trust that if I performed on task, I would progress as planned. I would believe in the process and not try to take shortcuts or go after a more ambitious goal, thus putting the current one in jeopardy. Mike helped me become more consistent and pushed me to work hard when the plan called for it. By late summer, it felt like the program was holding me back from the progress I wanted to make. I now realize that was the entire point. I was able to run harder than I ever thought and also stay healthy by staying within the plan.
Last month, at the City of Oaks Marathon in Raleigh, I held on and finished in 2:59.02--my first marathon staying healthy throughout/after training, my first BQ, my first sub 3, a better race than I ever thought possible for myself. Coach Mike gave me the plan and my wife Mary Jordan gave me the support I needed.