ordinary people doing awesome things: Greg Adams

Who is Greg Adams?

Greg came into my life as one of my high school cross country coaches, but over the years became a role model and inspiration. He helped his athletes develop a love of running, an appreciation for the sport versus a few years of fast times. Whenever we doubted ourselves, Greg always knew we could do a little bit better, and did not shy away from telling us so. He is a believer in putting in work, and getting results- simple. Not easy, but it worked every time. Just like life, which he always reminded us running is a great metaphor for. I wanted to share this spirit of his, and I hope the following interview captured that. Happy reading!

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First of all, how did you become a runner? What got you into the sport?

I began running my first week of high school.  The first day of school of my sophomore year, I came home and reported to my parents that a family friend was the number 1 runner on the cross country team, and the runners raced a ridiculous distance of more than two miles and sometimes ran as much as fiveIMG_0426 miles in practice, which seemed just crazy to me.  My father asked me, “Why not join the team yourself?”  I thought about it, was wavering, and a couple of friends decided to turn out—so I did, too.

And I was terrible, by the way.

How did you move from running into coaching?

When I graduated from college, I spent a year in Volunteers in Service to America (“VISTA”), working in a legal aid office in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.  I found that I was not fully busy all the time and asked if perhaps I could volunteer as a coach at the local high school, San Fernando High.  That was arranged and I began as an assistant coach—working with a wonderful older teacher at the school who had been a world-class quarter-miler (yes, the 440, not 400 meters, in the old days) but who really did not know much about distance running, so he let me design the whole program.  I coached in person for a year, including all winter, through track season, and for the summer before I left to start law school, and I coached remotely from Seattle for two more years—sending the workout plan down weekly, and then attending the season-ending meets in person.  The connection I had with the runners and the development I saw in them—as runners and as young men (boys only; they were not yet letting girls run)—had me hooked.

How significantly, and in what ways, has running impacted the rest of your life?

It is a significant part of who I am and how I identify and interact with the world around me.

I have been fortunate to have many wonderful friendships from 30 years of running with a group of lunchtime downtown runners—there has been turnover in the group during that time, but the core of perhaps 20 runners was together for a very long stretch while we also added new members who became central to the group as well.  I have also used running as a vehicle for travel—running marathons in three foreign countries including France and England as a reason for travel with my running friends.  In addition, running on a daily basis has always been a significant help in dealing with complications of life and the challenges of a very full career—once, many years ago when I was interviewed after a race, I explained that “I run for my mental health.”  I used to be able to say that running was time away from it all—my standard line was that “the phone never rings while I am running”—but that is no longer true now that we can take our phones with us even while we run (I don’t usually do so, but I have—and I have been on business conference calls even while I was out on the road).

It has also been a source of interest and enjoyment away from my career—although I did not compete seriously for the period when my daughters were young, I did still have annual goals/requirements, including running a marathon a year with a specific (and somewhat challenging) time goal.  And both before my kids were born and after they were grown, my more competitive goals have provided an interesting, challenging, and at times very exciting sidelight to the rest of what I do in life.

Finally, running has given me the opportunity to coach something that I know and have lived.  I have coached all ages, including many adults (years ago, I even taught 20-week-long formal classes for aspiring recreational marathoners).  And, as you know, over the last dozen years, I have been privileged to be a volunteer coach at two Seattle high schools, which has been demanding, wonderful, exasperating, exhilarating, occasionally irritating, ultimately rewarding, and overall just plain fun.IMG_0435

What is your favorite thing about running?

[It’s] hard to limit it to one thing.  I enjoy the “time away” aspect—my favorite place in the world is Point Defiance Park in Tacoma, where I can run trails endlessly in the forest; over the years, I have put in around 8,000 miles on those trails.  I have enjoyed the time on the roads and trails with close friends who have become much closer as a result of numerous two-hour runs over the years.  I have always loved the goal-setting, planning, and challenging myself to do what is necessary to achieve what I set out to do.  And, when everything is clicking, I derive enormous satisfaction from feeling strong and in control of my race—especially when it is clear that I will meet some goal I have set for myself and have worked toward for months.  I used to wait for a point in my races (usually marathons or half marathons when I had specific time goals) when it looked like I would achieve my goal and declare, “it is a lock”—that was a great feeling of strength and power (although sometimes my running partner did not like my pronouncement because he might not have been as sure for himself at that moment).  I actually once declared a marathon race “a lock” at seven miles because I felt so unbelievably strong and capable that day, even though we were running the most challenging and difficult marathon course I have ever run and was facing 18 more miles of hills—it is an exhilarating sensation to feel that much in control.

What about coaching?

It is a privilege to be permitted inside someone’s life to provide advice, guidance, and encouragement with respect to some very personal goals and interests.  With respect to high school runners in particular, I find enormous satisfaction in watching them develop as runners and as people, particularly if they “catch the bug” and are excited about getting better (whether they can ever be fast or not—some of my favorites have been those who were not talented, but who burned to improve, were truly committed to doing what was required to do so, and ultimately succeeded beyond their own expectations).  I try to communicate the close connection between running and the rest of their lives—running clearly teaches that long-term, consistent effort and focus will produce favorable results and that commitment ultimately matters more than talent, and for many runners I see this lesson translating to the rest of their lives as well.  To watch 14-year-olds mature into high school seniors, learning some of their lessons from running, is special.  For example, my original San Fernando High School team went from last place in league our first year together to undefeated the next two years, but I am prouder of the fact that the collective team grade point average improved more than one full point—from around 2.2 (basically a C average)  to 3.4 (B-plus) in the same period.  The runners learned something about effort, commitment, consistency, responsibility, and achievement that translated to other parts of their lives.



And coaching high school, in particular, is great because being around teenagers as they interact with me and with each other is endlessly entertaining.  Plus, of course, coaches have the opportunity to regularly tell other people what to do, and I have always liked to do that.


Do you feel it’s important to learn the history of the sport and read the accounts of runners of the past? Why or why not?

I think it is enriching and motivating, but not important if one is not interested.  I believe I have been inspired by my understanding of history—all the way back to my childhood, I have read about athletes in general and runners in particular who have overcome enormous obstacles.  For example, Glenn Cunningham was one of the first athletes I learned about at a young age (and look him up—if his story does not inspire you, perhaps nothing will).  Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon in 1972 while I was in my car driving from Seattle to Southern California to start my senior season of college cross country—he was a personal hero because he was a truly great runner (which I would have loved to be, but knew was out of reach for me) and lawyer (as I aspired to be, and did become).  Aside from inspiration, learning about Shorter’s training regimen was beneficial to my understanding of training for myself and coaching others.  To me, the history of running and the personal stories of the great runners are captivating and fascinating, but I think one can enjoy the sport even if he or she has no interest in history.

What’s the craziest adventure being involved in running has brought you?

My most consistent and long-time running partner became obsessed with urban adventure racing—glorified scavenger hunts in which running is a key part, but not the only skill necessary to be successful.  At his insistence, we competed in numerous local competitions and twice went to nationals.  The 36-hour urban adventure race nationals competition in Orlando, Florida in 2010 (when he, at 49, was older than all of the other competitors by at least a dozen years, and I was ten years older than he was!)—which involved rappelling down tall buildings, participating in Marine boot camp, driving a vehicle while blindfolded, playing with snakes, paddle-boarding across a lake, eating bugs, and several other ridiculous activities, in addition to a significant amount of running—is probably the craziest adventure that came from my running.

What is one piece of advice you want to share with all runners, new or experienced?

Dig deep.

You have more potential and capacity than you imagine that you do, and if you commit yourself you can accomplish things even beyond what you dreamed were possible.  Find a program that works for you and go for it.


For more ordinary people doing awesome things, check out my interview with Isabella Taylor, cyclist and traveler extraordinaire. 

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