Whether you are a new runner, training for your first 5k, or an elite athlete training for the Olympic Marathon, having a coach to guide you along the way is very beneficial. Let’s face it, not many of us have decades of running and/or experience coaching, especially when we are new to the sport. It takes years and years of experience, training, racing and studying the facts to know what’s best for an individual to achieve their best possible athletic performance. Having a coach can take you to personal best and get you there faster.
I look back over my last 38 years of running and racing. I have only really had three running coaches in my life. Growing up in a small town, we did not have Cross Country and Track. It was one of those things in my life that I reflect on and wonder where I would be now if I had the opportunity to run in high school. I always felt like I wanted to be a running coach but life seemed to take me in other directions. One thing I did know at an early age is that I wanted to have running as a career in some way. Of course as a kid, I wanted to be a professional runner, but the talent just wasn’t there. One can have the discipline and focus required to be the best, but natural talent and genetics play a big factor when it comes to being a professional, in any sport.
I toyed with the idea of running a marathon when I was 14. When I was 15 years old, I made the decision that I was going to train and run my first marathon when I was 16. I had no Cross Country running season and I liked running distance. I got a training schedule from Harold Tinsley. Harold was the most famous person I had heard of in Alabama when it came to the running community. I knew he was a leader in the HTC as well as the RRCA, a national club. I lived 65 miles away in Gadsden but I had family in Huntsville, so I was familiar with some of the Huntsville races. I had also run the first Cotton Row Run 10k in 1980 and I felt like Huntsville was a great running community. I would make the Rocket City Marathon my first marathon.
Right after my 16th birthday, my training began. I started a 7 month training schedule. That’s right, 7 months. What a lot of people don’t realize these days is that to train for a specific race, it takes time and focus. I had studied Harold’s training schedule from beginning to end. I can remember getting so excited to see the mileage was going to increase to weekly totals I had never imagined. At the time I was a 25-30 mile per week runner. Harold’s schedule would take me up over 70 miles per week. I was giddy. I began training in June. Race was going to be December 12, 1981.
My Dad was well aware of my plans. He would often ask me how far I was going to run that day before he went to work. I followed the schedule to the point of obsessiveness, within 98% of the exact schedule. Dad also had interest in my running. He called one of his friends, Gary Elkins, and told him about my marathon plans. Gary was the most active marathoner in Gadsden at the time. He had run every Rocket City Marathon, a streak that eventually reached the first 35 Rocket City Marathons. Gary had qualified and ran the Boston Marathon too. Gary was the first person I had ever seen going for a run. He lived next door to us when I was 5 years old and I can still remember seeing him go running down street. I always ask him where he was going. He still reminds me of those days when I was little, I still have the vision.
I had been following my training plan. Other runners would ask me what I thought I could run my first marathon in. My first response was to finish. Then I started thinking, surely I could run 9 minute miles and run under 4 hours. 26.2 miles was a long way and I had a lot of respect for the distance. My longest run had been 12 miles. Sometimes I was get brave and say, I think 8 minute miles might be possible if my training went well, that would put me in the low 3:30’s range. I settled on that as a goal, maybe a little aggressive but I felt it was reasonable.
After my Dad had further talks with Gary Elkins, he told me that I now had a coach. Gary was going to be my first running coach. Gary told me on the phone, “When you get out of church on Sunday, don’t eat lunch, come straight to my house and we’re going to run.” That’s what I did. Talk about excited. I was excited but also a little intimidated. Gary was not just a runner, he was fast. He was in his mid 30’s. I had read up on some of his times, he had posted a 35:49 10k in recently at the Vulcan in Birmingham. He had also posted a 2:48:59 PB marathon in New Orleans. I just thought; I won’t be able to keep up with him on a training run.
Gary reviewed my training schedule. He said it looked good and he would tweak it a little. By tweaking it, he just meant, “hey, you are going to start running with me two or three days a week.” Gary was a wealth of knowledge and had many years of running experience. I think I was the first person he coached. Sometimes we met at the track on Tuesday’s for speed work. I did whatever he told me to do. Saturday’s, we met at the YMCA and did 10 miles. It was always a 2 mile warm up, 10k at 10k race pace, 2 mile cool down. Sunday was always a long run. We built up to 20-24 mile long runs. I can still remember those runs. Did not matter if it was cold or raining, we did the workouts. Gary liked to talk. He would ask me about my training during the week and tell me how to run. He told me lots of running stories, I enjoyed the company. I have many fond memories of running with Gary in Gadsden AL. I still know the routes and I still visit with Gary when I am in town, he loves to talk about our runs, as I do too. Our last visit was this past June when I was in town for my mom’s funeral. I just showed up at his house unannounced and he was so excited!
This is where having a coach came in to play. Although I did not have many years of experience running, I now had a coach, who did have years of experience and racing. He was coaching me. I did not question what we did. I did not question how far or how fast. I ran every day. I was grinding out the miles, consistently, week in and week out, no days off, for 7 months. My biggest mileage week was 77 miles. That’s pretty much unheard of these days for beginning marathoners but Gary knew what I was capable of. I just knew Gary’s past and I knew he had more knowledge about running than anyone I knew, I believed in him as my coach. On my on, I had decided to run a marathon, in under 4 hours or perhaps a stretch of 3:30’s. I had a coach now and this changed everything. A good coach knows what you are capable of and Gary knew me well. When I lined up at the starting line on that cold December morning, I knew without any doubt what I was going to run. Having a coach meant changing my goal. My finish that day in my first marathon, at the tender age of 16, was 2:56:35, that’s around 6:45 per mile pace. I wasn’t even surprised. My coach told me I was going to be under 3 hours most likely. Was it a good time? Not too shabby for a 16 year old. The race time was a 16 year old Alabama state record and it still stands, 34 years later. Many young runners have come to me over the years and said they were going to beat my record, but they just can’t seem to do it. Their biggest mistake is they don’t ask me how to do it. I know I could coach them to break it but they always try on their own. I also have an eye for talent, I can tell if they will be able to or not. There are plenty of young runners with much more talent than I have that could break that record.
All of these years later, I have find myself coaching. I coach the speed training for the Fleet Feet Sports Half and Marathon training programs. I help Coach HHS XC this past season, for me it was a real treat. A lot of the kids call me Coach Taylor when they see me out at the races. Some of the kids show up at my house from time to time as well. I have gotten used to being Coach Taylor and I am good with that. I have coached several individuals over the years and helped them reach their goals. Coaching feels natural to me and I really enjoy it. I complain about getting older and my race times are slowing down. But with age comes more years of running and experience. I still learn everything I can about running and racing. Older means wiser and I am happy with everything I have learned and continue to learn about running. I thought I may want to be a running coach some day when I was young. I never made the choice but it seems like coaching has found its way to me.
The best way to learn how to become a better athlete is to get a coach. Hiring a coach can cost $100-$300 per month. It is very nice to have someone write your program for you, you don’t have to think about how to train and what will work best. This will be more personal one on one coaching. A much less expensive way is to join one of our Fleet Feet Sports training programs. The programs last several weeks and the cost is minimal compared to hiring a coach month to month. You also have the benefit of a regular training group to run with. You may also have someone like I did, a friend who loves to run and coach, a friend that is willing to spend time with you. There is someone that wants to see you do your best, someone that cares. There is someone who is standing right in front of you, just waiting to become your coach.