I still remember the first time I saw Lukas Verzbicas run (for those that are not familiar, Lukas is one of the greatest high school runners of all-time holding the national 2-mile record of 8:29 and 5k record of 14:18). He was a gazelle competing against others that seemed to be standing still. Most outsiders that see a teenager run that fast would be likely to assume he is putting in 80, 90 or even 100 miles weeks; not Lukas. Part of the year Lukas was a triathlete then when he focused on just running; swim and bike were used for recovery and his run volume was never over 50. Despite being one of the greatest high school runners ever, at the time there were still many “experts” that criticized his process and that he would run faster “if he did X” since his training was very against the grain. When you have an athlete running healthy and improving; why would you want to change that? After graduation Lukas decided to attend the University of Oregon and try to change him is exactly what happened. Lukas’ run volume went up and his bike/swim volume went down along with his performances. Shortly thereafter the fastest high school runner ever in US history left school and became a full time triathlete.
Late spring 2016 I met two athletes that would join our team and forever change not only the group as a whole but me as a coach. Every year we send a few athletes to the North Shore Half Marathon; purpose is to run hard over a hilly course in a race environment. After I wished our athletes well I jogged over to the first mile marker not only to cheer them on but also be sure they weren’t out too fast. After our men passed I saw our top female coming through but something was strange; she had another female with her. For a little background, Kris (our top female) was just coming off running 2nd to Olympian Alexi Pappas at the Shamrock Shuffle and ran 33:03 for 10k so it’s safe to say I was a little shocked to see an athlete I did not know running with her. They passed by the first mile right around 5:30. A fan next to me said “that other lady is in for a long day” but that wasn’t my thought at all; I was impressed with her aggressiveness and tenacity. Chirine ended up fading the back half of the race but to me that didn’t matter; her competitiveness was what stood out to me that day. After the race we talked and a few months later Chirine was on board with the goal of a fast marathon in the fall of 2017; we had a year.
That fall I wanted to see what she could handle, so started out at 70 miles, then 80, then 90 and soon 100. Each time I upped her volume she’d chew it up and spit it out. I had something here. That fall she did two 120 mile weeks while staying perfectly healthy. As good as I thought she could be, there was a small problem; Chirine wanted to go at everything like a bull in a china shop. Each day she was fixated on her GPS instead of listening to her body; every day was 7:02, 6:55, etc….way too fast for her easy days. Easy fix; I took her GPS and replaced it with a Timex. I thought I was going to be punched. She asked when her GPS would return to my reply “when you learn to run easy”. Also going into the winter we had another problem; Chirine had less than 0 leg speed. She was aerobically strong enough to run forever but couldn’t break 5:30 in the mile if it was downhill and short.
About 6 months before I met Chirine, a lady by the name of Alyssa Schneider just finished up her career at University of Illinois and gave me a call. Alyssa had a solid career in college but no offers from “big” programs. I told her on the phone I couldn’t offer her anything besides shoes, gear and the promise I would do everything in my power to make her the best she could be; Alyssa was in. She still had to finish up her spring student teaching but in that time I got to know her a bit better not only as a runner but a person. She had an amazing passion for the sport and a lot of potential; one thing we had to get around was her injuries. Alyssa has a tib varum (a slight bowing out of the bone), something that would never change and resulted in some foot injuries. So instead of trying to force high volume on her; we made some adjustments to strengthen her body but also placed emphasis on recovery after hard workouts. While most of her teammates would be out jogging on the roads to recover; Alyssa spent her time in her basement on the bike or at the local pool swimming laps. Using this methodology of hard days hard and easy days on bike or pool; Schneider had a great first year running 1:16 in the half marathon and took 7th overall in the USATF Shamrock Shuffle.
Going into marathon training for Chicago; we had 10 athletes who were about to begin their own journey; Chirine was an expected one, Alyssa was not. Alyssa and I met for coffee in June. I asked her if the marathon was something she’d be interested in; her response was something I’ll always remember; “The marathon really excites me but also scares me.” I smiled and advised her to give it a try. Despite her injury history, Schneider stayed incredibly healthy since joining our team so I believed she was ready for the jump. Combine her new found routine which kept her healthy and running great; Alyssa is one of the toughest athletes I have ever been around. I was very optimistic.
One of the most important jobs a coach has is figuring out the individual mix for each athlete while training them specifically for their race. Even though Chirine and Alyssa are polar opposites as athletes; I believed they could finish up around each other over 26 miles. My goal for both of their training was to mold it to their strengths. Week after week Chirine piled up the miles (topping out at 154) and Schneider trained like a long course triathlete with countless hours biking, swimming and run focus was on specific marathon work (like 40 400s, 3hr over-distance runs and 2 hour progression runs). Things were going well. About a month out Chirine and Alyssa had huge road 10k PRs cutting around 45 seconds off each from 10k’s they both ran in July.
Ten days out from Chicago, I discussed race plans with both: no watch, be smart early, run like hell late, and enjoy every step (very scientific I know). The weekend before I got “some advice” from a local coach saying how I’m running Chirine into the ground with her volume, I smiled and said “We’ll see”. Later that day I spend some time at U of Illinois (where Alyssa and I both went to school). A few alums were asking me how her training was going and I let them know what she was doing; one informed me that no athlete running that little could run a good marathon let alone break 3 hours; I smiled and said “We’ll see”. So many runners love the cookie cutter programs where each athlete fits neatly into a box.
I am still young enough where I can make it to several spots on the Chicago course. One of my favorite things about this sport is seeing athletes pour in their mind, body and soul into a dream that others deem as impossible then watch them perform. Early on the runners looked good, half way through the same and at 20 I was very vocal in letting both ladies know that it’s time to go. I sprinted down to Michigan to see them with a mile to go. Chirine powered down the road with the strength of more miles than I cared to count, few minutes later I saw Alyssa gliding down the road with a smile on her face. I was pumped. Chirine crossed the line in 2:39; not only a huge PR but also broke the Lebanese National record. Three minutes later Alyssa Schneider, in her first ever marathon, ran 2:42 qualifying her for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in one of the fastest debuts ever by an Illinois woman.
Two athletes finished within 1% of each other with one running more volume than any other first year athlete I’ve coached; the other trained like she was doing an Ironman. It’s very different on paper while adhering to the same philosophy; CONSISTENCY AND PERCEIVED EFFORT; day in day out, week in week out, month in month out; repeat. Watching two athletes push themselves further than they thought they ever could is a beautiful thing. I could not be more proud of the work that these two runners put in to be the best versions of themselves on October 8th. Not only are Chirine and Alyssa are two of the hardest working athletes I have ever had but also two of the best people I have ever met.
NEVER be afraid of being different; be afraid of being like everyone else.