This is not one of those stories in which I show myself what I’m capable of or master a feat I’d never imagined accomplishing. Well, it’s sort of one of those stories — but really it’s a story about coaching, mentoring, and teaching. About how our seemingly small comments and actions can accrue to become something significant for someone else.

Just Jogging 

At my school, probably like yours, we have many highly dedicated coaches. A year ago, I happened to mention to one of them that I had started running — a little, not much, not seriously. Jogging, really. Hardly more than walking. 

I’ve never been an athlete. My parents say I refused to play soccer in kindergarten, although I suspect they just didn’t want to drive me to practice. I danced in middle and high school, but my ballet turnout didn’t go anywhere, and I loved modern dance for the creativity (read: cover) it offered. Throughout my adult life I’ve walked most days, mainly to keep up with what’s on bar at the local coffee shop or my favorite bakery. 

Meanwhile, friends and colleagues refer to the Tough Mudder they ravaged through, the triathlon they’re gunning for, the half marathon next month that’s a warm-up for the full next year. I’m always glad to hear about their successes, but they might as well be from a different planet for all this has to do with me.

Yet on the day I mentioned in the faculty room that I was doing the Couch to 5K training program — for reasons still perplexing to me, except that mortality stares at me more than it used to — this highly dedicated coach tuned in. I don’t remember what she said, but she showed interest, and that was enough.

Keep Rolling

Over the weeks and months to come, as we filled our mugs in the faculty room, she kept asking how my running was going. I joked. She parried. I ripped open a mint tea bag. She asked whether I was thinking about nutrition. I downplayed my paltry mileage. She asked if I’d gotten a roller. I asked what a roller was, then bought one for my messy muscles. 

At some point, she said I should run a 5K, the one that the school puts on in the spring for a cause. I told her she was crazy, that I always run alone and that 3.1 miles was beyond me. As winter spun out, though, I kept running. I downloaded music to keep me going, all Broadway opening numbers and “I want” songs. 

Occasionally I suggested to her that I might do the 5K, if I could find something to wear. (Yes, I actually said this, multiple times — evasion takes many forms.) When the email about the race landed in my box, I took a breath, signed up, paid the early bird fee, and forwarded her the confirmation. 

“That’s great! I’m looking forward to it,” she wrote back. So simple, but it was enough to keep me going.

Quick Words

I like to think I would have kept lacing up my tennis shoes even without a coach. But having a goal and a check-in person often nudged me a little farther or faster. Her noticing my progress also made me think about the times, as a teacher and administrator, when I’ve made a quick comment or suggestion — words I didn’t think twice about at the time — and later found out it had an impact.

Gearing up for the 5K also reminded me of a “why” I developed at a workshop on transformative academic leadership last summer through Independent School Management. Our facilitator, referring to Simon Sinek’s leadership philosophy, insisted that we develop a “why” of twelve words or fewer, honing it each day in our opening circle. By the end of the week, one of my “whys” distilled to this: To challenge ourselves to become the people we are meant to be. With race day nearing, my coach was certainly challenging me, and I was finding a side of myself I’d never known existed.

Running Free 

Two days out, I created a playlist that included “One Day More” from Les Miserables, “Defying Gravity” from Wicked and the “Children Will Listen” finale from Into the Woods. I wore my usual leggings and T-shirt. On the morning of the race, I talked myself into and out of showing up several times but ultimately decided I would disappoint myself and my coach if I didn’t try. 

Flitting from person to person on a grassy area in L.A.’s Griffith Park, I made inane conversation, joking that my PR (personal record) would be my OR (only record). With a little guidance, I figured out where to attach the bib. Then the horn blew and I started running.

The race was great. Better than great. At each water station I pumped my fist and gave a cheesy thumbs-up to the students filling cups. Heading down a dirt path, I gazed at the San Gabriel mountains to the east. I was running faster than usual and my final time was respectable. 

As I downed a banana and water bottle at the finish line, my face apple-red, I realized that I’d learned from this informal coaching experience what we hope our students learn every day: Work on something little by little and you will surprise yourself. Find a mentor who will support you. Take healthy risks, even and especially if they scare you.

It Doesn’t Require a Lot

My coach’s support reminded me of the power we have when we listen to, even tease out, a colleague’s or student’s quiet goal. When we listen to and take someone seriously, even when they’re not taking themselves seriously. When we can see in another person a quality they are not yet seeing in themselves. There’s no half marathon in my future, but there might be another 5K. And the next time someone mentions a dream that they don’t yet think is a dream, I’m going to listen hard and coach gently.

Thanks, coach.