Tag: going pro

Abbey D Interview

There we were, jammed into the small office area at the back of the store with the live video feed up on the computer screen. It was a late-November Saturday afternoon at the New England Running Company shop in Beverly, MA, and free time was scarce. We hoped that it would stay quiet just long enough to watch Abbey D’Agostino nail down a national cross country title.

Watching Abbey cross the line victorious, live and at work.

Iona’s Kate Avery aggressively got out to a big lead and knowing full well that front-running isn’t the smart play in a championship race, it still made us anxious watching it. Come on, make a move already Abbey! I was still relatively new on the staff there, having only started back in the spring. Prior to joining the crew I had been involved with Level Renner for almost two years, and one thing we love to see is a runner with local ties breaking through on the big stage. It wasn’t exactly breaking through for Abbey since she already had titles on the track, but this was to be her big moment in cross country.

What made this even more interesting was that Abbey grew up on the north shore and shopped at the store, going back to her high school days. So now members of the staff were watching a customer, someone they knew from when she was starting out just like any other runner, capture a national title. How often do you see a former high school runner from your community win a national championship?

With that in mind, we went about setting up the interview. And what better place to do the interview than at the store itself, right? I had to work there anyway and Level Renner currently has no office, so getting to work a bit early and turing the floor into a studio (before the doors opened to customers) seemed like the best bet.

Once we sat down, we learned right off the bat that Abbey D’Agostino suffers from Track Hack, or as she calls it, The Reggie Cough. She is human! The first thing that came up was Abbey’s indoor track season-opening 5k win at the 2013 Jay Carisella Track & Field Invitational on 12/14 at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury, MA (namesake of the aforementioned ‘reggie cough’). Abbey ran a 15:40 and secured herself a spot in the 5k field when the indoor national championships come around. “I always have to remember at the beginning of the indoor season how harder it is to breathe in the indoor arena. So yeah, that was a bit humbling for me.” Not bad for a rust-buster though.

Abbey did this flying solo, too. The next closest competitor was almost 90 seconds behind her. Just think what could’ve been; the PC trio of Emily Sisson, Sarah Collins and Laura Nagel had all run the 5k the weekend before and all ran between 15:40 and 15:42. It’s all irrelevant in the big picture since it was an early season meet and they were all undoubtedly running just fast enough to get the standard. However, Abbey running with the PC women is far more exciting than Abbey running solo.

National qualifier for the 5k in hand, it’s now time to focus on the 3k. “What I’ve done in indoor season in the past, too, is just done a little speed work so I’ll be in some fast miles, I hope, and then you know a couple of those before 3k, like mid-February.”

Naturally, the focus shifted to what was a bit further down the road: going pro. Obviously it’s not like asking a football free agent where they want to go. The NCAA is pretty clear (and strict) about what athletes can and can’t do (mostly can’t) regarding their future. But only a small amount of runners make the leap from the college ranks to the pros so there’s a lot of interest in the process surrounding the transition.

One thing that Abbey can do is get advice from people who’ve been through it, and luckily one of her good friends just recently made that move. Alexi Pappas went from Dartmouth to the Oregon Track Club and has been a valuable source of info. Abbey said that Alexi told her to “be at Dartmouth while you’re at Dartmouth, you don’t need to worry about it (going pro) yet. But she’s made it known that she’s available for advice because she’s been through the whole process before.”

There’s so much that goes behind any decision anyway that it takes its fair share of homework. “I sort of have to educate myself a little bit before I even have the vocabulary to ask the questions, so that’s the focus for the rest of this time off from school,” said Abbey regarding how she was to be spending the rest of her winter break.

“I’m trying to stay as open minded as possible as to what I’m looking for and where I want to be next year,” continued Abbey. “Obviously the location is a huge variable in where I decide I want to train and what I decide I want to do.” Speaking of location, that seems to be exactly what people are talking about lately.

In the days since we sat down, there was obviously one big announcement that we’d be remiss to overlook here: Abbey’s coach Mark Coogan has left Dartmouth to join New Balance. Mark accepted a position as part of the marketing team and will head up an elite training group based out of Boston. It’s very easy to speculate as to what will happen in a few months when Abbey graduates, but that’s just it: it’s all speculation.

If there’s one person who can ignore all of the noise surrounding that, it’s Abbey. She seems like she’s truly enjoying her time at Dartmouth and isn’t too worried about what will happen after her time is up in Hanover.

What she might have to worry about in the meantime is what to do about all of the marriage proposals. Okay, so far none of them have gone to her directly, but we received a few of them when we put out a call for interview questions from our readers. To see her response, well, you’re just going to have to watch the video.

We just hope we can get a Burning Love-style competition up off the ground. It would be epic.

A pic of from our session is featured in the latest issue of Level Renner, which is free to all and available now!

Joanna Murphy: All In

Interview by Victoria Barnaby

Editor’s Note: It takes a lot of guts to leave a secure job to pursue a dream, especially in this economic environment. Joanna Murphy did just that. The New Balance Boston harrier left the office behind to take a shot running pro. Well, that’s the simple way of putting it. Victoria Barnaby interviewed Joanna to find out more about what went into the big decision and what happens next.

You’ve left a secure career and office job to persue a professional running career, walk us through the process of recognizing that dream, reconciling the reality of it with the risks and the transition period?

Well, first I think “leaving a secure office job to pursue pro running” is a bit misleading. I left a job I wasn’t passionate about in order to give myself the opportunity and space to explore things that make me excited to get up in the morning. Part of that is running and having more time/energy to put into my running. But I’m not a one dimensional person and I don’t want a one dimensional life. I’ve always wanted to coach, especially young athletes and I’m also an avid writer (two things that make zero money…haha). This transition is more of a transition into the life I really want, which in the short term is a bit unstable, scary and risky, but (hopefully) will emerge as a more engaging and dynamic lifestyle that also fosters some really fast running :)

What are you doing to pay the bills?

Right now I am providing freelance Marketing & Sales support for small companies including Believe I Am (headed up by Olympian Roisin McGettigan) and Blue Trailer (company that provides locker service at road races). I am also coaching cross country at a local high school as well as coaching private clients on CoachUp.

What is it like being a coach and being coached as an athlete at the same time? Does this make you a better coach?

I think the benefit of still competing while also being a coach is that I can share my learnings along the way and can pull from the workouts/tips/successes that resonate with me. The challenge is also being objective enough to identify the need in each athlete outside of your own experience. Sometimes what works for me is not what will work for them. But I do try to share as much as I can the things that help me - at the high school level these things often have little to do with training and much more to do with mental preparedness, warm up & cool down routines, race strategy and confidence.

Does this extra time and schedule flexibility help you train better?

I think it’s easy to catch myself thinking, “well, I changed my lifestyle so I need to be doing more, or running faster, or doing things differently…”. I try to remind myself often that I got to where I was at by consistently building year after year, and that I will continue to improve by continuing to do what I’ve been doing. The main thing my more open schedule allows for is relaxation. I’m not super rushed with getting in all my runs. I’m not skipping stretching. I’m getting at least 9 hours of sleep every night. I’m cooking for myself and can focus on nutritious, quality meals. I’m not choosing between relationships and an extra 4 miles. I can fit in everything I need and really enjoy it. This is a huge blessing for me.

Would you recommend this move for other runners with a similar dream or circumstance?

I think it’s absolutely possible to achieve a high level of running success while working a full time job, but it will also come at the expense of time and relationships. I personally wanted more flexibility in my day to day schedule and wanted to go a different direction with my life. I would recommend for anyone, at any age, to find a way to build a lifestyle they truly enjoy. I believe life is too short to be stuck in a cubicle waiting until 5pm so your “real life” can finally start.

What makes you different from all the other professional runners out there, not looking at times?

Other than the fact that I’m not really pro and don’t have a contract? haha…I’m not different. All pro runners, entrepreneurs, writers, artists, etc have at one point in their life had to make a decision to pursue a life they were passionate about and take a risk to get it. I am simply in that transition. Hopefully I will come out the other side as a much faster & more accomplished runner. But I might also just come out with an MFA.

What’s your goal for this indoor season, you had quite a 3k performance last year, can you give us a preview of your upcoming races as well?

This fall and winter will be all about getting a really good base under me in preparation for outdoors. Coming up will be NE XC Champs & Club Nationals. Going into the winter I would like to keep progressing with aerobic strength, but would also like to snag a 3k PR and have a strong performance at USA Indoor Championships. But the focus will be on the 3k Steeple in outdoor track.

And long terms goals, what are they (right now)?

I really want to take a crack at breaking 9:50 in the steeple and placing in the top 10 at USA Outdoor Nationals this spring. Last spring felt a bit like a ‘shit show’ - I’d been injured in April and didn’t start racing until June 1, so my outdoor season was essentially 15 days of me racing every 5 days to qualify for USAs. Most of the races were in hot conditions and/or by myself, so I feel like I have a lot left. That’s the main thing I’m focusing on right now…I’m sure I’ll come up with something more lofty once I snag that :)

What do you do for fun?

Well, pretty much the same as before - eating and sleeping are my two main sources of fun (haha), but I really enjoy everything I’m doing, so my entire day feels fun. As well, I told myself that with my new (free) schedule, I would let myself read more (which I previously didn’t have time for). I am a nerd at heart so this is pretty fun for me. I’ve read The Sports Gene (awesome book) and am now in the middle of Malcom Gladwell’s David and Goliath.

You’re now working with young athletes, do you have any success stories? Any lessons learned from your coaching experiences?

It’s been really great watching the Winsor girls progress through their season. We’ve had a lot of PRs this fall. And yes, they teach me daily the best part of running - that it’s supposed to be fun!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten through this whole experience?

It’s been so great to work with Roisin McGettigan (owner of Believe I Am). She is really open about sharing her athletic experience (she is an Olympian in the steeplechase) with me and I’m always learning from her. Her main advice is always to not worry about what everyone else is doing or what I feel like I should be doing, but to just stay really consistent and keep putting in the work. But the absolute best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten came from fellow teammate Sydney Fitzpatrick before the indoor 3k last year at USATF-NEs last year (where I had a huge breakthrough). As we finished warming up together she said, “Fuck it. Just go out there and kill it.” How can you top that?!

Who has helped support you this past year?

New Balance Boston and my coach (Dan Green) have been incredibly supportive, sending me all over the U.S. to try for a USA qualifier. And all my NBB teammates are really supportive. Ian Nurse at Active Recovery Boston and Amy Duverger at Restore Total Body continually put me back together. And all my friends and family who have heard me list all the ridiculous times (that to them are just random numbers) that I want to try for. I’m sure by now they’re ready for me to shut the hell up haha!

Thoughts on the parent feedback you got from your private clients - did it make you feel more confident about your coaching abilities?

Mainly I’m happy if the kids are happy! I’ve always gotten good feedback from parents regarding how their child is handling the coaching sessions. With running there is a lot more individual work, so it’s always nice when I get feedback that coaching has helped make a kid excited about going for a run!

Do you like connecting and working with an individual?

Yeah I do! I think running success is so individual and often has a lot to do with how someone perceives their own potential or ability. Working with an individual allows me to find out what makes them “tick” and tailor things that are fun for them or addressing specific individual needs.

What are your thoughts on one-on-one coaching in running, it’s not as common in middle/high/college runners as it is pros, can you comment/express your opinion on it? The balance?

For younger runners the team atmosphere of running is a lot different to the process of working with an individual coach. Especially for young athletes, I see my job as preparing them for what they will do with their team. A lot of this is working on specific imbalances or weaknesses - addressing form, coordination & stability. As well, this is an opportunity to get a feel with and “play with” different paces so they can feel confident at different intensities. I think one on one coaching is an excellent opportunity for young runners to explore their own athleticism and “work out the kinks” so to speak without the added pressure of having to perform in front of others or worrying about performing well for their team.

Can you share a little more about your private train/strength coach? How often did you see him/did it help? Would you recommend it to other runners?

I do a fairly rigorous weight session once per week, but had been a little shy of really getting aggressive with it without someone watching my form. So last spring I enlisted the help of a strength coach to help me dial in my form and work on things that would translate to running - more single leg explosiveness, a more open stride, a better arm drive. It wasn’t a very complicated routine, but it really helped to have someone watch me and correct the little inefficiencies that I had developed. And as a result, I felt like I had a better stride that didn’t break down as much as I fatigued. I think addressing these strength aspects are perhaps even more important for me since I race the steeplechase and have to jump over things…In general, regardless of level or event, I think it’s always beneficial to seek out opportunities to make you a better athlete. Even if you don’t apply ALL of it, it’s never hurts to have more information.

Joanna just recently competed at USATF XC Club Nationals, where she helped her New Balance Boston team finished 5th overall. Interested in being coached by Joanna? Check out her profile here. There’s also more info on the CoachUp homepage, and you can get directly to the sign up app here.

**Above pic is from club nats and is courtesy of Rod Hemingway.

Steve Spence: His Take on Neely Leaving School Early

Steve Spence is the head cross country/assistant track & field coach at Shippensburg University. Steve’s been coaching there since ’97, and was even an All-American himself there (class of ’85).

NCAA Div. II Cross Country Championships in 2010. Courtesy of Bill Smith/Shippensburg University.

After graduating, he enjoyed tremendous success on the roads. At the World Championships in 1991 he earned a bronze medal in the marathon. In 1992 he represented the US in Barcelona, placing 12th in that Olympic marathon.

Steve is also the father of Neely Spence Gracey, who was featured in an interview in the latest issue of Level Renner. Neely ran for Shippensburg, under Steve’s guidance, before leaving a semester early to turn pro (in December of 2011).

After coaching his daughter to monumental success, he then helped guide Neely to the situation that best suited her needs. We talked about that experience with Steve to find out a little more about what the process was like. As both coach and father, his perspective is certainly unique.

How difficult of a decision was it, not only as a coach but as a parent, to support Neely’s decision to leave school early?

It was more of a difficult decision for her.  I felt that she was ready after her junior year and Kirsten (my wife) and I encouraged her to consider going pro at that time, but she insisted that she had unfinished business and a lot of goals for her senior collegiate seasons.  After the NCAA cross country meet in 2011, I again brought up the idea of going pro.  She wanted to run the USATF Club XC meet, to compete early January at the BUPA meet and then prepare for the Olympic Trials.  I pointed out that a collegiate track season was not necessarily the best option to help her achieve her goals.

NCAA Div. II Cross Country Championships in 2010. Courtesy of Bill Smith/Shippensburg University.

How soon before Neely turned pro did you realize this was a possibility? Was there a specific race or a workout where you thought ‘She’s ready’?

We realized this was a possibility when she was a high schooler or maybe even before that when she ran a 17:41 road 5k as a 13 year old.  Her decision to stay at Shippensburg after her freshman year had a lot to do with preparing her for a post collegiate career.  When she ran 15:33 at Mt. SAC in 2011, I felt that she was ready.  From that point, she began to think in a larger scope than the collegiate scene.

How involved were you in the search for a suitable program for her?

I made the initial contacts with potential agents and also the initial contacts with the coaches of the various training groups.  Once Neely signed with Ray Flynn, he arranged for her to visit with the training groups which we thought had the potential to be a good fit for her.  I had some very informative and lengthy conversations with many of the coaches.

Looking back, we are happy with her decision to turn pro in December 2011 because of the time it took to secure a shoe contract.  There were many factors to consider.  Some shoe companies required that you join their training group directed by their coaches.  Others allowed their sponsored athletes to seek their own coaching and join groups like Mammoth where you could be affiliated with any shoe company.  She also needed to make visits, which was time consuming.  Some were flexible with travel and time away from the group, while others only gave a five-day Christmas break and then they wanted her back.  It was definitely a much more lengthy process than what we anticipated and it was good that Neely was able to dedicate time while she was injured.

Do you find it hard at all not being hands on with her training now? Or is it easier knowing that she went from your guidance right into an established, renowned program?

Letting go has not been hard for me.  The plan was for me to coach her through the trials and then she would be guided by the Hanson’s after the trials. We did a lot of research and I’m very comfortable with what Keith and Kevin are doing with her training.  They are a little more aggressive than what I was with Neely as I always erred on the side of being conservative with her paces and volume.  They are pushing her closer to the line, which I see as a good thing.  They realize that she has fewer stresses now that she is just an athlete and not a student-athlete.  They are doing a great job at developing her aerobic strength with the longer faster runs and longer intervals.

NCAA Div. II Cross Country Championships in 2010. Courtesy of Bill Smith/Shippensburg University.

I loved the story of the 8k that you and her raced late in the fall. [See this Runner World article for more on that. They both broke 26:00 and Neely got the course record.] How competitive are you two with each other?

Neely used to get very frustrated that I could take long periods off from training and still be able to run with her in workouts and beat her in a race situation.  That all changed when she started running mid 15s for 5k.  We now have fun with the competitive aspect.  I’ve been trying to help her out with workouts when she is at home.  That means that I try to hang on as long as possible.  She had a 6 mile progression run in September in which she started at 6:20 and dropped 10 to 12 sec each mile.  I was able to feel great through 4, hang on through 5 and then I was done as she went on to run the last mile in 5:17.  Another workout she was doing 10 x 800 in 2:34 range on fairly short recovery.  I helped by leading her through 600 meters in each and then got some extra recovery as she ran the last 200 on her own.

My goal at the 8k was to get her through 3 miles and then try to finish.  I knew I wasn’t quite ready to run her pace for the full 8k, but I must admit that it was tough on me mentally to watch her run away from me at 3 and realize that there was nothing I could do about it.  I did have visions of grandeur prior to the race in which I thought that maybe I’d be able to hang on and out-kick her.

What do you think of the business side of the sport for athletes now compared to your days competing?

The sport has definitely been professionalized much more than when I competed.  I was talking with Don Janicki last week and we discussed how we were all on our own back in the 80s and 90s.  There were really no training groups or coaches.  We were pretty much trying to figure things out on our own and would create our own training groups.  When I was in Boulder, Chris Prior was my main training partner in the summer.  He was fantastic and in that he would kill himself to help me through a workout, and he is a great story teller which entertained me on long runs.  Barrios, Steve Jones and DeCastella were jealous that I had Chris to workout with and called him my domestique like they have in cycling.  I also set up training camps with Steve Taylor several times and with Keith Brantly.

I was fortunate enough to be recruited by Dr. Dave Martin who was in charge of the Long Distance Runner Olympic Development program.  Being part of the program in the late 80s to the mid 90s involved going to Atlanta several times per year for testing which included:  VO2 max, pulmonary function, bone density, cybex strength tests, dietary analysis and blood work.  Although Dr. Dave didn’t coach me on a daily basis, I ran all of my training plans by him and made adjustments as he thought necessary.  I also kept in touch and used him as a resource whenever I experienced any problems.

It was explained to me by the agents and coaches that shoe and other sponsor contracts including a hefty bonus structure for specific times and places are much more important than they used to be.  It’s disappointing to see that some of the major road races no longer exist, like the Cascade Runoff, and that many of the major road races offer similar amounts or sometimes even less prize money than was offered in the late 80s.

This is the follow up companion piece to EJN‘s interview with Neely Spence Gracey that appeared in the Mar/Apr issue of Level Renner. It’s free so, go get it now if you haven’t already.

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