People of Influence

Tonight, as I stepped out into a damp, chilly SC night for my evening shake-out run, I somehow ended up thinking about my old coaches. I think maybe because I got home late from work, it’s dark out, and how as a young runner I was always putting off training runs until the last possible (and most inconvenient for everyone else) minute. I guess it got me thinking about external sources of motivation, which led me to the coaches I’ve run for over the years.

I remember Glen Gilderman, or “The Gilda” as we used to refer to him in high school. When I first showed up to my high school as a sophomore, my admissions person, an awesome lady by the name of Karen Snyder, recommended I go out for cross-country. I was hesitant, since I didn’t really run per se at the time, but she recommended it as a good way to meet people and make friends before the school year started in a few weeks. I showed up to my first practice, sans real running shoes, and had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I was hooked. I made friends that day who remain my friends today. Coach Gilderman was an inspired thinker, and aggressive to boot. I remember our first “mental training session,” which involved all of us lying on the ground as he talked us through a run visualization. I recall quite well that each session had to do with focus, and picking out first a tree, then a branch, then a leaf, and then most minute details of the leaf. Then, I’d usually fall asleep during the progressive muscle relaxation exercises, but it was great stuff. Coach Gilda had some legendary workouts, from hill continuations (thought you were done at the crest did you?) to twice-a-day tempo intervals during the pre-season team camp-out. He coached us to two appearances at State before leaving my high school to begin coaching in the newly-minted girls’ high school hockey teams, and he was sorely missed. He identified my weak mental game early on, and always encouraged me to believe in myself and my abilities. It was the first time a coach had ever talked to me about a mental approach to sport, and it left a lasting impression.

Then there was Lowell Harnell. Lowell was from Twig, MN, which he referred to (as I recall) as The Motherland. Garry Bjorklund is from Twig, and if you don’t know who that is, I can’t do nothin’ for ya. Anyway, Lowell spent time as Gilda’s assistant CC coach, and the middle distance coach for track, which is where I got to know him. He identified a good fit for me, very early on, in the form of the 800, which is a miserable distance if I have ever known one. Lowell was not long out of college, a founding member of GAT (Girls Are Trouble), and a perpetual source of dry humor. He lived just a few blocks away, so we’d occasionally run together in the summer break, and I often caught rides after practice with him. A few times, he tried to find some jobs for me helping out with his construction projects, but quickly realized I was worthless when it came to practical skills, and that was that. Lowell ran every workout with us, and demanded nothing less than our best every race. He had a glowering look about him that could cut right through your excuses and BS like a hot knife through butter. Then, after he called you out, he’d crack a joke and then it was back to business. Lowell broke his GAT pact not long after I graduated, got married, and I think both he and the Gilda are now coaching and teaching at the same school.

Mary Moline and Scott Johnson briefly cracked my code my senior track season, and coaxed me to a conference championship in the 800m, as well as a State qualification. They put me through the paces; in once early season dual, I found myself in the 800, the 1600, the 3200, the 4 x 400, and the shot put and discus. Most meets I tripled with at least an 800, the 300 hurdles, and anchor leg on the 4 x 400. But racing like that, as well as some pretty neat track sessions stolen right out from under UMD’s nose, got me where I needed to be. This summer, Scott happened to peruse the results of Grandma’s, saw my name and my time and immediately called to congratulate me. I owe him a mountain bike ride next time I’m back in town…

In college, it was Coach Mark Stanforth, “Coachese.” Coachese was a Trials qualifier and Chicago Marathon champ back in the day, and his approach to training was as legendary as his moustache. Coachese understood the unique demands placed on his athletes at the fine institution we competed for, and never tried to jam us into a training mold built off a normal school’s distance program. I don’t know what he saw in me, but for some reason he picked me up as a walk-on frosh, and he had my back until the day I graduated. I showed up with a PR of 4:40-something in the mile and 2:01 in the 800, which would barely have gotten me onto a DIII team, and my freshman year results were hardly spectacular. he placed me with The Scabs, as we came to refer to ourselves. We saw ourselves as the hangers-on, the back-of-the-packers, the lowiest of the low. Coachese saw something else in the group – athletes who maybe with a little bit of time, consistency, and a few pair of shoes, would turn into competitors. I don’t know how he managed it at our school, but he always managed to find creative ways to exceed his authorized roster, and I can honestly say I don’t know if would have made it through my higher learning experience if it wasn’t for track. The friends I made as a Scab are the guys who stood beside me in my wedding (performed the ceremony in one specific instance), and the guys whom I’ve stood by for the past eleven years. And occasionally, one of us Scabs would claw or way on to the varsity roster after enduring simply awful tempo runs on the Santa Fe Trail, or sweet Lord, thousands down at Monument.  In fact, my sophomore year, I dropped my mile PR from 4:40 to 4:19, and lettered my junior year. Coachese never did figur out how to get me to screw my head on straight, and I missed my senior season due to injury. But even then, he kept me on as a manager, even though all I did was occasionally help out by driving the van.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Zane Castro, my long-suffering triathlon coach and now good friend and confidante. Zane bore my inability to remember  payment due dates with good humor, and my ignorance with patience. If I can credit anyone with finding ways to improve my mental game, it would be Zane C. Through hours upon hours of detailed delivery, Zane turned me into a believer and helped me develop realistically demanding mental approaches to sport. His techniques busted a decade of bad habits, and for the first time in a long while, I learned to enjoy competition and not fear it.

Each one of my coaches played a very important role in shaping who I am today, not just as a runner, but as a human being. I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to state that some of the things I’ve achieved as a person wouldn’t have been possible without some of the help these folks provided along the way. So, wherever all my old coaches are, I’d like to say that tonight as I rounded out a 16M day, I thought about you all and would simply like to say, “thank you” for the good influence you provided along the way.