Why I Fired My Coach

To those on the subscriber feed, sorry to repost this. I have a blog post coming out in the next few hours that will explain why I did. Thank you for your kind patience.

I have to admit that I'm disappointed. On Wednesday morning, I terminated the coaching relationship with Scott Fishman of Team All-American.

Before getting into the reason for ending this experiment, I want to talk about the positives. When I started with Scott Fishman, I needed help in correcting my inconsistency in running. It was not unusual for me to let work and my various projects squeeze out my runs and I might go a week between workouts.

That problem has been fixed, with Coach Fishman's help. The program that he put together started with lower mileage than my good weeks, but about at the level of my average. It included a cross-training element designed to limit the possibility of injury, which is advisable for a large segment of the running community. I've always been fortunate that I don't break running. My issues aren't bio-mechanical but bio-chemical.

Within a month, I was hitting a consistent five workouts per week on pace to get to a solid six. The early results had me getting faster. Coach Fishman likes to use timed miles to judge performance gains in athletes who are not actively racing. The problem with timed miles with an athlete who has trained for long trail distances is that the Daniel's Rule of the Specificity of Training kicks in - the test doesn't fit the training.

I also run lousy against a clock. When I'm racing, I'm trying to grind that next guy into the ground, not make a stopwatch happy. By myself, I don't ever hit the same intensity as I do with competitors.

The pacing for the workouts took some fine-tuning. About a month in, Scott Fishman and I had about a 30 minute conversation. This was our only long conversation, other than the initial sales process, and likely would not have happened if I had not sent a relatively lengthy email detailing some of the issues I was having.

We discussed what had worked well with me in the past, and when to fit them into the week so that I hit the workouts in the proper sequence when I had the energy to do them. I also reiterated that I had no desire to race, unlike most of (maybe all) his other athletes.

Along with modifications to the training schedule, we also took my admittedly indefinite goals and refined them. My peak effort for the cycle would be a mountain running adventure in the Seven Devils, doing the 30-ish mile loop trail. The trailhead for this run starts at 7600’ feet of elevation, drops as low as 6200’ and climbs as high as 8200’. I think there’s about twenty meters of level ground on the whole thing. We also developed at goal for body fat (9.5 % by July 31st), and had a discussion

As a result of the call, the program got tweaked, then tweaked again a couple of weeks later in response to another email. The second adjustment was to fit my work schedule, so primarily a mechanical, rather than philosophical, change.

So, we made adjustments to the program and the progress was promising, but I had a niggling feeling in my gut. Running my own business, I've learned to trust my gut over the years.

Scott uses Training Peaks to plan the workouts which is a very slick site. Generally, he would post the plan on Sunday, though several times the workouts didn’t get posted until Monday. Only one week at a time was put into the system, making it nearly impossible for me to see the cycles and how they would interlink in the future. Given the fluidness of my schedule, having an additional source of uncertainty did not help my stress levels.

I also never saw any response on the website or via text/email acknowledging the information I plugged in, not even an “Attaboy” occasionally. Scott does post to his team Facebook page (I removed myself voluntarily when I decided to leave the program, so can’t link) and to Twitter.

Something odd that I noticed, because of the speed work that Scott had me doing, was that there was a perplexing threshold that I kept bumping into. I started paying close attention to the way my body was reacting to training.

Please understand is that the years of health issues cost me a lot of fitness and I lost a good two minutes per mile in speed. I was okay with this—at least I was running. I was grateful for that.

When doing speed work, though, I kept hitting the same barrier and the effects were consistent. I still had good (for me) turnover and could hang a decent 200m. I could still rack miles. Doing AT workouts pushed my lungs over the edge. It wasn’t a gradual falling off in performance, but a total locking up on breathing while the heart rate went through the roof.

Then I started having issues with the miles, and just walking up a flight of steps. Throw in some near-constant leg weariness and body fatigue, and obviously the issue wasn’t related to running or the program Coach Fishman set up.

I did a fast search on the internet and, of the 41,512 possible issues, settled on old-fashioned iron depletion. That was the week before I terminated the coaching agreement. The week of training went pretty badly, enough so that I scheduled a doctor’s appointment to get things checked out. That won’t happen until the 5th, so I’m running blind right now. On Sunday, I had a long run – and blew up at 25 minutes despite keeping the pace down.

I entered my data on Sunday and included a note that I would be sending Coach Fishman an email. Then I checked in on the Facebook page to see how things had gone for the rest of Team All-American. I was stunned at what I read.

On Saturday, one of the team’s runners had participated a marathon, her rookie attempt. Scott had posted something to the effect of “Congratulations to XXXXXX, she ran a 3:49 for her first marathon, and had a near-death experience.”

The lady in question later put up a long post. She had run right on pace for the race. The weather was hot and humid, the kind of conditions that make most experienced marathons back off early. She didn’t. She ended up in an ice bath for two hours while the finish line crew worked to get her core body temperature down from 109 degrees. From her reports, it sounds as though she’s going to be okay, but a well-coached runner should never have a ‘near-death’ experience. (The exception might be Alberto Salazar, but he was never quite the same runner after his last rites at Boston in 1982 and was out of competitive running by 1984.)

A coach is more than someone who puts together the training program. In fact, the technical aspects may be the least important. The most important are the abilities to communicate and inspire. In this case, I feel the coach should have been monitoring the conditions that the runner was headed into and been talking to the athlete in the week before about strategy to deal with the heat. Most experienced marathoners understand the concept of the backup race if something goes south on the first race date, whether it’s a flu bug or lousy weather. Inexperienced marathoners need to be taught that. That’s the job of the coach.

So, with my email out, and having read a distressing Facebook post, I waited for a response to my email. Small potatoes compared to near-death. Monday morning, I finally got a workout for Monday – an off day.

Was it a response to the email, my blowing up the day before, or scheduled? Didn’t have a clue because Coach Fishman hadn’t responded.

Anybody that knows me understands that I built a very successful business predicated on communication. I am damn near maniacal on the importance of good and honest communication.

The rest of the schedule filled in for the week. From the scheduled workouts, it didn’t look as though Coach Fishman had looked at the previous week, read the comments I’d left, or read the email.

By Tuesday evening, I made the decision that I could not operate under the uncertainty created by the last minute program deliveries and the lack of communication with Coach Scott Fishman. I went to bed. First thing Wednesday morning, I would tell Scott that I no longer needed his services.

Wednesday morning dawned, and in my inbox was an email from Coach Fishman, finally following up on my email from Sunday evening. I pondered, briefly, whether to dismiss my planned email, and then decided to proceed. In the business world there is a philosophy of hiring that goes “hire slow, fire fast.” It applied.

I sent the email as a reply to Scott’s inquiry, and asked for a refund of the final three months of training fees. At that point, I was at two months and one day of the agreement of training and slightly under two months of the actual program. I had paid for six months of training.

The response back came within hours, not days, and was that Coach Fishman did not understand why I would want to leave the program. Also, he didn’t offer refunds. He also offered to discuss things over a phone call. I forwarded some times to him and we settled on one. Later that afternoon, I received a test message from Coach Fishman that solidified my feelings that I should leave.

In writing, there’s a device called the “telling detail”. It’s that one thing that snaps a character or a scene into focus. The test message read, “Before our call, please put in writing your reason for requesting a refund. Thanks.”

Scott Fishman didn’t ask why I was leaving the program. He asked why I wanted the refund.

People will often tell you what is really important to them if you listen closely enough.

I sent a fairly long email building the argument for a refund. It went about fifteen bullet points and I knew before I sent it that there was no hope for success. I also told Scott I didn’t see a need for a phone call, that I would not be rejoining Team All-American. The reply came back promptly, in passive voice. “I regret to inform you that your request for a refund has been denied.” He went on to wish me success in running and life.

My last email to him was to acknowledge that I expected the result, and, if nothing else, had material now for some articles. Eventually I’ll get those written, plus I have one story where some of this can come into play – not the specifics, but the ancillary stuff that I learned on the way.

I haven’t soured on coaching. I now know what I am looking for in a coach and a program. Since I’m technically knowledgeable, I don’t necessarily need a program designed to hit 5K PR’s. What I need is someone who is an outstanding communicator that can show me how to apply my technical knowledge to the goals I have. When I need it, a kick in the butt is welcome, too.

What I want—need—is a coach, not a technician.