Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Tale of Three Trainers

"Don't waste your money."

That was the reply someone posted in response to a special marathon/half marathon training Facebook special offered by my friend and personal trainer, Elizabeth.

What ensued was a lively discussion about whether or not runners should spend money on using a personal trainer when so many free programs and advice-giving running friends exist.

At first, I was taken aback by the response.  And, then, I realized it wasn't that long ago that I questioned the same thing.  After all, running is a pretty simple sport, right? Just takes one foot in front of the other for however long you want to go.   And, internet access offers a plethora of information in addition to sport-specific magazines like Runners' World (which, admittedly, makes my heart skip a beat every time it shows up in my mailbox.)

I first started running with the Couch 2 5K program and followed the plan religiously.  It worked.  I was able to run a 5K in the prescribed time and--in that short time--began to identify myself as a runner.

After I realized I did better with endurance than speed, I decided to try a half marathon.  During that time, I began my relationship with my first trainer, Jeff Galloway, a former Olympian who now championed the run-walk method.  I took his advice to heart and became a huge fan (and still am today!)  Using his prescribed methods, I successfully finished multiple half marathons and then decided to tackle my first marathon.

It was then that I met Hal, my second trainer.  Many marathoners run with the Hal Higdon plan and I found myself with another running hero.  Hal is a world-class runner who offers training plans and support for runners of all abilities.  It wasn't easy, but I followed his plan and, at the same time, joined a local running club where I met many other runners who could help me tweak my plan.

I finished that first marathon and even asked Elizabeth for some advice along the way.  At that point, I  took exercise classes with Elizabeth and admired her 7:30ish running pace (distance) but didn't think I needed to pay her as my trainer.  But, she was there for me during my first marathon when--at mile 17, I cramped and needed advice.  Not knowing where else to turn, I whipped out my phone and texted her to find out what I should do.  Luckily, she was available and helped me limp to a 5:25 finish.

Because I knew enough only to be dangerous to myself in that first marathon, I ended up injured, needing to see an orthopedist who prescribed orthotics and physical therapy. That began a six month recovery period that was like starting the Couch 2 5K program all over again.  I hated that it took me forever to return to my previous non-stellar running level.


Fast forward two years and I decided to tackle yet another marathon and looked to Hal once again.  By this time, I was a full-fledged, card carrying member of a Facebook club with a running problem and met many folks who ran faster, better and longer than me.  I loved (and still do) being able to run with others and talk about....well, running.  And, running. And, of course, running.

During my training, Hal and I were getting along quite well until I got to a long run of 16 miles when I felt some familiar pains.  At that point, I decided I would rather not run a marathon than get injured again and  so I asked Elizabeth for some advice.

She quickly diagnosed that I didn't have enough of a base and told me to back down in my long run and build up my base.  And, that's when my relationship with my third trainer was born.  Dagnabbit, if I was going to do this thing called a marathon yet again, I'd put my money on Elizabeth helping me through.

From then on, I began to have ongoing discussions with her about how to train.  Where Hal would tell me to do speed work, Elizabeth asked me if I preferred track or hills.  In response, she prescribed a very specific set of hill work to do in addition to my other miles.  Whereas I had tweaked Hal's plan on my own when necessary due to my personal schedule, aches and pains, Elizabeth told me what I could change and what I couldn't if I wanted to be successful in my second full marathon.


I was also able to ask her about my game plan for other races.  For example, I thought it was a brilliant idea to run an eight-mile downhill course two weeks prior to my full and my running friends agreed.  After all, the course for my full was downhill, so what better conditions to finish off my taper?  Elizabeth's response?  "Do you want to finish or PR?"  Running downhill that close to the full would tire out my legs too much.

She was able to tell me if I could substitute back to back halves in a weekend instead of an 18-mile run. (Here again, my bets were wrong.  I'd have thought she'd say no way, but instead she told me that was fine. And, might I say, I credit that double-header with many of my later gains.)

I started to PR in all my races and, yes, even the second marathon for which I came in 35 minutes faster than the previous time--and, best of all, uninjured!  The first 20 miles were a breeze;  I actually ENJOYED running them.  I tanked a bit in the last 6 and came in about 15 minutes slower than I could have. According to Elizabeth, a) everyone tanks a bit in the last 6 and b) because of my step-back in training, I didn't have the base to finish as strongly as I would have liked.


The following day, I complained about achiness in my chest and Elizabeth's quick response?  "I saw the photos and by the end you were running hunched over.  You need to remember to keep your chest up and shoulders back."  I continue to be amazed and inspired by how much she innately knows.

I'm now headed into my third full marathon in Spring, having been selected as a charity runner for the 2014 Boston Marathon.  And, I have goals to cut off another 30 minutes.  Based on my training plan from Elizabeth, I have no doubts I can pull it off.

So, to me, a personal trainer is very much worth it.  I'm not a professional and never will be (although I joke about being an elite athlete in training as I follow Elizabeth's advice pretty much to a "T.") But, having someone who has tweaked my running form, given me solid advice to avoid injury and challenged me beyond what I thought I was capable of is priceless.  In four short months, she transformed me from a lifelong back of the packer to someone who's now hanging in the middle of my shorter races.  At the Marine Corps Marathon 10K two weeks after my marathon, I finished in 1176th place.  Out of 4751 finishers.  Even though I'm mathematically challenged, I can figure out that's in the top 25% (and isn't age graded.)

And, since I now consider Elizabeth a good friend, I could surely ask for her advice for free.  But, I value her as a professional.  After all, she has certifications and ongoing training and oodles of practical experience in the field.  I wouldn't consider asking my attorney or doctor friends for more than bits of advice at a time.  So, why should I ask less of my professional personal trainer friend?

Even though I still admire Jeff and Hal, they won't be there for me in the clutch.  But I know who will be.

Catch you later at the back of the pack....or, more likely, the middle of it!

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