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A team effort: coached running groups

Coached running groups such as Mile2Marathon offer support and community for runners of all levels

By: Andrea Hill

In the spring of 2017, Mark Nelson of Burnaby, B.C., became determined to chase a Boston Marathon qualifying time. Five years earlier, he had taken up running to lose weight. After losing 140 pounds and running nine marathons, Nelson finally cracked the four-hour barrier and realized that running-specific goals like qualifying for Boston might be more than just a pipe dream.

The only problem? With a personal best of 3:58, the then-47-year-old would need to shave more than 30 minutes off his time to guarantee himself entry into the prestigious race.

So Nelson asked one of his Vancouver-area friends for advice. They told him to sign up with Mile2Marathon (M2M).

M2M, a running coaching service, was founded in 2013 by Olympic marathoner Dylan Wykes and professional cyclist Michael Woods. It boasts a coaching staff of a dozen current and former elite and sub-elite runners who build individualized training plans for more than 250 athletes across the country. Athletes are invited to group workouts in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa; those who live outside these centres train on their own, regularly checking in with their coaches by phone and email and sharing workout results through TrainingPeaks.

M2M training at Ol’ Blue (Point Grey Track) in Vancouver photo by: Jody Bailey
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Nelson, now 50, remembers attending his first M2M group workout with coach Tony Tomsich, a road and trail runner who was a successful college athlete at Western Washington University and U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier.

As Nelson approached the University of British Columbia campus, he was nervous. He had never been to a coached running session and didn’t know what to expect. Would he be able to keep up?

His worries were put to rest.

“It was amazing how welcoming people were,” Nelson recalls. “It was a pretty large group, maybe 40 people. Everybody was friendly, welcoming the new person.”

As an M2M athlete, Nelson receives a structured marathon training plan tailored to his abilities and lifestyle. He’s learned how to do tempo runs and intervals, how to build mileage for a marathon and how to recover from races and hard workouts.

Before signing up with M2M, Nelson had followed a hodgepodge of training plans he found online with a lot of long, slow runs, but little speed work.

“I didn’t have a lot of structure, which probably had a lot to do with why I didn’t have success,” Nelson says.

Even more important for Nelson was the group support. The group workouts became a fun and supportive weekly ritual that gave him new friends and the motivation he needed to stick to his plan. After working with M2M for two years, Nelson is confident his Boston qualifying time is now within reach. He lowered his marathon personal best to 3:29 at the 2019 Eugene (Oregon) Marathon and ran a 1:29 half-marathon at the GoodLife Fitness Victoria Marathon that fall. He says he feels it’s well within his ability to run under 3:25 at his next attempt at 42.2 kilometres.

“Without Mile2Marathon I would have never even thought of it being possible,” Nelson says.

Alex Denysiuk’s experience was similar. She and her boyfriend had run two marathons together, using plans from the Internet, with two short mid-week runs and progressively longer runs on the weekend – all at an easy pace. They finished their first marathon in 4:06 and the second, BMO Vancouver, in 2016, in 3:54.

She wanted to improve and the help of an M2M coach and a group training environment with new running friends to encourage her proved to be just the thing. “The first workout was so hard,” says Denysiuk. “I honestly had no idea what I was doing. I remember thinking, holy crap. But everybody was really nice, and I felt like I belonged in the group right away.” Denysiuk says that as she got used to the training, she would get faster and move up a group. As a result, the workouts were always challenging.

M2M training at Ol’ Blue (Point Grey Track) in Vancouver photo by: Jody Bailey

“I knew I wanted to qualify for Boston, which meant 3:30,” says Denysiuk, who is 27. “So I knew I had a long way to go to get my time down, and that’s when I joined Mile2Marathon.”

About her M2M experience, she says, “I went all in with running. It became part of my identity.”

Denysiuk’s times gradually improved and she achieved her goal of running Boston in 2019. In November, she ran a personal best 3:13 at the New York City Marathon. “I loved every part of it,” she says.

Rob Watson, a former Canadian Marathon Champion and one of M2M’s coaches, hears stories like Nelson’s and Denysiuk’s all the time and never tires of it. Watson won the Canadian Marathon Championships in 2013, and although he had made several national teams, he missed the chance to qualify for the 2016 Olympics by six minutes. Watson has known success and disappointment and relates strongly to the stories of personal transformation.

“It’s a lot of fun to be a part of people’s journey and help them better themselves as runners,” Watson says.

MILE2MARATHON

GROUP INFO
“We, as a coaching group, are so diverse in our experience that I think there’s a coach for everybody.”
Kim Doerksen, Mile2Marathon coach
FOUNDED
2013
NUMBER OF ATHLETES
250+
NUMBER OF COACHES
12
GROUP WORKOUTS
Twice weekly in Vancouver, Toronto & Ottawa
NUMBER OF ATHLETES AT GROUP WORKOUTS
Vancouver 80–100 / Toronto 10–20 / Ottawa 40
MONTHLY COST
$50–$200 (depending on how much interaction you want with a coach)

Stephen Andersen’s story is a little different. He had run competitively in high school and followed Wykes on Strava.” When Wykes moved his family from Vancouver to Ottawa in 2018 and started up an M2M chapter there a few weeks before the following year’s Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. Andersen, 23, jumped at the chance to join.

“We had about 12 people the first night, and I don’t think I’ve missed a session since then,” says Andersen. “I attribute it 100 per cent to doing workouts and being in a group and having that kind of person looking over your shoulder, keeping you accountable but also providing insight and comment and another support level.

Five months later at Marathon du P’tit Train du Nord in Quebec (his third marathon), he ran a 16-minute personal best 2:54 to qualify for Boston 2021.

Wykes and his coaches have created something that keeps runners coming back, according to Kelsey Hunter, 33, another Ottawa athlete who jumped on board when she found out Wykes was bringing M2M to Ottawa.

“Dylan knows everyone’s name,” says Hunter. “He takes the time to chat with people who are new to the group to see what their goals are. He’s always following up with people, even if he’s not their coach. He knows what their priority races are and if they’re on track, and he reaches out with well wishes before their goal races.”

M2M participates in 2019 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon photo by Jody Bailey

Wykes said people from a wide array of abilities and backgrounds sign up for M2M. The most typical athlete is in the 30- to 50-year-old range and hoping to achieve a Boston Marathon-qualifying time, but runners range from those hoping to complete their first 10-kilometre run to elite athletes.

“It is very much your everyday person who has a job, maybe has some kids, and just loves running and is trying to fit it in,” Wykes says. As the organization has grown, Wykes has had to recruit new coaches. When he does, the most important thing is ensuring he finds people who will represent M2M’s values.

“The emphasis is on supporting the athletes and listening to the athletes and helping them,” Wykes said. “No coach is ever telling their athlete that they screwed up in a workout and they didn’t run the right splits. That is not something that is going to happen at our workouts. It’s all about trying to frame everything in a really positive way and make sure that it’s a lot of positive momentum for athletes to work towards their goals.”

Today, the Vancouver workouts see upwards of 75 runners. Another 45 people attend workouts in Ottawa and roughly 15 go to coached sessions in Toronto.

Watson says the popularity of the group workouts is a big part of what makes M2M so successful.

“There are a lot of online coaching services out there – a lot – but there are not a lot of people out there running a group like we’re doing,” he says. “The combination of personal coaching and the big group we have, I feel like we’ve hit a really good sweet spot. And just the relationships developed with these athletes, it’s been so rewarding.”

Though M2M is likely the largest organization of its kind in the country, it’s not the only group offering individualized training plans paired with group workouts.

Kevin Smith, an Ontario masters champion over a range of distances, runs Marathon Dynamics Inc. in Toronto. 2012 Canadian Marathon champion Rejean Chiasson’s Pace and Mind works out in Toronto’s Riverdale Park.

Both programs provide athletes with individualized training plans and opportunities to attend coached workouts. Pace and Mind appeals to a younger, more urban demographic.

Both Smith and Chiasson, like Wykes, say they launched their businesses to bridge a gap between social run groups, such as those offered by the Running Room, and high-performance groups for career athletes.

“There should be something there for the more normal runners that are serious about what they’re doing,” says Smith. “They want to improve, but they don’t necessarily see themselves as super serious, all-in running and [doing] nothing else in life.”

Coached run groups appeal to anyone, from those just getting into the sport and interested in tackling their first 10K, half-marathon or marathon, to more experienced runners who want to get faster at any distance.

“There are people that are working eight-to-10 hours a day at full-time jobs, they’ve got families and they’re still just as interested in our sport as we are,” says M2M coach Luc Bruchet, a three-time Canadian cross-country champion and Olympian in the 5,000 metres. “Just giving them the tools to knock a few minutes off or run faster became something that I really wanted to do.”

Watson says one of the biggest advantages of having a coach versus simply following a plan is that coaches help runners adapt when their schedule gets disrupted.

“Within any training plan, you have to have wiggle room and you have to have adaptability to just life happening,” Watson says.

“There’s going to be someone getting sick, there’s going to be crazy work, there’s going to be weather, there’s going to be a little injury, just something that’s going to happen that’s going to need a tweak. And if people don’t have the experience or the knowledge, they don’t know what to do at that point.”

M2M coach Kim Doerksen, who won the 2014 BMO Vancouver Marathon in 2:36:59, says coaches also help people stay on top of their training.

MARATHON DYNAMICS INC.

GROUP INFO
“We truly are for all kinds of runners. The Marathon Dynamics running experience is a blend of equal parts serious, fun and run.”
Kevin Smith, founder
FOUNDED
1988
NUMBER OF ATHLETES
180
NUMBER OF COACHES
7
GROUP WORKOUTS
Four to six options per week in Toronto and surrounding areas depending on the season
NUMBER OF ATHLETES AT GROUP WORKOUTS
15–40
MONTHLY COST
Starting at $80

“Having that personal coach that is interested in and invested in your training as much as you are, having that accountability, is a lot of times what’s missing to somebody,” Doerksen says.

She adds that no matter what type of coach an athlete responds to, they’ll find someone they click with on M2M’s deep coaching roster.

M2M training at Ol’ Blue (Point Grey Track) in Vancouver photo by: Jody Bailey

“We, as a coaching group, are so diverse in our experience that I think there’s a coach for everybody,” Doerksen says. “All of us have run at high levels. We’ve run in different events. We’ve got coaches that are moms that are working full time as well as coaches who understand the nuances of trying to balance that work/running/life thing that we normally can’t balance ourselves.”

Watson says a big part of his job is helping runners train as efficiently as possible so they can balance running with other life commitments. He also spends a lot of time telling athletes when it’s time to push harder and when they need to back off, something a lot of runners struggle with. He frequently encourages athletes to do their easy runs easy, which is an integral part of efficient training.

Dania Spillett, an Edmonton-based runner, marketer and active volunteer who joined M2M in January 2018, is among the athletes being coached by Watson.

Before Spillett, 31, signed up with M2M, her race times “stood pretty stagnant.” She ran intervals at the same pace and did the same workouts over and over. Watson told her when to do speed work and when to focus on tempo runs. The instructions he gave her about interval runs changed over the course of a training cycle based on how she responded to earlier workouts. With Watson’s insight and instruction, Spillett found herself pushing herself harder at the right times.

“I liked the idea that somebody else could think about that for me and could monitor my performance and get to know me and know what I needed,” she says.

PACE AND MIND

GROUP INFO
“The main approach is to have that competitive mentality, but still with having a fun atmosphere.”
Rejean Chiasson, founder
FOUNDED
2014
NUMBER OF ATHLETES
75
NUMBER OF COACHES
2
GROUP WORKOUTS
Twice weekly in Toronto
NUMBER OF ATHLETES AT GROUP WORKOUTS
35–40
MONTHLY COST
$160

Spillett went from running a 3:57 marathon in August 2017 to clocking 3:29 at the BMO Vancouver Marathon in the spring of 2018, a 2019 Boston Marathon qualifying time, where she lowered her time to 3:24. She has since run a 1:28 half-marathon and hopes to eventually break the three-hour barrier in the marathon.

Because Spillett is based in Edmonton, she stays part of the M2M community through social media accounts and the team’s weekly newsletter. The community is so strong that she even travels to races in other cities to cheer on M2M runners. When she travels to Vancouver to visit family, she never misses a group workout, and feels welcomed and supported by her fellow M2M runners. At races, she often wears her M2M singlet and meets up with other M2M athletes who cheer for each other on the course, even if they’ve never met.

M2M participates in 2019 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon photo by Jody Bailey

Watson says that team feeling is one of the things he appreciates most about M2M.

“It’s a very inclusive group,” he says. “And it’s a very supportive group. We want to uplift each other. We want to elevate each other no matter what.”

For Mark Nelson, being part of that positive atmosphere has become just as important as chasing his Boston Marathon qualifying time, and he says he’s grateful for the lifelong friends he’s made in his two years with the group.

“Everybody really genuinely cares how everybody’s progressing,” Nelson says. “I never thought I would look forward to a 32-kilometre workout.”

This story originally appeared in the January & February 2020 issue of Canadian Running.

Andrea Hill is a marathon runner and the city editor of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix newspaper