Friday, June 13, 2014

Choosing Your Own Path

Originally published on

Tattoo, Bucket List, or Life Style


“I hear you’re a running coach.”

“Well, I sometimes help people I know reach a goal.”

“Really?  I was hoping you’d ‘train’ me for my first marathon.”

“Wow!  That would be awesome.  How many half marathons have you run?”

“Ummmm…well, none.”

“Wow…  Maybe we should start with a couple half marathons to build you up and then look at your first marathon.”

Or how about this one:

“I want to run my first marathon, and my best half marathon time predicts that I could finish in xxxxxx hours.  Will you help me train?”

“I just registered for Ironman.  I’m buying my first tri bike next week and I don’t really swim all that well.”

I offer up to you the phrase, “Tattoo or Bucket List?”

As an endurance athlete, a training partner, a member of my local triathlon community, and a somewhat “quiet, sit on the sidelines” kind of coach I hear these statements frequently.  I nearly always have to bite my tongue and try not to choke on my Gatorade.  And, so many times the person I am listening to has been influenced by someone else – usually another athlete with some experience.  However, every now and that “other person” is someone who is just checking things of their own personal “Bucket List.”  Having had a couple of “training decisions” made for me and not necessarily by me, I have some pretty strong opinions about choosing your own path.


“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
 – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I came to endurance sports by way of a life-long friend whose sister had informed her that it was “time for her to get back into shape.”  She was nearly 100 pounds over-weight, and coerced and guilted me into training for our first half marathon.  I was not a runner at the time.  In fact, I distinctly remember telling her that I hated running and was NOT going to train with her.  I was a northern California (Sierra Nevada) mountain biker.  Needless to say, we trained.  We huffed and puffed.  We finished.  And, while I stayed in the endurance world, continuing to run half marathons all over the south eastern United States, I believe that she felt worn down and beaten up by the training.  She came back to the running world about 18 months later – very slowly, methodically, and working towards a lifestyle goal in a very smart fashion.  When she decided that the marathon was her next goal, I declared to all who would listen that I “never wanted to run a full marathon.”  Well, I’m here to tell you that NEVER is VERY, very, very long time.  I chose my first marathon on my own, for reasons of the heart – not from peer pressure, or a coach’s desires to see me run longer.  I coached/trained myself and felt successful for my first attempt.  I ran a few more marathons, and decided to take it to a new level:  Qualify for Boston – just to prove that I could if I wanted to.

While I was training for that elusive BQ time, I discovered road cycling was an excellent form of cross training.  Are you looking into your glass ball?  Follow me here…  It gets really complicated.  Not too long after, a friend of mine who also happened to be an IMWC finisher (2009) asked me to join his coaching group.  The group was interested in a dedicated run coach for their athletes during the “non-tri” season.  Really?  In Florida there is a non-tri season?  Anyway…I digress.  I was quite nervous and worried about being a coach to those who I deemed be far more accomplished and capable than I.  Not one of them ever questioned me or blinked.  Thus began a facet of my life that I have grown to love and enjoy more than maybe even my own training.

Three months after I qualified for Boston the first time, I sprained my ankle to the tune of 8 weeks no running.  Grrrrrrr and Bahhhhh!  I couldn’t even clip in and out of my pedals for the first three weeks.  Now what was I going to do?  My state ranked swimmer son said, “Duh, mom…swim.”  I did my first two sprint tris that summer with my son.  I didn’t do another one for quite some time – there just wasn’t time to train for THREE sports and stay Boston Qualified.  Not as a 40+ year-old mother of two high energy, involved, athletic sons, and wife to an career VICE officer in a high-stress, high liability position.  Something’s gotta give.

As I looked for a way to keep my training more level year round, I added more and more cycling and (oh my gosh…) more and more swimming.  Then, I decided that if I could comfortably ride Centuries and run a pretty quick half marathon, it was time to beef up the triathlon aspect.  So, after more than a two year hiatus from triathlon I joined forces with a world-class coach, the same one who invited me to join his group, and attacked my first 70.3.  I decided it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be, but in no way felt “the Need” to try that whole “stupid Ironman thing.”

Flash forward a bit.
(All those "named" below are COMPOSITE characters.  No one individual makes up the profile presented.)

I have found that those new to the world of endurance sports really want to fit in.  Unfortunately, I have found that they want to skip a lot of the base that will secure a successful future.

Take for instance “Sally” who is pretty new to the endurance world.  She went right to the marathon when she began running.  She qualified for Boston in one of her early attempts.  But, mostly she was lucky.  She really only suffered one major injury in her hips and pelvis.  She has since been through massage therapy, regularly supervised stretching, some physical therapy, and has learned the value of “slow but steady” base training.  However, when she dove into triathlon she did so with a 70.3.  No sprints or Olympics.  And, less than 2 years later she trained for her first 140.6.

Let’s talk about “Ricardo.”  Ricardo is the “time goal” athlete.  He had run 2 half marathons and wanted to train for his first full marathon based on that finish time. BUCKET LIST item he said.  Not only that, he had lost a bet, and not only did he “have to run it” but he had to wear pink.  I advised him against it; passed him at Mile 5 and invited him to run with my pace group.  I was waiting for him at the finish line when he crossed more than an hour off of his “goal” finish time.

*Now, I’ll be the first one to tell you that PINK makes you the fastest one on the course, so don’t discount it.

Another superb example is the County Commissioner who came to me wanting to run his first full marathon.  In college he was a NCAA Div. I running back who enjoyed a brief career in the NFL.  But, he had no idea how to train for an endurance event.  To his credit, he did follow the advice of “his coach” and started “small” with the half marathon.  We are still working up to that full marathon distance.

I have watched new triathletes go from Sprint to 140.6 in less than 2 years after signing up to work with a new coach.  It makes me wonder about where the coach’s interest truly lies – with the extended 140.6 time line and subsequent pay check(s) or with the health, safety, and success of the athlete.

I have turned away and lost athletes who have asked for my help because they didn’t want to come at the ultimate goal in a slow, safe, methodical manner.  Truly from the selfishly safe side, I would much rather see someone become a healthy and successful athlete rather than a mere finisher.

How do you measure success?  Well, I suppose that’s relative.  Are you in it to just finish?  Are you in it to want to do it again?  Are you in it to win?  Are you in it for life?

When faced with any of the above scenarios I tend to fall back on my favorite responses:

1.  Is this event a Bucket List item for you?
2.  Are you only doing this for the tattoo/medal at the finish line?
3.  Do you want this to become a lifestyle?

The answers to those questions tell me an awful lot about the athlete.  It also tells me how we are going to best collaborate on reaching the athlete’s goal.  Sometimes I try to dig just a little bit further and find out who was the primary influence in the decision making process.  Mostly what I try to impress upon any athlete, whether s/he decides to work with me as a coach or not, is to pick their own path.  Be the master of their own fate.

I am often shocked, amazed, stunned, floored – pick your adverb – by the athlete, be s/he novice or experienced, who allows the influence of another person or group to determine the path towards any given finish line.  I encourage anyone new to a distance/event to do some soul searching, and evaluate the decision to take on that goal.  I believe the heart should make distance decisions for you, not a person, group, or tattoo.

Last fall on my birthday I became an “ironwoman.”  Again, I chose to accept the challenge of the 140.6 for reasons of the heart.  No one person, group, tattoo, or title forced me to push the “submit” button on my registration form.  A great number of people, groups, and dreams pushed me to the finish line.  But the initial decision was mine and mine alone.

I became a runner in 2002; a marathoner in 2008; Boston Qualified in 2010, 2011, 2013; a triathlete in 2010; a 70.3 finisher in 2012; and an “ironman” in 2013.  I am the mother of two boys – 19½ and 13.  Both are accomplished swimmers, stellar students, and triathletes.  My older son qualified for his first Ironman and 2013 Ironman World Championship last year at his second 70.3 (Hawai’i) the same day he was to graduate from high school.  He was the youngest qualified competitor on the IMWC course on October 12, 2013.  My younger son has completed his first two “adult” distance sprint triathlons in the last six months – the youngest competitor at both races.  I am the wife of a 24 year career law enforcement officer.  He holds one of the most stressful and high-liability positions within his department.  I hold a full time job within the Florida Office of the State Attorney; a second job with the local running specialty shop; and coach endurance athletes of all abilities around the world.  And, this year I have the exciting privilege and opportunity to race with some of the best amateur athletes I’ve ever run across.  I wouldn’t trade any of it for anything.

Lori Abbey

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