Adam Donahue was feeling pretty good eight miles into a half-marathon last March and was ready to speed up. But his coach, Andre Laboy, who was trotting alongside him, said it was too early.
It’s a very common error, feeling good on race day and opening up the engines too soon in the race. Inexperienced runners who do it often burn out and end the race with a slower-than-expected pace, feeling lousy and potentially suffering injury.
Donahue and Laboy both graduated from Georgetown and were introduced through a mutual friend after Donahue had run the New York City Marathon in 2017, four months earlier. He’d enjoyed that race without a structured training program, coming in under four hours. Then the former college lacrosse athlete started training seriously “to be as competitive as possible,” which culminated in being personally paced through the 13.1-mile course that day.
“I was so nervous. I was trying to hold under seven-minute miles for the whole race,” he said later. That's a speedy pace for an amateur, and he could maintain it only for five miles in training. “There is no way I can do a half,” the then-28-year old explained. “It was great to have a coach there and actually go into battle with you in the race.''
Donahue finished at an average pace of 7 minutes, 54 seconds. “I think you could say I didn’t do this race entirely myself,” he said later. “The reality is that every pro runner has a coach, and a lot of pro runners have pacers. As an emerging runner, it made me feel like a real professional competitor, even though I’m real far from that. It was really cool.”
Donahue and Laboy’s stories—wherein a coach’s training extends to running in the race—are increasingly common among fitness junkies willing to pay cash to improve their performance in competitions.
Manhattan resident Adam Leverone got hooked on the idea of running the New York City Marathon while walking in his neighborhood on the November race day in 2016. He had turned 30 that year and lost a significant amount of weight. The next day, he put in place a plan to gain guaranteed entry—run nine races and volunteer for a few hours in 2017—to earn a spot for the 2018 race.
“It was from couch potato to marathon runner,” he says at 33. But it didn’t come without troubles.
Slammed with bad tendinitis and thousands of dollars in race fees, gear, and nutrition on the line, he signed up with Avery “IronAve” Pontell-Schaefer, founder of IronLife Coaching, to get him back on his feet. An additional $1,500 in coaching got him a three-month beginner plan, a light monthly plan for the summer months, and then an “all-inclusive” level for three months leading to the race. Pontell-Schaefer had mapped out the last week down to the hour, says Leverone, and ran with him on many training runs to help him understand what it felt like to run consistently at 10 minutes a mile—or at nine minutes.
And while Leverone missed his goal for a sub-five-hour marathon by about 20 minutes, it didn’t take long for him to start dreaming about Boston, the holy grail for marathoners because it's the oldest annual marathon and the only major with a time requirement for entry. “Qualifying is going to take several years,” Leverone says.
Getting to Boston
As some of the world’s fastest marathoners race in Boston on Monday, April 15, more and more runners inspired to hit the pavement are now starting to train like them, too. They are turning to coaches not only to come up with training plans but to personally run with—and set the pace for—them during the entire 26.2-mile journey. (A coach can also help make training choices, from the flavor of energy gels to carry in the race to what t-shirt to wear.)
One such expert is Elizabeth Corkum, or Coach Corky, who is a competitive runner and full-time coach who also teaches treadmill classes at Mile High Run in New York.
“With the running boom and social media, runners are everywhere—and many are looking to improve,” says Corkum, who gets a couple of requests a year to pace a half-marathon or full marathon. “I love pacing. It’s so satisfying to be part of an athlete’s big day,” she adds. But the hardest part is that having the coach present doesn’t prevent problems from coming up—or make racing any easier. “Twenty-six-point-two miles is still going to be a grind at some point.”
There were about 56 million runners in the U.S. and more than 18 million registrants for road races in 2017, according to data from Statista and Running USA. About 30,000 running events are held annually in the country, from marathons to mile-long sprints. For many, the ultimate goal is to run a marathon fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon. But chasing the unicorn known as the Boston Qualifier, or BQ, is getting harder. The entry field was capped at 30,000 participants for this year’s race; 7,384 who qualified, based on time, were unable to get in. BQs for 2020 have been cut by five minutes for both women and men across age groups.
That means many will need help to find ways to shave 11 seconds or more from each mile. Many runners are taking it all to the next level by not only spending hundreds or thousands of dollars a year on coaching, but also paying their coaches to pace them in the race.
Corkum, whose best marathon is 3:05, coached an athlete to her first BQ a few years ago and then served someone who took more than five hours. (The average Boston Marathon time last year was 3:57.) On the race course, she can offer positive conversation or surge ahead to grab beverage cups from refreshment stations and open gel packs to help the athlete she’s pacing. If it’s windy, Corkum will let them run in her draft. The cost, on top of race fees and related expenses, runs from $600 to $1,200 for the day.
It can be “heartbreaking, too,” says Corkum, when she sees one of her runners suffering because of a blood blister on a foot. It’s also physically taxing for her to run at a pace slower than her normal one, she says. “Despite what some of my athletes think, I’m not a super-human, and I can break down and injure, too. I’ve tried to prepare my athletes to be self-sufficient and smart during their training, with the intention of them not needing me on race day.”
“You can't cheat your way out of 26.2 miles,” Corkum says. “A coach can be helpful, but no matter who is by your side, you’ll still suffer, doubt, and go through highs and lows. That’s the beauty of the marathon.”
A Coaching Culture
Coaching services have ballooned in the past decade, and so has access to these experts through local running groups, charity teams, and online platforms. GPS-backed devices by Garmin, the latest Apple Watch, Nike smart sneakers, and mobile apps such as Strava make it easier to dissect performance. The rise in boutique fitness options also has driven people to look for additional personalized services; offerings range from regular one-on-one sessions to completely virtual ones, and runners often bounce among options.
“I think road runners are typically Type A personalities,” says Betsy Slay, who has been coaching since 2015 and started Slay Running & Fitness in Lakeland, Fla., last year. “They can be competitive, especially with themselves, just pushing to do better each time. They often love statistics, analyzing them and seeing where they can improve.”
Slay has raced with clients but has not yet charged for it. “It’s so rewarding to see them during the process,” she says, “rather than just standing at the finish line or checking my phone for their results.”
“I’ve had many people tell me they could never have done what they did if I wasn’t there with them,” she adds. “Of course, that isn’t true, because they obviously have the ability inside them. But sometimes it just takes someone believing in you and being there for you in a practical, tangible way to break through those barriers.’’
Last year, the Road Runners Club of America, the largest association of running organizations, had 8,530 certified coaches, 13 times the 650 of a decade earlier.
“There are three types of runners: the elites, the chasers (who are really serious but not necessarily earning off of running), and the newbies,” says coach Krish Natesan, who has clients in the U.S., India, Singapore, Canada, and Europe. “The gap between the first two is narrowing. Taking 10 minutes off someone’s running time is difficult, but because coaching has become more accessible, the chasers are not shying away from it and [are] constantly trying to close the gap.”
Whether they’re going for a BQ or not, Natesan has been getting additional requests to pace clients through a race in the past year or so. He agrees a couple of times a year. “It is a very emotional moment for both the coach and the athlete to see the hard work and results paying off. I do it for that experience, and I loved it every single time.’’ He typically charges from $150 to $200 a month for coaching. To exclusively pace a marathon, the runner covers the entry fee, travel, and accommodation, plus a $500 flat fee, he said.
Aside from runners looking to get faster, Amie Dworecki, chief executive officer of Running with Life LLC, who has been in the fitness industry for 28 years, says she also trains ultra-marathon distances. (That’s anything farther than 26.2 miles and can surpass 100 miles.) Her coaching costs about $200 to $350 per month. Pacing an event costs $100 per hour on top of race costs, although Dworecki doesn’t typically offer that option because it can conflict with her own training needs.
When he gets pacing requests, Kurt Lindboom-Broberg, a biology professor in Connecticut who coaches runners and triathletes part-time, tries to figure out at the start if an athlete is merely looking to cross off a bucket list item or if a longtime runner is looking for a crutch. He’ll agree to pace the first type if the timing works out, but he’ll consider other options to help them long-term consistent runners past their training levels. In January 2013, he somewhat accidentally ran 50 miles over one weekend while trying to pace and encourage each runner on the American Liver Foundation team for the Disney Marathon. “As a coach, that type of commitment is draining,” he says.
So far, Lindboom-Broberg has done five half marathons and four marathons. To pace a runner for a 150-minute marathon, he would charge for race and travel costs, plus $160.
Lower cost options are becoming available. VDOT O2, an application and training program developed by the Run SMART Project and running legend Jack Daniels, has 400 certified coaches. Runners can begin a relationship with one according to their profile and goals, or they can simply opt for a tailored training plan, based on their athletic ability. A mix of virtual or in-person coaching is also offered.
Leverone, the IronAve client, has signed up for a marathon in Sacramento, Calif., in December. That course is regarded as the fastest one (read: easiest) for those trying to qualify for Boston. Leverone wants to cut about 50 minutes off his time last year to get down to four and a half hours. His aim is to get to that BQ by his 40th birthday. If the 2020 requirement holds, that means clocking in at 3 hours and 10 minutes, or an average pace of 7 minutes and 15 seconds per mile for 26.2 miles.
“When you follow the race culture, you see all of these medals and accomplishments,” says Leverone. “I want to be at the highest level—and that’s Boston. This is like a goal now in terms of life. It’s certainly a lofty goal, but it’s not impossible.”