Training with Coach Harvey

AJWs Taproom[Author’s note: This is the fourth column in a five-part series on the Western States 100 leading up to the race on June 29.]

At the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, where I had my first teaching job in the late-80s, I spent a fair amount of time with cross-country coach (and fourth-grade classroom teacher) Harvey Rentschler. Coach Harvey was one of those old-time, prep-school running coaches who came of age in the running boom of the 1970s and was a student of George Sheehan, Bill Rodgers, and Frank Shorter. His coaching methods were simple and non-negotiable. And his teams were typically among the best in the area.

As I was coming of age as a runner at the same time I was learning to be a teacher, I constantly drilled Harvey with questions about training, racing, and the local Philadelphia running scene. As is always the case with the grizzled veterans, he proved to be a wealth of knowledge and wisdom. After a couple seasons of putting up with my annoyances, Harvey invited me to his first pre-season practice in the fall of 1990. He suggested that I might be able to “learn along with the boys.”

So, at the appointed hour, 3:30 p.m. sharp on the Monday before Labor Day, I joined Harvey and his group of thinclads in his spacious, fourth-grade classroom. We all sat in those little chairs that are ubiquitous in elementary schools and watched as Harvey pulled out a large bucket of water, a 32-ounce beer pitcher, and about 12 different-sized cups, glasses, and spoons and placed them on the table in the front of the room.

“Boys,” he said, “This season, we’re going to fill this pitcher. Some days we’ll use teaspoons and other days we’ll use large glasses. Occasionally, we won’t add any water and from time to time we may put in two glasses a day. However, whatever we do, we will not overfill the pitcher. The ultimate goal is to arrive at the Inter-Ac Championship Meet with the pitcher filled to the brim. Then, when the gun goes off, we’ll empty it all out!”

In subsequent years, as I developed into a 100-mile runner, I have often thought back to Coach Harvey’s “Pitcher Speech” and have tried to apply it to my own training and racing. There have been times over my 17-year ultrarunning career when I have overfilled the pitcher and other times when I have left it a bit lacking. However, each time I get to the starting line of a race and pour it out, I learn something. And, that is the ultimate lesson.

With Western States a week away, many runners are preparing to pour out their pitchers. They stand on the shoulders of Western States greats like Tim Twietmeyer, Ann Trason, Doug Latimore, and Bjorg Austrheim-Smith. Runners who seemed to know intuitively how to train and when the time was right to empty that pitcher. In this day and age, the patience and perseverance that such an approach takes sometimes gets lost in our thinking about who’s hot and who’s not. In the process, we often forget why we do this in the first place.

I know many ultrarunners whose ultimate goal is not to win. That honor is reserved for a select few. Most of the ultrarunners I know want nothing more than to simply keep running. That alone is triumph enough. And, I daresay, when some of those runners come into the Placer High School track next Saturday night or Sunday morning, they will all have emptied their pitchers. And, in one glorious blink of an eye, they will have lived a lifetime in a day. Coach Harvey would be very, very proud!

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Sam Adams Summer AleThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Samuel Adams Brewing Company in Boston, MA. While they long ago ceased being considered a craft brewery, I must say that this year’s iteration of their Summer Ale is outstanding. A crisp wheat beer with a slight lemony finish, it is a great beer to bring to the beach, the barbecue, or the ballpark. It even comes in cans!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • For those of you who are racing next weekend, or racing your goal race soon, what do you have left to do with your minds and bodies to make sure you pour out all of your pitcher’s contents on race day?
  • And, if your goal race is a little further off, what are you doing right now to help fill that Coach Harvey pitcher a teaspoon or glass at a time?