Coaches Bruce, Iain and Frank with athletes Jeannie (recently won Gauteng 21km championship gold Vet women) and Wayne.
Back in the 1970s when I started running, I had not heard of the concept of a running coach for anyone other than for a handful of elite Olympic athletes. In fact, when I first decided to lace up some running shoe (priced at R4.50 a pair) I think the word “coach” was more familiar to me as a rather posh word for a bus or railway carriage. I’m sure my running companions of that era felt the same. I joke, of course, but the two best known coaches at that time were already from a bygone era. The legendary Percy Cerutty coached the equally legendary and undefeated Australian, Herb Elliot. We all knew of Cerutty’s brutal training sessions on the Portsea sand dunes and of his rigorous diets and training methods. The even more legendary Arthur Lydiard coached the equally brilliant Peter Snell and had a string of successes in the 1960s and 1970s with New Zealand, and then Finnish athletes. We all knew that Lydiard’s training regime included long 35 kilometre runs for his athletes and that he mastered the art of peaking for major championships. But to us mere mortals these athletes were Olympic gods and we believed their coaches would not have had time for ordinary plodders like us. I do recall Lydiard wrote a book for us mortals called “Learn to Train the Lydiard Way,” but it was that was impossible to get hold of a copy ( I remember being in awe of the great man, Lydiard, when I met him at the 1979 City to City 50km race in Johannesburg where he was a guest of honour).
Besides these two greats I doubt that we would have been able to name another coach in those days. Many of us now know of Sam Massubini the coach of Harold Abrahams the 1924 Olympic 100 metre champion, but that is only because of the 1981 Oscar winning film, Chariots of Fire where Mussabini was played by actor Ian Holm. None of us had heard of Mussabini back in the 1970s.
The marathon runners I followed and idolised, all seemed to be self -coached. Frank Shorter, Ron Hill, Wally Hayward, Jackie Mekler,and Alan Robb appeared to have devised their own training schedules.
And to a large extent we also created our own training schedules. We were self-coached, and we learnt by trial and error. Little did we know at that time, that much of what we decided to put into practice was hugely influenced by Lydiard and his thinking.
Nearly 50 years later I have still never been formally coached. I remain self-coached and self- advised. This is not something I am particularly proud or boastful of. I’m merely stating it as a fact. Perhaps, if I had had a coach I might have performed even better and perhaps discovered my potential far earlier. A coach might have persuaded me to believe in myself and be a bolder runner. I might have raced closer to my genetic limits. As an example, an insightful coach would certainly have saved me much frustration by introducing me to speedwork and its massive advantages long before I discovered that “giant leap” for myself. My giant leaps forward only happened once it dawned on me that running further was making no difference and that I needed to explore the results of running faster. I wasted many months in a wilderness of frustration unable to understand why I wasn’t improving. I decided to experiment by scheduling structured speed sessions. The results were beyond my wildest expectations, but perhaps they came a couple of years later than they should have.
Most importantly, I’m certain a coach would have calmed my worries and doubts. “ Believe in yourself Bruce, “ a coach would have urged, “ You’ve done the training, you’ve got the talent, now go for it.’
Of course, we weren’t totally alone, floundering rudderless in the dark, grasping for guidance. It was possible to learn a little about the training methods and programmes of our heroes from interviews they gave in running magazines. We discovered over the years that many of the top runners were happy to share their training methods. Unlike the Coca-cola recipe, their training was not a tightly held secret. In the case of South African greats like Mekler and Robb, we could learn much by attending training talks they gave at various running clubs.
We could also glean a little extra knowledge from Sports scientist Tim Noakes who wrote a masterpiece called “The Lore Of Running” considered by many to be the runners’ bible. In certain chapters in his book Noakes synthesized the training programmes of many great athletes. This information was both useful and inspiring.
We could also chat to our club team mates. We listened carefully to what the veterans had to say. They guided us on our first runs and accompanied us to our first races.
I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to those experienced team mates whose wisdom I leant on very passionately.
We also devoured all the running magazines and books we could find. “Runners World” was eagerly anticipated each month and the works of authors like, Ron Daws (The Self-made Olympian) Jim Fixx, (The Complete Book Of Running) and the previously mentioned masterpiece by Tim Noakes were essential text books.
However, it was still largely a matter of trial and error. We imitated, we cut-and-pasted all these bits of advice, we guessed quite often, and somehow we created Heath Robinson patched together training programmes.
The closest many of us came to scientific method was to keep training diaries. As the training days clicked by we kept a written record of sorts to which we could refer.
In South Africa some running clubs like Rocky Road Runners became renowned for their informative panel advice discussions each month. These popular evening sessions attracted crowds of nervous novice runners and were guided by the “two wise men” Don Oliver and Dennis Tabakin.
But those “dark ages” are behind us now and personalised coaching appears to be the new exciting requirement.
Now, for many runners the modern coach is more important than their choice of shoes. And suddenly we know these coaches names, we admire their athletes, and we even gossip about which athlete is with whom and who has left one coach only to join another. As racing returns around the world runners are clamouring for guidance. This is particularly the case here in South Africa as our major races like the Comrades, Two Oceans and Cape Town marathons open their doors for entries. It is as if runners have suddenly to relearn their craft after two years in the wilderness. During those dark times I started a coaching team with my friend Iain Morshead and 20 time Comrades silver medallist, Frank da Ansenseo which we have called FordyceFusion . We must be fulfilling a need somewhere because we have been inundated with requests for advice and not just from elite runners. Even those with humbler goals are seeking coaching. I am hearing this from coaches all over the country and these coaches are reporting great successes in these early days. Certainly, we at FordyceFusion are starting to see some excellent results. Last weekend two of our athletes achieved personal best times at the Paris marathon and we have a number who are extremely excited about their prospects at the Two Oceans in 10 days’ time.
It is incredibly heart-warming and exciting to watch a runner achieve his or her goal thanks partly because of the advice and encouragement that you have given them. There is no more emotional moment than when a delighted coach receives a warm hug from an equally delighted runner. I speak from personal experience.
As I learn the trade, I have discovered the modern coach fulfills a number of critical roles;
The coach brings stability and wisdom to a training programme. A calm wise head is essential because so many runners suffer from “desperatelykeentitis”. They simply try too hard, believing that the runner who trains the hardest will achieve the best results. Actually , It is the runner who trains the cleverest who achieves the best results. And it is the coach who is almost always the wise one in the coach/athlete relationship. The coach identifies strengths and weaknesses while looking on with an unjaundiced eye, dispassionate, and calm in comparison to the often relatively chaotic thinking of the over- eager athlete.
The coach is a sounding board, someone who will listen and will accept criticism while remaining flexible. The coach creates a plan which clearly elucidates the training programme and answers the question, “Why?” So many athletes ‘ just run” and have no answer to the question “Why” As an example“ I am running this session because it is building my hill climbing strength. Tomorrow I will be running a very easy short run because I will be recovering from this session. “
A coach is also an amateur psychologist ‘
“Of course, you’re going to do it. You’ve done all the work, your times tell us you’re ready,now go and make me proud. And don’t worry it’s perfectly normal to be nervous and have doubts. But I have no doubts about your performance.”
A good coach is also a close friend with a close working relationship that not even a family member might understand.
Finally, you know you have matured in the coach/athlete relationship when you disagree with one another.
“You need to run one more long run “
“ No I don’t ,I am really tired and my legs are heavy. I need to rest”
“alright then, you now no better. Let’s schedule a rest instead of another long run”
One of my very few running regrets is that in my better days I never had a proper coach, not really because I might have been able to race a little faster, or perhaps won a couple more races with great advice but rather and more importantly, that I was never able to share my successes with a special coach. It must be so extraordinary a moment to share a triumph with a coach, to understand that your teamwork paid off. I have seen the passionate embraces, and I have heard the victory speeches where coaches are thanked with voices chocked with emotion and eyes streaming tears. And I am envious. I never experienced that special bond between coach and athlete. But now perhaps I can, not as an athlete, those days are long gone but as an overjoyed coach. At FordyceFusion I am starting to experience the immense satisfaction of guiding a runner who is so keen to excel.
For coaching contact us at: http://www.FordyceFusion.com
In July the FordyceFusion coaching team is hiring a bus to transport aspiring Comrades runners from Johannesburg to Durban. Runners who join the team will spend 3 days running on the actual Comrades route and familiarising themselves with the challenges that lie ahead on August 28th. Iain, Frank and I will accompany the group. If past trips are anything to go by it should be a very valuable experience ,while also being a lot of fun. For more details click here.
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