Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 27 Dec 2002 08:55:11 -0500

About Them


A letter to the editor in February Runner's World comes from Courtney Smith of Eugene, Oregon. She says I "coached" her through a first marathon.

I didn't put her up to writing this letter, and didn't even know she had sent it until my February issue arrived. But I would have expected this from her. Now a doctoral student at the University of Oregon, she hasn't outgrown her high school cheerleader roots.

Courtney has joined every running class I've taught at her college the past two years. She's now my unofficial and unpaid teaching assistant, yet in two years together she has never seen me run.

No student has. They don't even know, or maybe care, if I do run. The teaching works best that way, when the classes are all about their running and none about mine.

Much of my life has always been about me alone. Running alone, then writing alone.

Not since the 1970s have I run regularly with teammates or worked with officemates. These were my choices, made without regrets. Most of the time I'm content with my own company and productive there.

But over the years the chance to talk with other runners has gradually declined. I still gave speeches to groups large and small, and still e-mailed unseen, unheard individuals by the dozens, but did less and less face-to-face chatting about running.

That slide toward hermithood suddenly reversed itself two years ago when my college teaching began. At first I thought I was doing the students a favor by passing along to them all my knowledge and experience.

I quickly learned that at least as much of the favor flowed the other way, from students to teacher. They got me out of the house -- and out of myself -- for an hour or so, four mornings a week.

To these students I'm not a longtime runner or writer. I'm their teacher, judged as all teachers are: only by how our hour together affects them and not by what I might do the rest of the time.

A teacher is all I care to be in these classes. That's why I say almost nothing about my running except, on that first day, that "I'll ask you to run nothing that I haven't tested a thousand times myself."

That's why I never run with the students. I tell them that "my job is to watch your stuff" (bikes, backpacks, discarded clothes). I tell them that "I'd embarrass myself by falling behind all of you."

I don't tell them of needing an earlier run to be awake before their class starts. I don't tell them of needing to scout the weather and their route before they run.

These excuses are all true. But my job really is to watch all of them take off and all come back later, which I couldn't do by running with the same two or three all the time.

By going off without me, they see that the class is about their running and not mine. They need to run with each other and away from their teacher. I'm there to plan, advise and cheer, but not to be anywhere near the center of their attention.

Most of each run, and the runs outside of class, and the future running I hope they'll do, must come without a teacher watching. I try to teach them not to need me for long.

Courtney Smith, the Runner's World letter-writer, didn't need any help from me for her first marathon. Despite what she said about my "coaching" her, she planned her own training and carried it out unseen by me. Nothing could have made a teacher prouder.
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