May 25, 2009

Ten years ago, I began training with a coach who changed my life. I guess that’s what a good coach is supposed to do, but I like to believe this coach is different — extra special. The kind of coach found more often in movies than in real life.

He actually was in a movie and you can hear his coaching advice online, which is the purpose of this post, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 1999, on Thursdays at 5:55 a.m., I started meeting Alphonzo Jackson at the track on a hillside next to UC Berkeley. It was still dark enough to see the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate illuminated like strands of beads that stretched over the bay and hooked into San Francisco. It would be difficult to see his expression because he wore a headlamp that shined a beam into my face, but I could hear a smile in his tone when he’d say “two laps, easy warmup.” The sun would rise and then I could see Coach standing by the track, different from me in so many ways — male, black, 20 years older, from Oakland’s inner city and naturally skinny in a wiry way.

Alphonzo and me in 2004 after we ran and placed 2nd in the Lake Merritt Couples Relay (a race of male-female teams, each person doing one 5K lap around the lake).

At the time, I was 30 and adjusting to new motherhood. I had never been coached and hardly ever ran track. I would slip away, before my baby and husband woke, to go hear Alphonzo explain the mysteries of things like pace, turnover, splits and form. He would coach me to relax my upper body (“You like horses, right? Okay then, blow out your mouth, let your jaw hang loose and shake your head just like an old horse would”) and then I’d run another lap and he would holler out, “Whoo-hoo, baby, you’s as smooth as cocoa butter! Keep it there.”

I didn’t mind that he called me “baby” and I wasn’t sure what “cocoa butter” was — I just was grateful that he had pushed me to a physical and mental state alternately known as “the zone” or “flow,” and it felt both thrilling and peaceful.

Fast forward to 2003, and Alphonzo persuaded me to get involved with one of his mentoring projects, Students Run Oakland, or SRO. My fundraising letter reached local filmmaker Justine Jacob; she decided to make a documentary about it, and I helped her out as a production assistant. The film, Runners High, was critically acclaimed. Now it’s available on DVD, and Justine recently put together a package of short clips featuring Alphonzo’s marathon training advice and photos from his early running days interspersed with scenes from the film.

Today, the teens of Students Run Oakland are in Los Angeles running the LA Marathon, and SRO, which began in 1999, is marking ten years of “changing lives one step at a time,” as its motto goes. Alphonzo is still coaching the youth and also working as a head coach to hundreds of East Bay runners through Team In Training. Even if you saw Runners High in theaters and know about Alphonzo and SRO, I hope you’ll watch these short videos and buy the DVD to hear the film’s stories of resilience and transformation.

Seeing Alphonzo coach these total beginners, and running with the students myself, not only inspired me on an emotional level but genuinely helped my running. It took me a while to figure out why — after all, how could running with slow beginners and hearing coaching advice I already knew benefit my training? Then I realized it helped by rekindling a beginner’s mindset. I first thought about “a beginner’s mind” and tried to apply it to running while reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic Full Catastrophe Living, about mindfulness-based stress reduction. He wrote:

To see the richness of the present moment, we need to cultivate what’s been called “a beginner’s mind,” a mind that is willing to see everything as if for the first time. … An open “beginner’s mind” allows us to be receptive to new possibilities and prevents us from getting stuck in the rut of our own expertise, which often thinks it knows more than it does.

Recently, I was feeling as though running a marathon isn’t all that special, and track workouts seemed to be more a chore than a thrill. Then I watched Alphonzo in those videos and began to regain that positive mindset, the one that is more humble and open to fresh possibilities. The one that seizes the moment and takes nothing for granted.

I still train with Alphonzo on occasion. When I returned to running last fall after spending summer in a cast, I went straight to the track to restart with him because I knew he would help me push away doubt that I would run strong again.  When I see him at the starting line of races (where he has rock-star status), I tell myself I have my good luck charm because he’s there and believes in me. And to think, I’m just one runner out of thousands he has helped.

Thanks, Coach.