Potential: The dirtiest word in the run-game

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Guest blog by Kass Berry, aka The Lone Runner

The Coach meets her Athlete.

Less than a year ago I opened up my phone to find a very special text message waiting for me from Dana Spencer, my coaching mentor and friend.  ”Are you ready for your first athlete to coach? It’s time to jump in and finally get your feet wet!” Up until that moment I only had pipe dreams about coaching marathoners, dreams I only shared with two people (Owen and Dana). While part of me was absolutely terrified to be in charge of someone else’s marathon, another part of me lit up inside at the opportunity to guide someone through the journey that is marathon training. “Ready as I’ll ever be. What do you have for me?” I replied. And that was that. Out of the blue Dana handed me my very first athlete, Miss E. (as I will call her) who was training for her very first marathon, the Boston Marathon. Very apropos, don’t you think? 

As coaching commenced I quickly learned that E was a talented 20 year old runner who like myself was full of spunk and speed on the road. She crushed her mile repeats by clocking low 6′s, obliterated her long runs at a sub 8 min pace and took it in stride when several of her lead up races were cancelled due to the horrible New England winter. On several occasions we even found ourselves side by side logging long runs on the YMCA Woodway treadmills. This girl, her passion, her spunk- she was a force to be reckoned with and I was honored to be a part of her marathon training experience.

The Lesson.

One night at work I found myself bragging to T.J., a friend and college track coach, about Miss E. “You don’t understand T.J. This girl is going to CRUSH it at Boston this year. But that’s just the beginning. She is SO insanely fast in her mile splits it makes my head spin. In just a few more seasons of running long she”ll gain durability and she’ll be way faster than me- she’s something amazing!! She’s got serious potential.”

“Slow it down there Rapunzel and watch your words,” he replied. Somehow the combination of being a high school social studies teacher and Bridgewater State track coach always had T.J. speaking in energized sarcastic riddles like a cross between Yoda and the Cheshire cat. ”PO-TEN-TIAL!?! Did you say POTENTIAL!?” he erupted. After a brief but distinct pause in a teacher-like fashion he put his palm in the air to signal the continuation of his tirade,

You better watch your words Goldilocks ’cause that right there is the dirtiest word in the English language. Potential? Ha! ANY athlete can have potential- it’s what they’re willing to do with it [potential] that is the great equalizer come race.” 

I’ll admit it- at that moment I became a tad defensive about Miss. E, her goals and the possibilities around her running career. What was Yoda TJ trying to say? That she wasn’t going to BQ? That she didn’t have what it takes?! It wasn’t true- not in the least. I felt it in my bones that this girl was something special and was going to crush it come race day. But TJ wasn’t really talking about E specifically, he was talking about all runners with a goal, a dream and a race.

TJ was SO emphatic with his words that I have held onto them for the better part of a year. For ten months I have held onto his notion of potential being a very dirty word in the run-game. For ten months I have let his words enter and escape my mind during long runs trying to visualize the picture that he saw so clearly. My mind was aflutter on long runs trying to interpret his latest enigma, “Is potential really something dirty, bad, and negative? Or is that just untapped potential? Aren’t we all made up of potential- and unlimited possibilities? Doesn’t that incite us, motivate us and literally move us forward? But bad and dirty. Hmmm. I just don’t get it.” No matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t make sense of his words, so I tucked them away until recently.

The Learning.

After two years of (relatively) effortlessly improving in my personal run-game this season has proven different. As my pace quickly improved in training often thought of myself as a runner with a lot of potential. Yet this season I have found myself having to push harder than ever before to make even small improvements on the road (ahem, sub20 by two seconds). While I spend some training days effortlessly gliding, other runs my legs feel like cement bricks that don’t want to budge. The cement days are the absolute worst. They are usually accompanied with a tall glass of life stress and a side order of salty tears. They are few and far between, but they are frustrating and exhausting all the same. They make me wonder if all the miles and all the effort is worth it. They make me wonder if the reason why I have to try to so hard is because I don’t have what it takes. What if I don’t?

In late August I found myself in the midst of a storm of life stress, work and a sudden onslaught of 3 back to back weekends of kids birthday parties so much so that I found myself feeling distracted and drained on training runs. During a workout submission I even wrote to Beth, “”Some days I’m sick of working so hard at everything- running, work, life. Why can’t this just come easy?” Beth, along with other friends and mentors reminded me that when it comes to running you get what you give. Some days are supposed to be hard. Some days are supposed to test us. A true testament of our strength is how we respond and rebuild from the tough days.

Then there are the ‘gliding days’; they are by far the best days when I feel focused, calm and at peace on the road. Yes, my pace is typically faster those days, but it’s not just the number that energizes me. It’s being capable, feeling confident and ready to tackle endless possibilities. These days have me dreaming of crushing PR’s, registering for future races and all of the glorious training miles in-between. These days embody my passion.

Unfortunately with the run game you don’t get to choose from a menu on what day you get. Some times you get cement for breakfast and some days you get to glide.

Taken together strength and passion can make an athlete unstoppable, and possibly even better than an athlete with genetic potential who lacks passion and drive.

THIS is what TJ was trying to convey 10 months ago during his Friday night running store ramblings. Maybe an athlete’s success isn’t based off of potential at all. What if an athlete’s success is determined by his or her strength and passion for the sport?


What does this all mean?

It means E BQ’ed at her first marathon, the Boston Marathon.

It means I finally broke 20.

It means the sky’s the limit.

It means that passion, not potential, is the real measuring stick when you toe the line.


Never Stop Running,

Kass/ The Lone Runner

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