Coaching Costa Rica: An Olympic Experience

César Lizano (left) catches up with his coach in between intervals last Tuesday at his home track in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Competitor.com senior producer Mario Fraioli shares his experiences coaching Costa Rica’s Olympic marathoner, César Lizano.

A week ago I was in San Jose, Costa Rica, where I attended a press conference officially announcing me as coach of that country’s lone male Olympic marathoner, César Lizano, who I’ve been coaching since February — mainly by e-mail, iMessage, phone and Skype.

The conference room at Scotiabank’s Costa Rican headquarters was packed last Monday with reporters and photographers from every news outlet in the small Central American country, along with representatives from César’s main sponsors, Scotiabank and Gatorade. The energy in the room was electric as many curious minds in Costa Rica waited to hear from me, the American “entrenador” who had been at the helm of their hero’s Olympic preparations for the past two-and-a-half months. To say I was blown away by the excitement of this unorthodox international affair would be a tremendous understatement.

The entire situation was, and still is, a bit surreal. There I was, front and center in a room full of journalists some 2,600 miles from home, giving an overview of my athlete’s 24 weeks of preparation leading up to the Olympic Games — yes, those Olympic Games!

So how did I find myself in this fortuitous position? In some regards, I’m still trying to figure out the answer to that question. Back in January, I received out-of-the-blue e-mail from Mario Reyes, a friend of César’s I had never met before who was helping him out and looking for “an experienced coach to lead the process for the Olympics”. Not knowing anything about Mario or César at the time, I assumed one of my buddies was playing a prank on me, so I curtly replied, “Yes, I am interested in discussing this possibility” and left it at that. Fast-forward a couple weeks; a few phone conversations and a Skype chat later, I found myself e-mailing César his first two weeks of training in his native Spanish, a language I studied for six years throughout high school and college but had only used sparingly since.

Before César and I began working together in February I knew very little about him aside from the fact he ran 2 hours, 17 minutes and 50 seconds at last October’s Bank of America Chicago Marathon, where he placed eleventh, and had secured a mark in the marathon that was under the Olympic “B” qualification standard of 2:18. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Costa Rica and knew even less about the running community there. Aside from being aware that I wrote articles for Competitor and had had some success coaching the Prado Women’s Racing Team in San Diego, along with a stable of online athletes, I’m not sure César knew much about me, either. If ever a coach and athlete were starting from a tabula rasa, this was it.

As if things weren’t already complicated enough, César was recovering from a slight knee injury and hadn’t run in two weeks when he agreed to take me on as his coach. Fortunately, César – as I learned right away — has a great support network in his home country and was able to get quick care and treatment, allowing him to return to training in short order.

During the time César was rehabbing from his knee injury I got to learn more about him as an athlete and dive deeper into his prior training. The 2:17:50 he had run at Chicago was a huge breakthrough for him, shattering his previous personal best of 2:23:44 set at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfornt Marathon a year earlier. His second half split at Chicago (1:08:50) was the second fastest half marathon he’d ever run. I learned that despite his most recent injury, he was a pretty durable athlete and could seemingly hold a pace forever. His personal bests at 5K (15:40), 10K (31:30) and half marathon (1:08:09) weren’t much faster than his best marathon pace of 5:15 per mile. Considering all that information, I made it the main goal of César’s early training to improve his speed over shorter distances, which will put him in a good place when we begin his marathon-specific cycle at the end of this month.

As a coach, it’s my job to identify where an athlete can improve, then help strengthen those areas. César’s ability to seemingly run forever at a given pace is his greatest strength; the trouble is, he doesn’t go much faster over short distances than he does at longer ones. By improving his speed from 5K to half marathon over the course of 12 weeks, César will enter his marathon-specific training cycle fitter, more efficient and, perhaps most important, more confident than ever before. All of these benefits will in turn improve the quality of his specific endurance training, ultimately helping him lower his marathon race pace.

So far everything is right on track. In April, César ran 1:06:42 for half marathon, a 1:27 personal best, and followed that up this past weekend at the Broad Street Run in Philadelphia, where he finished seventh in a 10-mile personal best of 50:43, splitting personal bests for 5K (15:23) and 10K (30:55) along the way.

César and I have met twice since we began working together, so while our relationship has been mostly virtual, we’ve had the opportunity to interact in person and I’ve had the chance to observe him in action. In mid-March, César, along with Alex Reyes, the brother of his friend Mario, came to San Diego for a mini four-day training camp. In addition to watching him work out, we were able to spend a lot of time together. He told me stories about his wife Gabriela and son Gabriel, I learned more about the growing running community in his country, and I gained an immense appreciation for the passion in which he approaches his profession.

All of that was magnified last week when the experience was flipped and I spent a few days in Costa Rica, where the day after our press conference dozens of people — press, César’s family, fans, friends and other runners — showed up at the track in La Sabana, a public park in the heart of San Jose, just to watch Cesar work out on a Tuesday morning. It was inspiring to see the Costa Rican running community rally around their hero, who is not only a great athlete, but an even better person who took the time after his track workout to interact with those in attendance and offer advice of his own. While still baffled by how all of this came together, I’m extremely honored to be helping César prepare for the most important race of his career to this point.

Over the next few months leading up to the Olympic Marathon in London on August 12, I’ll be sharing my experiences working with César in a weekly column called “Coaching Costa Rica” every Tuesday here on Competitor.com. I’ll give insights on the specifics of César’s preparation, provide perspective on the Olympic experience of an athlete from a small central American country not known for its distance-running dominance and describe how we make this relationship work despite a language barrier, cultural differences and the complexities of being 2,600 miles apart from one another. I hope you enjoy following this journey as much as César and I are excited to share it with you!

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