What I talk about when I talk about Christmas presents

Tis the season for red cups, office parties and Christmas Gift Guides. From the Financial Time’s How To Spend It (entreating suburban Santas to stuff stockings with a $4,995 rosewood Vanderbilt mixologist box) to Wired’s Guide for the Early Adopter in your life (hint: they are likely pining for a kerosene-powered JB-9 jet pack), there is no shortage of helpful advice for the loaded or last-minute hand-wringing holiday shopper.

Runners’ perpetual love of gear, tech and toys fill pre-race expos and propel endless shoe updates (witness the Asics Nimbus graduating to version sweet seventeen this year). For the runner in your life (and everyone has or will have one: for the first time, more than 2m people completed a half marathon in the US this year) you could turn to the gentle wisdom of Runner’s World, or the comprehensive guide offered by the Competitor.com. Active, PopSugar and online newspapers based in Delaware: everyone has a guide for the runner you want to spoil on the 25th.

Shoes. Sunglasses. Headphones. Intelligent Water Bottles that will shame you into higher levels of hydration. For every limb and bodily function there is a gift containing at least 10% lycra or an app that syncs with an iPhone.

And yet: running is meant to be about more. In the words of the world’s most erudite known runner, Haruki Murakami: Running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself.

Elevation, improvement, a sense of achievement: these are what we run for but are not things as easily gifted as a GoPro Hero4 Session 4 camera. So what to give the spouse who has signed up for their first 5k, the adult child that wants to run a marathon PR or the boss that wants to qualify for Boston?

Here’s my suggestion. Give them an Olympian.

This recommendation comes from personal experience. I am a normal person. My first half marathon took two hours, my first marathon five (and with a 5-hour course cut off, this also meant that I finished dead last). I jogged, did some spin classes. Stretched when I remembered. I bought some energy blocks once for a race but they made me puke on my shoes at the 17km mark.

I joined a Fleet Feet training group when I moved to Seattle in 2013, and my times for every distance tumbled by a couple of minutes. Then, bumbling around the internet one day, I came across a training camp up in Colorado, run by British/Canadian distance runner and two-time Olympian, Kathy Butler. I was intrigued by the chance to train at altitude and with a professional athlete. I had won a few age-division prizes in short local races and was getting more ambitious than I probably had a right to be as an office worker in my early 30s with zero demonstrated sporting success or aptitude to date.

I think most amateur runners probably prepare for distance races in a way not so different from former me: using training plans scraped from the internet and advice from generalist running magazines. We join local running groups, and maybe read a book from a celebrated coach like Hal Higdon. Few, I am guessing, will pay someone for advice based on personal goals and abilities, when there is so much content out there free. Plus, it seems a bit narcissistic to have a professional coach when you have a statistically remote chance of a podium finish.

To speed up the story: I signed up for the training camp in Nederlands, CO with Kathy. We ran, talked, stretched, ate, slept. We clicked, so I signed up for a three month training program, where she sent me detailed daily workouts and we chatted on Sundays to review the week and look ahead. I ran 3'31 in the 2014 NYC marathon. I signed up for another three month program. I ran 3'23 at Boston. I signed up for another three month program. I ran 3'15 in Berlin. I’ve won local 5ks and 10ks, and have had zero injuries. It’s hard to explain what an unlikely trajectory this is, having managed to once give myself a pelvic stress fracture when stupidly overtraining for the London marathon in my pre-coaching days.

The best thing about being a decidedly non-elite person training with an elite guide is access to the kind of professional, evidence-based knowledge and training that is hard to come by in the faddish and often contradictory online world of popular running. Kathy was a contemporary of Paula Radcliffe, the world record holder in the marathon, and trained with the best coaches in the world, expertise which now trickles down all the way to the suburbs of Seattle.

We talk about what to eat before races, how much water to drink, what kind of stretches to do. How much to warm up, how to recover. Why my knee is feeling weird and what to do about it. How to train on treadmills when I am in travelling in unfriendly places, when to transition to a racing flat. And while the personalized advice of an Olympian is obviously more spendy than a freebie plan ripped from the internet, it’s also less than you might think: for the cost of a pizza and beer per week, Kathy keeps me on track.

Kathy at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens

Yes, it sometimes feels a little self-centred to be talking to another person only about me and how I can be better, but there is no doubting the insane improvement in my results since I started working with a coach. Also, no more shoe-puking, which is no small thing since I had done it in 2 out of my first 3 marathons.

Back to the Christmas theme. Gift guides are an efficient means to locate quirky, useful presents for the people we love at a special time of year. But some people will agree that we have, and are being sold, too much stuff. If you have a runner in your life that doesn’t run with lights at night, then get them some high-viz, reflective gear — it might save their life.

But for the rest: instead of ordering another pair of waterproof headphones doomed to a tangled death in a glovebox by Easter, consider a one or three month program with a professional coach like Kathy. The connection to the elite world is inspiring, the detailed coaching advice is invaluable and permanent, and the accountability calls once a week keep you well on track. Otherwise, there’s always the jetpack.