By Brian Kinion

“Individually, we are one drop.  Together, we are an ocean.”  –Ryunsuke Satoro

On September 23, 2017 Coach Alphonzo Jackson (AKA Coach Al) sent runners off on their last long run prior to their marathon events.  This would be Coach Al’s last coached run with Team in Training (TNT).  He has been the Head Coach of the San Francisco East Bay marathon teams since 1997.

20 Years!  4 Seasons Per Year (Spring, Summer, Winter and Fall).  160 Teams!! 

He has coached thousands of “athletes” to complete an endurance event or as we like to call just “Doing the Damn Thing!”  He has taken many individuals from off the couch and trained them in 4 months to run a marathon.  But he is much more than just a “Coach”.  He taught so many the universal language of CHANGE and LEARNING and LOVE!

For those not aware, TNT is an endurance training program that trains individual for half marathons (13.1 miles), marathons (26.2 miles, and yes all marathons are the same distance), century bike rides (over 100 miles), triathlons, Ironman distance triathlons (2.4 mile swim/112 mile bike/26.2 mile run), long distance hikes and Ultra marathons (from 50K to 100 milers).  TNT is a fundraising campaign for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS).  LLS founded in 1949, is the world’s largest voluntary health organization dedicated to funding blood cancer research, education and patient services. LLS’s mission is to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma, and to improve the quality of life of patients and their families.  A typical TNT season lasts about 4 to 6 months depending on the season and you agree to fundraise.  In return you get trained by a professional coach on how to train, what to eat and drink and what to expect.  That’s the simple version but there is so much more you learn about yourself and how to be ready for race day and more importantly for life.  TNT is a Family.  There are “Staff” such as a Team Manager and other Coaches but also a support network of Captains and Mentors who are alumni and have been through the program before.  There are also Honorees who have been diagnosed with a blood cancer that tell their stories and are the inspiration and motivation that keep TNT’ers coming back season after season.

Many individuals come to TNT because they merely want to conquer the challenge of completing an endurance event like a marathon.  Others come to TNT because they want to train in honor of a loved one or friend who has been diagnosed with a blood cancer.  I was the former.  I wanted to conquer a goal of completing a marathon.  I didn’t know how to do so myself and found a program that fit my needs.  I thought I’d be one and done with running a marathon.  But I was sorely wrong!  I joined with no connection to blood cancers but that changed very quickly. Being part of TNT and being around Coach Al was an incredible journey that changed my life.

My journey with TNT started when I stumbled across an advertisement in a magazine about TNT on a plane ride to my Uncle Ken’s funeral in June 2002.  He had just passed away from a massive heart attack and at that time in my life I was 35 years old and very out of shape for the first time in my life.  I weighed 225 lbs. and my health had taken a back seat. After I graduated from college I started commuting and working long hours to build a career while raising a family and I unfortunately put fitness and my health as a low priority.  I had always been active especially as a distance runner and competitive soccer player throughout high school.  I remember watching the first Ironman coverage on the Wide World of Sports in 1982 and told my best friend “that looks like fun, I think I’ll do one someday.”  More of that later.   I firmly believe that the universe presents us with opportunities at times in our life.  The confluence of events of my uncle passing away, the fact that I knew I needed to change my health and finding that TNT advertisement was a recipe for what followed.

Now Coach Al is not a physically big man (maybe 5 feet 5 and 120 pounds dripping wet).  But when he walks into a room he fills it up.  He has a booming voice and a contagious laugh.  His coaching techniques are simple, yet profound and effective.  He is full of wisdom and knowledge.  He is also very giving and humble of his time.  He is also known for feeding those fallen on hard times by fixing sandwiches for the homes.  Once he began working with TNT, he could provide even more, taking the leftovers from every picnic, run and banquet. He also recycled any spare clothing left behind.  His mantra is better to be the giver than the receiver.  He was also an Olympic Torch Bearer for the Oakland leg of the 65 day; 13,500 mile relay of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games.   In 2005 he was inducted into the National Black Marathoners Association Hall of Fame.  And he is also a tremendous athlete:

  • Ranked 3rd in the world in his age division for the 5K 16:28, age 50, 1996, Carlsbad 5000, San Diego, CA
  • Ranked 3rd in the world in his age division for the 1/2 marathon 1:15:28 age 50, 1996, Las Vegas International Half Marathon Championship
  • Marathon PR: Los Angeles Marathon 2:38:40
  • Completed 38 marathons, 7 duathlons, and several triathlons, 100s of 5Ks and 10Ks

Pretty impressive just stopping there.  But he became a TNT Coach in 1997 after being asked to coach individuals off the couch to run a marathon which he thought was crazy.  However, after seeing what happened that first season with the results that his teams were achieving and how they were making a difference, he was hooked.  He often said it was like getting a dose of goodness in the main vein as he flexed his arm.  He became well connected to the blood cancer cause and what a difference LLS was making.  His burning desire was to end his career saying that there was no more cancer left to cure.  His words of wisdom and encouragement went way farther than just being a coach.  They were life lessons!!

I joined TNT for a selfish reason… achieve a goal of running a marathon.  I had already gotten a fairly good fitness base and my weight down to 180 lbs in November 2002 when I started TNT.  I didn’t have a clue what to expect as I had never run farther than 8 miles in my life.  I met Coach Al and his partner in crime/co Head Coach and sweet wife Mama Lisa Felder that first coached run.  From day 1 there was a never-ending amount of love, encouragement and support from them.  And of course, all of Coach Al’s sage advice such as:

·        Never Let Ego Over-rule Good Judgment 

·        Your Health is your Wealth!

·        It’s Mind over Matter.  If You Don’t Mind, It Don’t Matter!

·        No WIMPS!

I completed my first season and ran the Napa Valley Marathon on March 2, 2003.  That night I was sitting with some of our honorees at our Celebration Event.  They thanked me for what I had done in running and raising funds for LLS.  I was blown away.  One of those honorees I was thanked by was a gentle soul named Laura Warren who became a huge inspiration to me.  Coach Al nicknamed her “Ten Penny Nail” because she would bend but never break.  She had been diagnosed in her teens and had beat it.  My second season with TNT I got to know Brandy Regan and her son Cole who had been diagnosed with leukemia at birth.   In 2006 Brenda Donato, a fellow Concord resident who was involved with the same little league baseball that I coached in was diagnosed with leukemia.  As the years rolled on I became very connected to the cause.  As we did shout outs at our TNT runs of who we were training for, it was always followed by “Too Many Names!”

I knew the moment that Laura thanked me that I’d be back as a Mentor to give back what I had been given by the TNT Family.  That’s when I became hooked.  This was a life changing experience for me.  I knew I had made a difference and had to continue giving of my time and talent and help others achieve their running goals and contribute to their life changing experiences.  I completed 5 marathons and numerous half marathons from 2003 to 2007 while being a Mentor and Captain for many of Coach Al’s teams and fundraising annually.  In 2008 some of my friends at the LLS decided I would be a good Man of the Year Campaign candidate and nominated me.  I ended up raising over $50K and winning the Campaign.  I also joined the San Francisco Bay Area LLS Board of Trustees and ended up becoming the Board President for several years as well as the National Board Rep for the SF Chapter.  I got to see first hand how LLS worked and all the great things that they were achieving in changing the lives of people with blood cancer.  In 2009 I joined the DeathRide team and completed the most physically demanding event I’ve ever done riding 130 miles over 5 mountain passes climbing 15,000+ feet at elevation ranging from 4,000 to 8,800 feet.  In 2010 I joined IronTeam to complete a full Ironman distance triathlon which had been a goal since way back in 1982 when I watched that coverage on Wide World of Sports.  And the crazy thing about that is that I didn’t really know how to swim very well and had a very steep learning curve.  It was Mind over Matter!!  Coach Al had given me enough knowledge and the tools to do anything I set my mind too.  In 2012 I joined the Ultra Team under Mama Lisa and completed a 50K (33 mile) trail race.  My TNT journey was amazing and I raised over $100K for the LLS from 2003 to 2012 and completed multiple endurance events.  But I learned so much about myself.  I learned first how to be physically strong.  How to endure over long distances up to 13 to 14 hours.  It really boiled down to learning to be mentally tough.

Unfortunately, Laura Warren, Cole Regan, Brenda Donato and countless others lost their battles with blood cancers or related cancers.   Many others have survived because of the work of the LLS and funds raised.  One of those is Vanessa Wittmer.  At this last coached run, Alumni from many seasons gathered to say thanks to Coach Al for all that he has done and Vanessa was one of the individuals there.    Coach Al is retiring from coaching TNT at the young of 72 and trying to figure out what he will do with the next 30 years of his life!   One thing he will be focusing on his coaching his young grandsons—one has the makings of a distance runner and the other a sprinter.

I got to thinking of Coach Al’s impact and trying to quantify it.  It’s really hard to measure what this man has done because honestly it is immeasurable and still growing.  Just imagine a family tree, the TNT Family Tree with Coach Al and Mama Lisa at the top.  They nurtured their TNT athletes along with various TNT uncles and aunts (Staff/Captains/Mentors) and cousins.  Sometimes they sent them off on their own to do something beyond the East Bay Marathon Team and some stayed home with the East Bay Marathon Team.  Being a numbers guy I started to do a little math guesswork on how much $$ impact Coach’s teams had done.   He coached 20 years with 4 seasons/teams per year.   I assumed each team had 30 fundraisers per team (Winter teams were small, Summer teams were large and some folks were staff and not fundraising). Assumed each of these individuals raised an average of $3K as run team minimums were typically lower.  That equates to $7.2M fundraised from his Run Teams alone.

Then we had crazy folks (of which I qualified) who graduated off to the cycle, tri, Ironteam, Ultra and Hike Teams. I assumed 10% did this which is another 240 participants that did at least one season of another team and assumed $5K as these teams had typically higher minimums. That equates to an additional $1.2M fundraised from individuals who graduated on.
That’s approximately $8.4M of $$$ raised for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society for Blood Cancers!!   To repeat one of my favorite quotes:  “Individually, we are one drop.  Together, we are an ocean.”  –Ryunsuke Satoro

While his burning desire was to end his career saying that there was no more cancer left to cure, his efforts and passion helped advance research and improve more lives that he may never even know.  The impact of one man who welcomed us with open arms and taught us so much.  He inspired us to Do the Damn Thing and kept us close to the Cause and being Relentless for a Cure!   Coach made a difference in the lives of those fighting blood cancers.  He shared his knowledge with others.  He had a talent to train other people in many ways.  He proved over and over again that is better to give than to receive.

I hear people say that don’t have time for things like volunteering, exercising or to be healthy.  MAKE TIME!! Your Health is your Wealth!!

You will get so much goodness when you volunteer, raise money for a much deserved organization such as the LLS or the American Heart Association (which is what I do now).   I will leave you with this nugget.  Coach Al’s Life Rule:  Every day, treat yourself to something you’d like and do something nice for a stranger, it will make your day.

I’m honored to be call Coach Al my Coach, my Friend, my Hero and my Brother!