Coaching Costa Rica: One Day Away

Costa Rican marathoner Cesar Lizano will realize his Olympic dream on Sunday. 

Here we are, seven months after this exciting adventure got underway, and now just one day away from the Olympic Marathon — easily the biggest race of Cesar Lizano’s career to this point, and by far the most important race I’ve ever helped an athlete prepare to contest.

There’s no grander stage in marathoning than the Olympic Games, a fact which isn’t lost on either one of us, but one we’ve attempted to downplay as much as possible during these final days before the race.

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Since arriving in London over two weeks ago, we’ve settled nicely into village life with the rest of the Costa Rican delegation, a gathering of 11 athletes and 18 coaches, team leaders and other administrative personal, which, after getting to know everyone, has a definite familial feeling to it. We occupy the entire top floor of one of the dorms in the Olympic Village, dividing ourselves amongst five suites. Our group is small in comparison to some of the other countries which take up entire — and sometimes multiple — buildings to house their delegations, but whereas some of the other teams might not know who is running the marathon for their country, or competing in judo, taekwando, swimming or mountain biking, everyone in this group is well aware of who else is here, when they’re competing and what they’re trying to accomplish. We eat many of our meals as a group at the all-you-can-eat-at-all-hours-of-the-day dining hall, hang out together while watching the Games on TV and lend support to one another at different competitions when the opportunity allows. I’m the only member of the delegation who is not a native of Costa Rica, but after seven months of coaching Cesar, visiting the country once and spending a lot of time with this group over the past 16 days, I feel like I’ve been accepted as an adopted “Tico”, and for that I’ll forever be grateful.

While we’ve been training twice a day most days, we’ve also taken advantage of the perks of living in the Village. During the hours in between and after workouts we’ve been able to catch most of the track competition live at the stadium, walk around the massive shopping mall adjacent to Olympic Park and, for Cesar anyway, nap for an hour or two almost every afternoon. We have access to anything and everything we might ever need at any hour of the day: food, water, sports drinks, coffee stands, snacks, housekeeping, laundry services, internet access, video games, pool tables, medical care, a gym, and the list goes on. We’ve had use of a closed practice track outside of Olympic Stadium for workouts, even though standard road and trail running options in and around the village are sparse and a chore to get to from our acccomodations. While we’ve made a few trips to Hyde Park to train and wandered over to Victoria Park for our main workout of the day, for convenience’s sake Cesar has done all of his secondary shakeout runs on the 1,900-meter asphalt loop that hugs the inside perimeter of Olympic Village. Judging by the number of athletes we’ve seen running the same loop at all hours of the day, it seems like others have been following a similar line of thinking.

A few days after we arrived in London, Cesar completed his last marathon-specific long run, a 33K (about 20-1/2 miles) fartlek session, 15 days out from race day. We took the commuter rail service out to my sister’s place in Surbiton and did the workout on a figure-8, 5K loop to simulate the winding nature of the Olympic Marathon course, which features over 90 turns. The roads in Greater London are also far quieter and less trafficked than where we are quartered in east London, allowing me to safely ride the bike ahead of Cesar and keep him on pace.

We’ve been having our morning practice session around 11 AM on most days to get used to the late morning start time of the race, and head out again around 6 to 6:30 PM for the second session of the day when there is one on the schedule. While we’ve been gradually winding down the physical training over the past 10 days, we’ve spent a lot of time honing in on mental preparation for the race which, at this level, can make all the difference. The twice daily runs, speed workouts and long runs tend to take care of themselves; mental training, however, is where an athlete can continually be working to improve. There is no more valuable skill for a runner to have, regardless of his or her ability level, than to step on the starting line with confidence on race day.

As Cesar’s coach, it’s been my job to make sure he gets to the starting line healthy, fit and confident in his preparation for the course and competition he will face tomorrow. We’ve made it through the last 26 weeks devoid of major injury, taken his training to a new level, and set a handful of new personals bests from 5K through half marathon in the process. We’ve scouted the course (Cesar spent two weeks in London this past April training on the route) and simulated the race in training with a variety of marathon-specific, pace-changing workouts designed to give him the confidence that he’s ready for whatever gets thrown at him after the gun goes off.

For Cesar, who is ranked 105 of the 109 men slated to line up for the race (final declarations come out later today), stepping to the starting line with that confidence in his back pocket is going to be the key to success. This is the Olympic Marathon. Everyone here is good — really good. So good, in fact, we’ve tried not to think about it much this past week and just focus on the things Cesar can control: running his own race, responding to moves within the pack he’s a part of, nailing down his nutrition, keeping a positive mindset and performing to his potential.

Tomorrow morning, Cesar will step to the starting line and rightfully say to himself, “I belong here.” He can look back at his 11th-place finish at last fall’s Chicago Marathon, where he ran his Olympic qualifying time of 2:17:50, as well as his personal best half marathon of 1:06:42 set this past April in London, third-place finish behind Meb Keflezighi and Ryan Hall at the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon in June, along with the thousands of kilometers he’s logged in training, the challenging long runs, tough marathon-specific workouts and lung-searing track sessions, and finish the previous statement with, “I’m ready to do this.”

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