Monday, 6 April 2009

P-K Profile #3-- Agathe Nicholson

When you've been around the sport as long as I have you have met and gotten to know a lot of runners-- hundreds of them. And because you've met so many, you can't help but begin to compare them. Who's the fastest? The most naturally talented? The hardest trainer? The fastest kicker? The wildest post-race...ahem...celebrant? Although I only met her a few years ago, and although she's only been a runner for the same period of time, Agathe Nicholson is very high on one of the most important of my lists of rankings: that of toughest racer.

The best distance runners, whether age groupers or internationals, are naturally selected for the ability to endure physical discomfort while keeping their focus firmly on the prize. Some runners, however, manage to take this ability to a completely other level. In pursuit of their competitive goals they are able to go regions of the mind and spirit unknown-- or, if known, then feared-- by more ordinary athletes. More ordinary runners will set goals in the weeks and days leading up to race only to abandon them when the moment of truth is at hand. There are rare athletes, on the other hand, who will, as a matter of course, chase their goals into the deepest regions of a psychological hell far too hot for the rest of us. Athletes of this cast are so rare that, once met, they are seldom forgotten.

Being what runners call "tough" has nothing to do with natural ability. There are very gifted runners who never perform to the best of their ability because, for one reason or another, and often because they are so gifted, they lack this characteristic in sufficient quantities. And there are less naturally endowed athletes whose ability to psychologically endure would put some Olympic medalists to shame. Since Agathe Nicholson came to the sport late-- in her early 40s, and as an ex-smoker and mother or two-- we will never know how she would have measured up on the natural talent scale. But, as anyone who knows her or who has had the misfortune of racing within her competitive range can attest, Agathe is a rare specimen when it comes to her ability to "go deep" in a race or challenging workout. On my personal rankings, Agathe is among top three toughest distance runners I have ever met (with the toughest being all-time Canadian great Paul McCloy, once among the top 10 cross country runners in the world, Africans included.) Put Agathe's mind in my body, or in the body of anyone with above average natural ability, and you have at least a national champion. Put her mind in the body of someone with exceptional natural ability and you have an Olympic champion. Simply put, Agathe has a world class ability to push flesh to the breaking point. If you are a runner, ask yourself the following simple questions: How many times have I required medical attention following a race? How many times have I collapsed or passed-out? How many times have I completely forgotten the final stages of race? Agathe's answers to these questions is "several", and that's not counting what she's done to herself in workouts! My own most memorable "Agathe" moment: When, standing trackside on a warm evening in July, I looked into her eyes with 600m remaining in a 5k race and told her the time she needed for the final lap and half to meet her goal. She looked back at me, nodded foggily, and visibly tried to launch an exhausted drive for home. Five hundred agonizing meters later, she would lose her bearings completely. Weaving across the track from lane one to eight, she would search vainly for a finish line that she could no longer see or sense. To this day, she has very little recollection of those last 600m. I often imagine how tired she must have been when she gave me that little nod of recognition not 60 seconds before all hell would break lose. And Agathe is no drama queen. She has done none of these things for effect, and probably considers them tokens of weakness and failure rather than indices of exceptional fortitude.

And, as anyone in the local group will tell you, Agathe's raw intensity is frequently directed outward at her club mates and training partners. Shame on anyone who fails to do his or her best on Agathe's watch as a cheerleader or workout partner! Even I have been the object of Agathe's exhortations; and,for all my experience and calm under fire, I've always felt a little humbled by her emotional heat. She is the one athlete I have coached from whom I felt I have learned, or perhaps re-learned, almost as much as I have taught.

Along with--and of course largely because of--her exceptional psychological strength, Agathe has been a remarkably successful racer in her short career as a masters runner, demonstrating a fantastic range. She hold P.B.s of 4:56 for 1500m and 3:05 for the marathon, the latter set in her debut at the distance at the age of 47. (For her other P.B.s, see the P-K Profiles page). And, she is far from through yet. Now in the final stages of a second successful marathon build-up (this one, having been carried out in the winter months, requiring all of her fabled guts) Agathe will run Boston in exactly two weeks. Her goal is a personal best, but we're both hoping for a low or sub-3 hours. The vagaries of the marathon being what they are, no one can say if she will meet her goal. As sure as the sun will rise on the day, however, she will not fail for lack of will.

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