by Dante Zappala

Nineteen days from Boston, I set out to run hill repeats of some kind. Like most workouts I do with the Juventus Track Club, I didn’t know exactly what I was in for. I’ve learned over time that it’s better not to ask.

The coach of the group, Derek Thompson, has been at this a while. He recognizes the inherent uncertainty in our sport. Races don’t go as expected; neither do careers. He prepares his runners in small ways, like keeping them in the dark about the distance of an interval until they’re on the line.

I first ran with Derek when I was in High School, looking to add speed to my repertoire. At the time, he coached mostly sprinters. I was coming in with a knack for endurance.

Expectations got ahead of themselves, and the endeavor failed. We’ll both say it’s an experience we learned from. The stress fracture I got training with him healed. I gained some peace with the fact that speed will never be an asset I can rely on.

Derek has moved away from the sprints and become a premier middle distance coach. The kids on the team are mostly from the inner city where running laps, let alone miles, is not particularly prized. There is a lot to overcome.

But for those that have trusted Derek, they’ve seen great results. He’s coached national champions at all levels. He’s sent a ton of kids to college on scholarships. He has several Olympic-caliber runners in his stable.

Twenty-four years after our first partnership, I now appear on the periphery. With my own kids, work, and the need for a lot of easy runs between workouts, my attendance at his practices is erratic at best.

When I make it out there, I’m somebody Derek can point to for the eager young runners to “get behind.” The irony of playing the role of the steady point is that I’m there for the surprise. Trending towards predictability at my age is all too easy. When I’m not treading in the unknown, it becomes foreign. I lose my appetite to venture across the border.

The inherent danger of staying in safe places is well known to me. I’m prone to over-rationalization. In the front of my mind are the events that have shaped the better parts of my life. It’s a concoction of spontaneity, carelessness and good fortune.

Marathon training isn’t very daring. It’s mundane and stale. It’s too much time to think, a space to foster fear. I count on the workouts with Derek to stir the pot. The unspecified number of loops I’ll do over the hills of Curtis Park will beat my legs up. This is the final prep for the countless ups-and-downs along the 42 kilometers to Boylston Street. But more so, ceding control and submitting to uncertainty will beat my mind up for the stillness of the start in Hopkinton.

As we embarked on the repeats, I fell behind immediately. Because of the hills and the unspecified distance, calculating pace is irrelevant. I’m just pushing myself as far into discomfort as I can bear. By the end of the first few intervals, I was catching up to the runners I normally measure myself against. On flat surfaces, they’d crush me. But these hills are a great equalizer. When speed is not in the tool kit, strength is a must. I leave with the shot of confidence I was looking for.

Six days from Boston, in the waning afternoon with the restlessness of the taper setting in, I’m up at SCH to play soccer with my kid. To my surprise, I bump into Derek. He’s sneaking in a workout with his star athlete, Ajee’. She’s finishing her cool down, weaving through the walkers as she jogs the wrong way on the outside of the track.

Derek prefers that she run in the opposite direction as much as possible. This relieves the imbalanced stress the turns of the track put on her legs; one more small nugget of wisdom from his many years in the racket.

We’re both civilians in this scenario. We talk as adults, as peers, as two people who have known each other for a long time. It’s becoming a familiar routine. Being at the track and conversing, not running, suggests the future. It’s not lost on me that Derek was the age I am now when we first met.

I can sense the desire for competition and the temptation of challenges fading. I’ll have to push those thoughts aside in the near term. I have lofty goals for the upcoming marathon.

But at some point, I’ll be at practice to spectate, to pass on my own wisdom earned over the years. I’ll know the workout before it unfolds. I’m almost certain.

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