I have only had one running coach: Coach Contreras, my high school cross country coach. And Coach knew from the first day I showed up to practice, that I was not going to be one of his faster runners. Or fast at all, for that matter.
So how did a slow runner like me end up on a high school cross country team?
Possibly desperation – theirs, not mine. You see, the team only had four runners before I showed up; they needed a fifth runner in order to have an official finish at their cross country meets. That was me: the fifth runner. And all I had to do was cross the finish line. Even if I was DFL – dead fucking last. And with a field of only 15-20 runners at the smaller meets, you can be certain that I had some DFL finishes.
Still, Coach always treated me like I ‘could’ be a fast runner; he expected me to dig deep and push hard, and he coached me with the same intensity and enthusiasm that he coached our team’s superstar runner. It’s not something I recognized at the time, but I looking back, I sure appreciate him now. He was a great coach.
At my first team speed session, Coach ordered us out to the football field to ‘run the bleachers.’ Up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down, then sprint down the football field, and then start all over again. And it was on this very day, during this very workout that Coach gave me (by way of loud, fervent shouting) advice that has stuck in my head for almost 40 years.
The advice? Brace yourself, for it is the stuff of legends:
WHAT ARE YOU DOING? IT’S TIME TO PUSH! THIS IS THE EASY PART! IT’S NOT TIME TO REST! GO!
I know, it’s kind of a strange mantra right? But this is the stuff of my inner dialogue when I’m running, ever since that day on the bleachers.
What happened? I only got about half-way up the first flight of stairs before I felt like I was going to burst a lung. My teammates attacked those stairs; the sound of their feet pounding on the aluminum steps echoed across the entire football field. I was last, of course, trudging up the stairs, getting slower and slower until Coach, perched in the middle of the bleachers, yelled out to me.
“Get up those steps!” He yelled. “It’s time to PUSH! Go faster, attack it, come on, it’s a sprint, get up there,” and on and on.
I dug in and got to the top, my chest fully heaving. Was it possible to have a heart attack at age 15?
I dragged my feet across the top row and shuffled down the next set of steps, trying to catch my breath when suddenly Coach’s voice roared:
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING? It’s time to PUSH! SPRINT down those steps! Come on, this is the EASY part. It’s NOT time to rest!! GO!
What the what? Wasn’t the workout supposed to be about going UP the stairs? But he wouldn’t stop screaming cheering until I picked up the pace.
I was thoroughly confused. Was I supposed to push it going UP the stairs, or going DOWN the stairs?
This continued, him screaming at me to PUSH the pace UP the stairs, him screaming at me to PUSH the pace DOWN the stairs. When I reached the end of the bleachers, I crawled out to the football field for the 100 yard sprint from end zone to end zone. I was shuffling, trying to breath, legs burning, heart racing.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Coach roared again. ” IT’S TIME TO PUSH! THIS IS THE EASY PART. IT’S NOT TIME TO REST. GO! “
Is this the best piece of running advice? I don’t know. I know that it’s been stuck in my head forever, especially anytime I’ve tried to run fast but felt myself slow down. Although I’ve since learned that there are better, more effective strategies for tackling a hill mid-race (I focus on maintaining the same effort rather than the same speed, for example), his words have helped to remind me to go ahead and push myself during hard workouts – something that does not come naturally to me. That when it’s hard, try to push. When it’s easy, try to push.
And of course it’s all a bit more involved than that, but if you are the kind of runner I am – out there to enjoy the experience and not as concerned with pace – it’s the kind of advice that has helped me to graduate to faster paces (enough to BQ a handful of time). Because fast isn’t my natural pace. At. All.
But I’m going for speed this spring. So as I attacked this hill today, I brought Coach along with me again. To remind me that it’s time to push!