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?

There are 4 comments

  1. Wes

    Great piece AJW. Best of luck to you and all the runners at WS100. I'll be submitting my application for 2014 this year. Finally


  2. Pete

    Very interesting article. This speaks to me a lot. Currently my focus race is a month away and at this point I am being very careful to not overfill that pitcher yet make sure it is full. I would say every day I am filling the pitcher with a teaspoon at this time and managing my body to be healthy and ready. I don't want to taper to late nor do I want to taper to soon. All though I think tapering slightly early is way better then anytime late. Coach Harvey reminds me of my hs running coach. The guy was a true genious and I still to this day use some of his methods. Best of luck to all of the western states atheltes.

  3. J. Walsh

    Without the years of experience to call upon I am trying to carefully fill my pitcher (excellent metaphor)and I've got 2 months left to do it.

    It is so tough to know when to use the spoon, or maybe add no water at all. I am trying to listen to my body and it seems the more I run the more in-tune with it I am. Today is a small cup day, tomorrow a pint glass and then Monday is a liter. After that I'll need a couple no filling days, I'm sure. OK, maybe just a spoonful or two.

    Thanks for the insights and healthy joyful running to all you WS folks on the 29th!

  4. CJ

    Great post AJW! Love the pitcher illustration which applies to any of us training for a key race. Wishing you well as you try snagging another M-10 next weekend!

  5. John Burton

    I'm a little worried that there might be a small hole in the bottom of my pitcher. I keep filling it up, but I just end up with a big puddle on the floor. LOL. All joking aside, it's a great story and a great metaphor. And for those of us who find ourselves standing at the start line with an empty pitcher, we have to trust in our training, our bodies, and our mental strength to make it to Auburn — where, as others have already said, there will be endless full pitchers of beer waiting for us!

  6. Alex from New Haven

    Bjorg is out in the Canyons and Folsom lake trails all the time still these days and from what I hear, she's doing some coaching.

    To extend the metaphor though: we all have a different size and shaped pitcher and different sizes and numbers of spoons and glasses. One of the toughest parts is, as you gain experience, being able to say "what he's doing is great, but it's too much for me" or "instead of running with her I'm going to run ZERO today because it's what I need to do". General principles and personalized application…


  7. Dan D

    Sounds like Coach, though is it possible that this actually happened in 1991? I was co-captain of the 1990 team, and that season we were only 3rd or 4th best in the league. Dan Kelly was still at Haverford, and even though they were DQ'd for the season, we had no shot at winning the title behind Malvern. It was before that champion race that Coach gave the speech I'll never forget, which I have carried with me ever since.

    We rode to the race in one of the school's vans, and after he parked he turned back towards us all. I'm sure there was a bit of a rpeamble about doing our best, but to my recollection the general tone was we weren't going to rock anyone's world that day. And then in closing he said "Sometimes, you have to dance with the b*tch you came with..", and he got out of the van.

    Best speech ever! We promptly went out and finished third or fourth.

    Proud to have been one of Mr. R's Superstars

  8. AJW

    Dan, this is awesome! Thanks for chiming in. And, certainly, I could have easily gotten the year wrong as my PC years are all a little foggy. That said, Harvey was one great coach! AJW

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