An Ode to Coaching

Offseasons between races often feel a little trickier to navigate than training cadences themselves. I always itch to run, and if I’m running, I want to push myself and run hard. My 2023 season didn’t go well – I mismanaged my offseason preparation and scratched another autumn race for the third consecutive year. However, seeing my friends achieve PR after PR while giving it their all on the course has been a source of immense joy and pleasure.

Runnan Manoj

My brother’s friend from high school, Ronan Manoj, recently commenced his running career with lofty ambitions of matriculating to endurance triathlons. Ronan designated a small shelf in his bedroom as his medal cabinet, opening his account with a shiny 10K finisher’s medal. He soon caught the running bug, and immediately enrolled for the San Francisco 1st Half Marathon – his first race at such a distance.

Ronan enjoyed adhering to a balanced training program, juggling light elliptical workouts with short jogs, relaxed bike rides, and anaerobic exercises. Unfortunately, a niggling knee issue sidelined him from the roads for multiple weeks, and he was only able to notch light workouts on the elliptical while negotiating the thin road to recovery.

With less than a week to race day, Ronan made the gametime decision to honor his commitment to run the half marathon. I applauded his bold choice but silently held my breath hoping that his muscles and bones would remain intact after he crossed the finish line.

Ronan requested a hearty meal of steak fajitas for his pre-race supper. After collecting his bib and race materials at the eleventh hour, we fired up the stove and charred some meat and vegetables. The resultant fajitas were packed with flavor, and I couldn’t help but ladle multiple large tortillas on Ronan’s plate. My athlete would not toe the starting line with a grumbling stomach.

Satisfied with dinner, we briefly reviewed the course map and elevation profile together. I pointed out key turns and mile markers to Ronan, indicating where I’d be looking out for him on the course. Apart from the out and back segment over the Golden Gate Bridge, the course was fairly spectator-friendly and afforded multiple points for cheering on runners.

Both of us arose early and were up and about by 04:15. I prepared a small stack of pancakes while Ronan heated up his talismanic instant oatmeal for a makeshift breakfast. Despite his halfhearted protesting, I shoved Ronan onto the inbound MUNI L bus towards Embarcadero. We shared few words as the bus inched closer to the pre-race shuttles. I lobbed some parting platitudes to Ronan, wishing him the best of luck, and resolving to meet him at the start line. I then proceeded to hail a bikeshare bicycle, riding all the way to the starting corrals in the Presidio.

Unfortunately, the race itself was poorly organized. When Ronan finished a steep ascent to reach the Battery trail loop-around, he found himself waiting for a procession of runners cutting back from turnaround to pass through. The race organizers and course marshals did not adequately cone off the course and delineate the separate lanes of runner traffic, resulting in a vexing point of conflict that cost Ronan at least 45 seconds.

Furthermore, when Ronan reached the one and only gel station past the ninth mile marker, he found that the station had exhausted its supply of gels for runners. Unavailable aid for runners in a large-scale race is a sign of poor internal controls and logistical infrastructure, and I was thoroughly disappointed in the race organizers for failing to anticipate such an edge-case scenario.

Ronan lumbered into the finishing chute with a very respectable 2:10:34. While he was hoping for a sub-2 hour time, I noted that such a finish was an admirable one given his chronic pains and injuries.

The next training cadence would be far cleaner and afford him a much better opportunity to smash the two hour barrier. We commemorated his monumental effort at the local beer garden, reliving each turn and split of his race over a trio of ales.

The Beat Broli Campaign

Another one of my brother’s high school friends, Evan Li, also decided to enroll in a local half marathon. While Evan’s ambitions were not as aspirational as Ronan’s, his motivations for a quick finish became eminently clear the deeper he trained. Evan initially signed up for the race because “he felt like it”. However, when stumbling upon his older brother’s race results from 6 years prior, he uncovered a competitive streak that he could not shake. Evan needed to better his brother’s 1:41 half marathon finish, or collapse trying. “Beat Broli” became his internal mantra and rallying cry.

Evan’s unfounded abilities were an embarassment of riches. I had full faith that he would easily shatter the two-hour barrier – the only question would be by how much. When working with Evan, he would begin his training runs at a sprightly pace, oftentimes way too fast. I would do my best to moderate his exuberance and ensure that he completed his longer runs at a slower pace, encouraging him to converse with me throughout. Even so, Evan was regularly clocking runs a whole minute under his goal pace. I advised him to shoot for at least a sub 1:50 finish. Anything below that mark would be a bonus.

In the month leading up to the race, a vacation abroad put a damper on Evan’s fiery training regimen. We worked to keep him limber in the final week leading up to the race with shorter, relaxed runs. However, his full fitness and ability became uncertain. Evan’s fate would be determined on race day.

Evan opted for a pre-race Khao Man Gai. Working with a whole chicken would be a new challenge, but I met the task head-on. Ronan made an appearance, eager to cheer on his friend come race day. Under a light San Francisco mist outside, we enjoyed piping-hot broth and steamed chicken seasoned with umami sauce. After Evan remarked that he was full, we wished him the best of luck and agreed to meet him at the start line in the morning.

The Golden Gate Half Marathon was also a spectator-friendly course. As an out-and-back course taking up only half of the street width, it allowed for many different quality spectator vistas. Prior to the race, Evan sanctimoniously proclaimed that he would not resort to drafting, deriding such a tactic as “weak” and “cheating”. However, he seemed to have fallen on his sword on race day, as we regularly found him comfortably slotted behind the 1:50 pacer with a sheepish grin on his face. Ronan and I shared a small chuckle as we took to our bikes and floated along the course, lobbing the loudest cheers possible for Evan as he confidently strode past us.

Don’t worry Evan, drafting is not cheating… I promise.
Photo credit: Ronan Manoj

Evan was making great time and put together a quick 10K split, coming in just under 50 minutes across the Golden Gate Bridge. He was on target for a 1:45 finish, maybe better. With less than 3 kilometers to go, I could see Evan struggling somewhat, form breaking, and doing his best to cling onto a small remaining pack all the way to the finish. I urged him to continue and to keep following the group through to the course’s final turns. At the downhill finish, Evan put together a set of powerful strides, crossing the timing mats in just under 1:48. While it may have not been enough to best his brother’s time, Evan constructed a race of dreams on rock bottom training volume. He would have a high ceiling to shoot for in a future race.


After his first finish, I had to calm Ronan’s temptation to sign up for every other race under the sun. We both agreed to run the Monterey Bay Half Marathon together. This race was a personal favorite of mine, and I was excited to share the experience with Ronan this time around.

We navigated the labyrinthine expo together, picked up our bibs, and checked into our motel. Setting aside our gear for race day, we embarked on a quick 1 mile shakeout run, verbally assessing any joint pains along the way. Both of us were riding out nerves and barely made it through our Thai prerace meal. We turned in early, wishing for the best in the morning.

Monterey’s race day weather delivered perfectly, producing a cool start that would be conducive to a quick time. To my surprise, my dad and my brother had made the arduous drive all the way down to witness our start! We all huddled together for a few photos before Ronan and I filed into our respective corrals.

Photo Credit: Vijay Sarathy

I had no concrete race plan, and was focused on putting forth the most even splits possible. The first few Ks came in a little hot, and I had to give back some time on the splits leading up to the 7K mark, especially with the course’s few hills bunched together before the first timing mat. While initially on pace for a 1:15 finish, I resolved to target a sub-1:20 time instead.

Looping back around from the 7.6 mile turnaround, I started looking for Ronan on the course. I found him running in the opposite direction near the 10 mile mark, looking hale and hearty, and well ahead of the two hour pacing group. We shared a small high five in stride.

After I finished, I met up with Ronan’s parents and waited for our athlete at the finish gauntlet. Ronan was making good time and was on pace for a 1:55 finish. With 200 meters to go, I could see him grimacing and barely keeping his form together. I screamed for him to continue, willing him towards a large PR. Ronan wrapped up in a few seconds under 1:56, shedding more than 14 minutes off of his time. This November Sunday belonged firmly to Ronan, and all signs pointed towards an even higher ceiling in 2024.

Keep ‘Er Movin’

While I missed my goals for 2023, my athletes notched large personal bests and established a cumulative 17 minutes under the two-hour barrier. I may have not hit my expectations, but my runners that I had the pleasure of coaching certainly exceeded them. I can only hope that they carry their momentum forward into 2024 and continue their endurance running careers. We’ll all be partaking in the Kaiser Half Marathon next month, and I look forward to seeing how Evan and Ronan will surprise me this year.

Photo credit: Rachel Li
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