Eulogy for a Great Coach: Van Townsend

"...if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed. There may be layer after layer of this experience. A third and a fourth "wind" may supervene. Mental activity shows the phenomenon as well as physical, and in exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue-distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, — sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points." --William James, "The Energies of Men"

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
-- Will Shakespeare

My good friend, training partner, and coach Van Townsend died on Monday, too young, of cancer.

Great coaches are gifted with an ability to unlock what is bound up in others, and of course if they themselves could explain this gift, great coaching could be learned and perhaps we'd have more of them. This gift is as obvious and basic in great coaches as other fundamental character traits. You perceive it immediately, once in their presence, a sort of magnetic effect of personality. Coaches are born, not made.

Really the best way to understand great coaching is indirectly through looking at what athletes need. Athletes are people who are driven to pour immense amounts of energy into a single pursuit of excellence . The best athletes must be able to tune out distraction, find poise and relaxation under extreme conditions, tap into wells of motivation and endurance long after the wells of others have run dry. The athlete is the person who knows how to access the strengths and capacities of the human that are, as James puts it, "habitually untaxed."

For this reason athletes are fundamentally solitary beings. They function at their best in small clans, apart from the untaxed habits of ordinary life and in tune with different values and expectations. The athletic life is a counter-cultural life.

A great coach know how to cultivate and maintain this counter-culture. He or she is able through the magnetism of the coaching gift to create a world within a world (and even against the world) that moves according to different laws. Van Townsend was a master at this.

When Van first arrived at my high school, he was strikingly counter-cultural. In a world of mid-90's George Herbert Walker Bush Southern values and prep-school ties, he sported an earring, wore garishly colored running jackets, and dwelled always within a clutter of enormous adidas running shoes (he had size 11 feet.) His shorts were incredibly short, revealing legs hardened by a word that when spoken seemed magical: mileage. It was hard to tell how old he was -- the wrinkles around his eyes, the gaunt cheeks were marks of old age. But his eyes were twinkling and bright and mischievous as if he'd just turned 17. He was into weird British punk rock.

He was immediately different, and that difference itself made us curious -- what sort of world did this guy live in? Where did he come from? And what the heck was he doing here, in Chattanooga?

Turns out that Van had come to Chattanooga to create a running dynasty in a place that didn't even know what running was. Van had trained at the center of the running universe under the legendary Bill Squires. He was a running purist; he believed in running easy, in weekly mileage numbers that made young kids heads whirl: 80, 90, 100. He believed in doubles, in running during lunch, in running in the middle of the night. He urged us to be different, to be weird.

Running, for Van, was not training or doing a sport. It was a way of being, a radical counter-culture for a chosen few. He didn't coach a team or build training plans. He created a world of values and mystery, and invited you in. Those who crossed the threshold would be forever fundamentally changed.

Van's world unlocked runners. How do you take an adolescent boy and convince him to run 80 miles per week? How do you create a band of brothers, willing to pour themselves out, day after day, under the hot sun? How do you take 20 or so young men from a small town in Tennessee and craft a team that is able to compete with the best teams in the nation? These are the things that Van did.

Van's gift was that he urged and fostered intensity. He modeled what it meant to be energetically alive. His life avoided the plain, the ordinary, and the routine and instead focused on the wild, the spontaneous, and the reckless. For Van's runners, training and competing wasn't about glory or even victory, but about intensity of living purposefully and sharing in sacrifice with others.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Van was that it was so easy to be a part of his team. Van was always recruiting--which is to say, he was always reaching out and finding people. As soon as you met Van, he was coaching you, like it or not, peering into what made you tick, and filling that ticker with his enthusiasm which poured out of him in a wild spray of language. His world was for the precious few, but it was an open world. He would train runners from all the schools in the region over the summer, then relentlessly compete against them in the fall, then bring them back together to train in the winter. His world was the runner's world, in which your rival is your greatest friend. He could fuse opposites.

I am sad that Van is dead. Really, it's hard to believe that he could die. But I am not as sad as I thought I would be. For those of us who knew Van, we carry so much of him within us that in a way he had already accomplished a kind of spiritual leaving. Great coaches are there with their athletes, in their moment of greatest struggle, and that's because they've figured out a way into the athlete's heart, so that the athlete doesn't have to be alone in his solitude of striving, in his moment of greatest fatigue and pain.

Yes, -- these are hard words -- Van has died. But more than that, he has become more fully what he always was: a man able to give a part of himself to everyone he met. Now he is only that, a beating pulse in the center of every person he touched, unlocking us, giving us strength and joy and life.

Van Townsend was a great coach. He runs on, in the heart of runners everywhere.

Comments

  1. This is a wonderful tribute Jeff.

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  2. I am crying at the beauty of a life well lived and your magnificent description of it. Thank you, Jeff.

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  3. A worthy tribute to a wonderful man.

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  4. Great post, is this my first of yours. Wonderful. I'm signing up. RIP, Van...

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  5. Jeff: Thanks for the wonderful tribute to Van. You were lucky to have him as a coach; he was lucky to have you as a young runner. Coaches-role models can make a difference in peoples' lives. They don't all have this gift. But the ones like Van can have a profound effect.

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  6. Thanks for the inspiring words; they reflect what thousands of coaches would like to be remembered for...

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  7. I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing Van's life with us. He sounded like an incredible human being and an unmatched coach.

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  9. Well written. It's a kind of art to teach like this. I'm sorry for your loss.

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  10. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this i feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. It is extremely helpful for me.

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  15. I read this because I came across a post from another on FB and was curious about him. Well written. Some people burn so brightly they flame out early.
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