Carrie Luger Slayback has set a goal to finish first in her age group at the Los Angeles Marathon next March. Here she recalls the coaches who have pushed her to get there.
First of all, I like men.
Research says females promote each other’s mental health with supportive friendships. It’s true that acceptance by female friends increases my sense of well-being.
Still, at parties I exit the women’s conversations and migrate over to the men. If guys are talking football, I’m back to the females, but if the discussion is the electric car, the neighboring nuclear energy plant or bridge construction, I’m all ears.
The above is both irrelevant to my relationship to coaches and explanatory.
Lets start with Bill Sumner, a winning high school track coach who takes on adult distance runners in his off-hours. When I joined his Cal Coast Track Club, he coached me through the Orange County Marathon with a qualifying time that got me an invite to the 2008 Boston Marathon.
I was a sixty-four-year-old runner and Bill never let me forget my senior status. He’d call out, “Hey, I thought you were one of my high school girls, but no, you’re a Grandma!”
One work-out I told him that my husband said, “Both our houses look better from behind and so does my wife.” From then on, when Bill saw me at the track, he’d glance at my spandex-covered bottom and say, “Turn around, Carrie, tell ‘em what your husband says.”
My next coach, Steve Fry, determined to get me through a half marathon in under two hours. Personally, I had no particular goal for the half marathon, except to scurry through the pain of racing 13 and 1/2 miles.
Singularly goal-oriented, Steve commanded, “Slayback, sign up for the Heart Break Hill Half,” or “Here’s the entry for the California Half. Fill it out.” I’d obey, we’d meet at the start and commence the torture.
I’d chug along huffing and puffing, expecting to see Steve at the finish. Not happening. Steve is 6’4” tall, hard to miss on a race course. He’d gallop ahead, wait for me to run up and growl, “Move your ass, Slayback.”
I’d gasp, “Don’t wait for me, you’ll ruin your time.”
Ignoring me and my exhaustion, he’d command, “You’re off pace. More your ass.”
I’d squeeze out whatever dribble of energy remained and speed up. Steve would surge ahead. I’d slow, only to see his tall form once again silhouetted against the sky.
“Go on Steve!” I’d manage through gulps of oxygen.
“Move your ass, Slayback,” the raspy voice would repeat.
At the California Half in Irvine, Ca, I came in at 2 hours. That afternoon Steve Move-Your-Ass Fry sent me an email.
“Course marked long, times adjusted, your time, I:58.”
At sixty-nine, with a dozen marathons behind me, and first place ribbons in 5K’s and Half-marathons, including several under 2 hours, I set my own goals.
I’m the only living female looking forward to seventy, when I will be the youngster in the 70-74 age-group at the 2014 LA Marathon. I made a public proclamation in our local newspaper: I will try for first place next March.
Enter my present volunteer coach, Jake. This tall bespectacled engineer tried to coach me for the Portland Marathon last October. Jake believes in long mileage for distance runners. He produced a carefully calculated print-out directing me to increase mileage to something like 40 miles a week on daily runs.
“I can’t do it, Jake,” I told him at one Saturday distance work-out. “My knees won’t take it. I run every-other day, hiking or walking on off days.”
Jake stroked his beard, said nothing.
Next Saturday, after careful research, Jake addressed me. “I’ve been reading about…” Here he stopped, looked down through his glasses for a second, possibly wondering if he should spare my feelings, then let me have it. “Older runners may take rest days but I still recommend a 10% weekly mileage increase.”
The guy’s a grandpa, graying hair, salt and pepper beard. In fact, I don’t know if he’s got any hair at all under that ball cap. Who’s he calling an older runner?
However, that wasn’t the end of it. I didn’t follow Jake’s mileage print-out. I ran shorter distances to be with friends rather than longer distances on my own. I interrupted work-outs to pet dogs and continued cross training every-other-day.
Then, in August’s 90 degree heat, I ran our 20-mile pre-Portland run. I took off like a bullet, hoping to beat the heat, only to wilt, struggle pitifully, and collapse at the end.
At the end, stumbling into the parking lot where the other runners were congregated, I crumbled, face flaming red, inert. I lay on the asphalt, legs propped up on the rear bumper of a fellow runner’s car.
That night I emailed Jake, “How will I keep the 10:05 pace in Portland if I’m doing 15-minute-miles today?”
Jake, after patiently reproducing his training schedule, replied, “I’m worried about you. You were more than tired today. You were exhausted. You can’t expect marathon results if you lack discipline and keep making beginner mistakes.”
Infamous for going out too fast, I knew what he meant by “beginner mistakes,” and now, added to them, was the fact that I was in Jake’s eyes “undisciplined.”
October arrived and with it the Portland Marathon. I ran with the 4:24 Pace Group, just as Jake and I planned—–until mile 20 when I was nearly felled by a port-o-potty attack. I made it through to mile 26.2 in 4:30 minutes, good for fourth place in my age group.
I didn’t run the race to prove Jake wrong, but I took secret satisfaction in beating everybody who followed his advice to increase their mileage.
Runners tell all, so I reported my successful 20 miles to Jake and then the particulars of, desperately seeking a potty.
Jake emailed back. “Were the slower final miles due to lack of endurance or the bathroom problem? Next time, try Imodium.”
Brushing aside my natural aversion to risk taking, I published the proclamation in my local newspaper that I was trying for first place (age 70-74) in the LA Marathon. Weekly articles chart my progress.
If I did not broadcast my hopes for first place, people would celebrate this old girl for just finishing the marathon. Now they’ll pity me if I come in second. The truth is that faster 70-year-olds ran both Portland and LA last year. Two came in a half-hour ahead of me. If they show up next March, I’m done.
This brings me right back to Jake, the taciturn, exacting engineer. Two Saturdays ago, recently having finished the OC Half Marathon, I took an easy 12-mile-run with Jake and others.
Elizabeth, a blond marathoner, asked me, “Are you thrilled with your time at the OC Half?
I thought a second. My goal had been to finish in under two hours, but I came in at 2 hours, 41 seconds.
I answered Elizabeth, “Considering I lost the 2-hour-pacer at 5 miles; Dover St. felt like Kilimanjaro; and Irvine Ave felt like Everest, I’m happy with my time.”
At that moment I received a compliment that nearly dropped me. “You are one of the most mentally tough people I know.” Jake said it.
I ran on quietly, heart full.
I admire mentally tough people. They take higher-level math courses, read and follow package directions, calculate their own income tax, and find their bearings quickly in new surroundings.
By my reckoning, I’m not “mentally tough.”
Jake’s former assessment of my character as “an undisciplined runner who makes beginner-mistakes” is easier for me to accept than the compliment. Maybe I ran Portland with the side issue of proving Jake wrong about my flakiness, but I’m doubly motivated by his new assessment to prove him right in LA. This time, I’m committed to his print-out.
Looking back over the coaches who have contributed to my life, I ask myself where “tough minded” might come in. Perhaps Bill, Steve and Jake saw something in me worth their time. Maybe they simply liked somebody who laughed easily and listened to guys talk running.
All three of these coaches share my husband’s intense focus, and attention to result. I may have been born with extra energy but translating hyperactivity into a 10-minute-pace for 26.2 miles comes with the vision of my coaches.
Acceptance by female friends is important to me, but toughening up is too.
Standing on the shoulders of the giants who coached me, and on the shoulders of my supportive husband, I haven’t gained an inch in height, but I have gained kilometers of self confidence and a little speed.
I take myself seriously as a competitor.
I like men.
Photo: Flickr/Rennett Stowe