In 2016, I asked Michelle Clarke if she was willing to take me on as an athlete. Four years later, there are a few ways to measure the success of our partnership. We could count the PBs I’ve run based on Michelle’s plans. We could consider the time I’ve shaved off at each distance, and it’s certainly more than I could have guessed I was capable of.
But I count my greatest success working with Michelle to be an amalgam of outcomes. I have never suffered a major injury. I have never felt overly exhausted. I have never been completely tired of running or considered quitting this hotly pursued hobby altogether. In fact, I’ve only become more enthusiastic and excited over time.
As runners, when we choose a coach, we entrust our safety to someone and give over a certain control over our physical and mental health. In my case, I couldn’t have made a better choice when it came to someone who would view our relationship as being about more than just running.
The Long Run
Our relationship began with a questionnaire, one of which was something along the lines of “What’s your long term goal as a runner?” My response, as best I can recall was, “I want to be able to do this forever.”
If I miss the splits on a track workout or tempo run, it’s never simply a matter of going back until I nail them. I explain to Michelle that I didn’t hit certain numbers and offer any possible explanation as to why that might have been (e.g. additional stress from career, family, etc.; coming down with a minor illness; or the conditions making it too difficult). Perhaps, I’m just not capable of hitting those numbers yet and that’s not something I should feel terrible about.
The following week, if my coach feels that another push would be my breaking point, the training plan is relaxed. Early on, this approach didn’t quite gel with my mindset that backing off intensity was the same as giving up.
With Michelle, it’s always about understanding what my body can give at any time and working within that. If a goal needs to be adjusted, that’s made clear in my training plan and I’m never made to feel guilty about it. No PB has ever been worth an injury or burnout. It doesn’t take much to break an athlete, even just a little fatigue sustained over time blows up.
People are not very good at underestimating the level of stress they put on themselves. I’ve found a few runners guilty of considering the stress they take on from day to day life as entirely separate from that which comes from any kind of performance-based training.
Your body doesn’t know or care if you’ve had deadlines or had to travel for work or if a family member is sick or if you’re just amping up the mileage. Your body only knows stress and it will get angry if its calls for adjustment aren’t heeded. It takes a special coach to understand that and find the balance in a training plan that allows for growth while protecting the athlete’s safety.
To give myself some credit, I listen to what Michelle says. I try my best not to be a stubborn athlete who just can’t seem to follow a coach’s plan. In return for the respect and autonomy Michelle gives me in deciding how much I can commit and what my goals are, I respect her knowledge.
No athlete is one dimensional or defined solely by their pursuits on the road, track, trail, or anywhere else. With the incredible amount of time we give over to training, it becomes part of our lives and our whole being. It can’t be isolated. Therefore, no coach is only coaching for performance.
When I took a trip to the emergency room several months back, Michelle was aware of it before my parents and, naturally, ordered a strict period of rest. The attitude of #nodaysoff, one of my most despised hashtags, has never been present in my relationship with Michelle.
The same goes for general fatigue. Progress has never been forced with Michelle. Rather, our work together has preserved as best as possible the conditions in which progress can take place. Some may find it counter intuitive, but that means lulls in intensity from time to time.
Much of my communication with Michelle covers those additional life stresses and how my obligations for the week are shaping up. Michelle probably knows me as well as anyone. Our conversations often cover a million other topics (music, literature, career, family, romantic life, etc.) before we ever get to running. Running is always built around the other dimensions of my life so they can complement each other rather than wage war with my health as their battlefield.
Running is meant to bring richness and enjoyment to life. It’s meant to augment and support personal growth and build confidence. If running isn’t feeding those processes, then there’s no reason to be doing it. And in running, race results are not the only indicator of growth. And growth sometimes means backing down.
Listening to Michelle has allowed me to grasp this complex truth and made me a better runner and person.