This column ran in the Daily Gleaner on July 11.
For years, Fredericton’s Mary Astle thrived on the individual nature that long-distance running provided. Now, she’s rekindled her fire by coaching others.
By assisting eager participants and helping them reach their goals, Astle became armed with new appreciation and passion in many areas of her life and in May, almost 20 years from a previous experience at the Boston Marathon, she’s qualified again.
It’s the ultimate win–win scenario.
“It is all about a connection for me,” said Astle, who operates half-marathon clinics in the city and just recently, got back into the competitive arena herself.
“I am glad to be back because of the connection to some of the most special people in the world.”
Each year for the past seven years, Astle has coached groups of various sizes and abilities in an effort to reach their goals. This January, for example, 40 souls stepped into her clinic, with an eye on the Fredericton Marathon’s half marathon in May. When race day came, 27 laced up their sneakers for the 21.1 km trek and 25 reached new personal bests.
“I told them what is going to happen is magical,” Astle explained of the transformation of the group into a tightly knit team.
The experience ignited a spark for her as well and the fond memories of her impressive racing past helped her make the decision to return to racing – a half marathon last October in Lowell, Mass., and then another run at the big one, the 42.2 km Bluenose Marathon in Halifax, just a week after Fredericton’s Mother’s Day event wrapped up.
In 1996, she qualified for the 100th edition of the Boston Marathon and she knew that to qualify for 2016, she needed a solid time prior to this upcoming September’s registration. Therefore, it was timely to give Halifax a shot.
The result was outstanding, second overall for the women’s division in 3:24.23 and confirmation her training had paid off with a time that easily qualified for next April in Boston.
Yet, all that proved secondary to the inspiration she received from her clinic participants, seven of who drove to Halifax in a collective display of support and appreciation for what she provided to them in the four months leading to their goal event. They bonded as a unit, calling themselves Sole Mates, a name devised during training, and all owned specially designed t-shirts to signify their bond. Additionally, a large group of runners prepared a book called Believe, with dozens of thank you’s and words of inspiration for Astle as she embarked on her marathon quest.
“These were people who I did not know that week before the clinic,” Astle said. “They came down to surprise me (in Halifax) and honestly, it floored me. They said they could not believe what I had done for them the past four months, so they were giving it back to me.
“I ran that marathon with wings. I knew how it hurt to run a marathon but it did not hurt. I was so inspired by the book and for them to be there.”
The group aspect is a benefit that keeps Astle going.
In her early racing days, running was largely an individual pursuit. And she craved the competition, the results, the sizzle of high-level racing. In the late 1990s, she won Marathon by the Sea in Saint John, qualified and raced Boston and, at one point, competed in seven marathons in a short period. In all, it became too much.
“I was burning out and it had to stop,” she said. “I have a very spiritual side and running came naturally to me.”
Yet, the intensity and demands of training meant it wasn’t fun any longer, so she took a break.
Fast forward to seven years ago when the Running Room sought a coach for its training programs. She offered her name and a new career started, one with more rewards than just the final clocking.
“I started to remember how great it was,” she said of the initial weeks in coaching.
She figures she’s helped more than 300 runners reach their goals but as this year’s group got going, she felt she needed to get back herself – partly to fuel her competitiveness, but also to enhance her credibility as a coach.
It’s proven more than she could have imagined.
“It is a total difference now,” she said. “Before, I did not have the balance that is needed. This time, I can coach, inspire, mentor and encourage, and I can tell people to be dedicated and committed because I am doing it myself.”
She’ll continue to race, and volunteer, through the fall and then over the winter, to prepare for Boston. And she’ll coach.
“I will never give up coaching,” she says. “I may give up racing again, but as long as I can, I want to coach. The fulfilment I get is unbelievable.”
Kevin Barrett’s column appears every other Saturday. If you have a suggestion for a feature story, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit barrettkevin.wordpress.com.