More than a Coach

MORE THAN A COACH

When I reflect on life, I think of Joni Mitchell.  She is my favorite female artist and poet.  She wrote “We’re captive on the carousel of time.  We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came.  And go ‘round and ‘round in the circle game.”

On July 6, 1931 Laszlo was born in Kosice. . . the Slovakia part of Czechoslovakia.  Coincidentally, one week earlier, on June 29, 1931 a certain Tom Sturak was born in San Diego of Slovak parents whose family resided in Kosice.

Fast forward to the late 50s, early 60s, Laszlo and Coach Igloi were training in Southern California.  You’ve all heard or read of their journey to California, so I’ll leave that to you and others to research.  But I will add that a certain Tom Sturak was also running with Coach Igloi in that time-period, and then with Joe Douglas for many years after for Santa Monica Track Club.  More about Tom later.

In the late 60s, 1969 to be exact, I was out running one day around my school, San Fernando  Valley State College.  I had discovered Track and Field thanks to a forward -thinking woman coach at Granada Hills High School who started the first girls’ track team at my school.  I’d already bombed at every other sport and was happy to join a team that didn’t choose you, but you chose your event.  I went from high school to Pierce where I had a team, but not a coach, and although we competed on a women’s team, we also went to the men’s meets where I was the scorekeeper.  At San Fernando Valley State, which became Cal-State University, Northridge by my graduation,  I had no team and no coach, but I kept running.  It was a random act of fate that I met Judy Graham running, and we became friends.  She gave me a lifetime gift when she said I have a club and I have a coach.  You can join.

Laszlo was more than a coach.  I learned all life lessons through this man, all the life lessons sports can teach you.  I learned “work ethic” the very first workout.  Judy can attest to the fact that just the warm-up was more than I’d ever run at one time.  I was in over my head.  But Laszlo’s commanding presence made it impossible to leave and when he said he would see you next time, you knew you better be there next time.

I learned dedication, commitment and sacrifice.

I learned you never quit, you always finish what you start.  I learned that in the first race.  He took Judy and I to a cross country race in Ventura.  I collapsed from fatigue and tripped over my own tired feet.  I lay in the dirt wishing an ambulance would come take me away on a stretcher, but that didn’t happen.  I might have heard, from the sidelines, barking orders to get up and finish because that’s what I did.  You always finished what you start.

Judy Graham, JQ, Becky Dennis, Sue Kinsey – LATC 1972

We ran for LA Track Club (an all women’s club with all track events . . . . this was a later version of the LATC that Igloi’s runners ran some years before).  When LATC disbanded for us, Laszlo took his distance runners and went to the Southern California Striders for about just one year.  I mention this because it was in that year that I met a certain Tom Sturak — my future husband.   Eventually, Laszlo formed our own San Fernando Valley Track Club.   So you see, I ran for several clubs and colleges, but always with one coach, Laszlo, who was more than a coach.

It was after LATC but before Striders, when I was a woman without a team, that Laszlo, Judy and I witnessed a teammate of ours named Cheryl Bridges become the first woman to break the 2:50 mark in the marathon when she won Western Hemisphere Marathon in Culver City in December 1971.  For me, this was the hook.  I was intrigued and inspired.  I wanted to try that.

Laszlo trained me as a miler, but let’s face it.  I was a mediocre miler.  I wasn’t even the best miler on my own team.  Judy was.  Ruth Wysocki joined us later.  She can tell you I wasn’t a great miler.  I’m still a miler at heart, I like it best, but I was a mediocre miler.

Speaking about our training . . . and we were all milers, by the way. . . .

Before there was a term “sports psychology,” our coach was already practicing his version of therapy.  He knew the difference between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” rewards.  He knew the intrinsic rewards came from within, and were longer lasting.  “We” actually felt rewarded if “we” advanced to being assigned “double workouts.”  And remember “special shakeups?”  They were just disguised intervals, more hard 200s mixed into our alleged cooldown.  And “we” had to ask permission to race.  Honestly, to race was like a holiday . . . . you only had to run hard once that day.  (I’m so glad that Mark Covert mentioned this too, in his tribute!)

Laszlo knew that Judy responded to negative feedback, such as telling her “I know you cannot keep up with the boys, but hang on as long as you can.”  Of course, she tried her hardest to beat them.  I responded to positive feedback, which he figured out after telling me once “You call that running?  I call it baloney.”  I left and ran all the way home.  “Baloney running indeed.”

So imagine my surprise when I asked permission to be like Cheryl and run my first marathon.  I expected a rejection.  I got words of wisdom.

He said “There are some things you have to find out for yourself. There are things I wanted to try but never did, and I’ll always wonder.”  So I ran my first marathon, at WHM in Culver City.  It wasn’t as easy as Cheryl made it look, but I learned more life lessons.  Coach and I learned together how to train for my new-found event.  My dear friend and teammate Patrick Miller suggested I go try Boston next, since they had just started a women’s division.  I truly discovered my true event.  My lifelong thanks belong to Patrick for accompanying me, and we’re still best of friends today.

More life lessons continued to come.  Following Boston, I learned a big lesson about sacrifice.  I had received my first-ever all expenses paid invitation to a road race in Charleston, West Virginia.  On Labor Day.  I had planned to spend my summer doing my favorite backpacking with friends.  But, no, I had to stay home and prepare for the next big race because Laszlo said “You can hike when you are 84, but no one will pay to watch you run.”  “You’ll stay home, young lady.”

Laszlo had other words of wisdom during our time together.  He said I’d have lots of friends when I am #1 on top, but that he would there for me when I’m not.

Like a great mentor, Laszlo led by example.

He gave us all a chance.  He considered himself once an underdog.  All he expected of us was hard work.  He was always “there for us.”  Remember all those stopwatches he wore around his neck?  And his little black book?  He knew what we were each capable of.  He had that magic eye.  He knew when to give us more work, and when to scale back.  He always brought out our best.

He was more than a Coach.  Tom was more than my partner.  These two men shaped my life.  Laszlo made all things possible.  He made a significant contribution to advancing women’s running.

I believe Laszlo fought the good fight.  He finished the race.  He never quit.

He was so much more than my Coach.

Mark Covert and Laurie Tabori
Tamas Igloi
Rod Dixon, JQ, Tamas Igloi, Claudette Groenendaal
Dave Babaracki
Ruth Wysocki, Judy Graham, Becky Dennis (photo courtesy of Wysockis) 
Becky Dennis, Richard Nance, Judy Graham
Laszlo’s poster with Grace Padilla

A Long Time Coming: Chapter six, “Marathon Start”

Western Hemisphere Marathon 1972, photo by Doug Schwab

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost

The last running event I witnessed in December 1971, the Western Hemisphere Marathon in Culver City, was momentous – both at the time and for what it would mean to me later. Laszlo Tabori actually lived right on the Culver City course, so he was always present for the race. My training partner Judy Graham and I joined him there that day because we had a teammate, Cheryl Bridges, who was running the marathon. She did not train with us but competed for the club.

We supported Cheryl in her marathon as she set a world record of 2:49:40, becoming the first woman to run under 2:50. I was intrigued. Watching Cheryl click off those miles over the marathon course looked like fun to me.  She was strong but relaxed,  a  beautiful runner with great running form and a stride that just flowed.

The monument at the finish line of the Western Hemisphere Marathon lists the 1971 winner as “Patricia Bridges.” Her first name changed only once, while her last name changed with every marriage: from Pedlow to Bridges to Flanagan to the current Treworgy. Her daughter is the Olympian Shalane Flanagan. (At the time we married, my husband made a good case for women not to change last names, pointing out how it confuses track statisticians. I didn’t change mine, nor did Shalane.)

Cheryl was an inspiration to me. I could not help but think that I could do what she did. I could run with her on the track and in cross-country, and perhaps I could do a marathon like her too. I vowed right then and there that I would try the Culver City race the next year.

However, returning to the track with Laszlo the following week, I was caught up in our routine schedule of indoor track in the winter, outdoor track in the spring and cross-country in the fall, with a little vacation time during summer before laying our base for the fall season. It was in that brief summer vacation that I was lured away from my usual loops around a park to venture out on the roads for a workout.

When I wasn’t running on the track, my easy days were for running at Balboa Park in the San Fernando Valley. Judy and I were under strict orders to run only on dirt or grass surfaces, and I mean always. One day we met at Balboa at the same time a group of male runners met for a road workout. Some of them also trained with us at the track, so we chatted.

They were led by a male runner in his 60s, Monty Montgomery. I’d seen this group regularly and noted that they seemed to have a lot of fun, as they told stories and ran off on the roads headed for the beach and other interesting loops, while Judy and I ran in circles around the park. Twice I went with them, for a 10-miler and a 14-miler.

So when cross-country season ended in November with my best performance to date, eighth place in nationals, my thoughts turned back to that Western Hemisphere Marathon I wanted to do in December. I really wasn’t prepared with any long runs in my repertoire except those two workouts I snuck in many months earlier.

I didn’t let that stop me, and I asked Laszlo if I could enter (asking permission was requisite). I half- expected to be yelled at. After all, his attitude was that the marathon was something you ran if you were too slow to compete at the middle distances.  However, what I received was almost philosophical. He said that there are some things I had to find out for myself and that there were things he didn’t try and would never know.

Besides, he added, I was the most stubborn runner he knew, and he thought I would go far. I still do not know if he meant “far” as in I had a future in marathoning, or “far” as in I’d go about 18 miles and drop out. No matter. I had his blessing, and that’s what mattered.

I credited a college teammate, Mike Maggart, with getting me through the first 15 miles at seven-minute pace,  and  Doug Schwab for parking his bike and running the last mile in with me. (I ought to have been disqualified, I suspect.) In reality, I don’t think my friends could ride their bikes near the end because my pace had slowed so much. As I wrote in my journal:

Those last four miles are almost unbearable, particularly the last two.  Up to 22, it seemed almost a relaxed seven-minute pace. Then the race began for four miles. And worth every sore muscle – a thousand times over.

Cheryl Bridges did not run in the Culver City race that year, and I won my first marathon in a slow 3:15.  I probably could have walked my final miles faster than I was running.

I recall that upon crossing that finish line I uttered the   words   “never   again!”    Later at the awards ceremony, however, I received my medal and thought how I would prepare differently for next time.  I was hooked.

Interestingly enough, this race was a turning point for my family, who up to that point did not deem running to be worth my time. In fact, I fibbed about going out for a run with Judy that morning to cover up running in the marathon. I left a note on the table at home early that morning to say we went for a run and made up some other excuse about shopping or a movie to buy more time for the day.

The only reason I had to make excuses was because it was the day for a family reunion at our house to celebrate Thanksgiving, my birthday and birthdays for several other relatives.  I knew I’d be late, thus needing the excuse.

By winning the race, I was delayed by the awards ceremony and thought I would be in big trouble.  However, when I snuck in the door and tried to slip into my seat at the dinner table, my family broke into applause.  My aunt resided near the site of the marathon and had reported the whole thing, and then my winning photo had appeared on the local TV news.

(Continued in chapter six, “Boston.”)

Western Hemisphere Marathon 1972, photo by Doug Schwab

A Long Time Coming: Chapter Four, “Coach Laszlo”

“Discipline is liberation.” (Martha Graham)

My chance meeting with Laszlo Tabori began a period of my life when I learned discipline, dedication, and commitment to a degree I never knew before. Laszlo’s background was intense, and his coaching style was intense. He was what you could describe as a disciplinarian-style coach.

I shall never forget my first workout with him. We ran five big laps around practice fields, about 2½ miles, followed by 15 times 100-yard “shake-ups” (translated as wind-sprints) between the goalposts on a football field inside the track. This was pretty much as far as I’d ever run at one time in any workout.

The team headed for their track bags, and I thought we must be done. But no, my Valley State teammate Jon Sutherland informed me, we were changing into our racing flats in order to start the hard workout next!

If you ever met Laszlo, you would understand why I was too intimidated to leave at that point. I was also too intimidated to stay away the next time and returned for more of the same the following night. Laszlo had a commanding presence, to say the least.

Reflecting back,  I am very fortunate  to  have received the training I did – and in a strange way fortunate to have progressed in distance running the way it was imposed.  Being limited to quarter-mile races, then half-mile and finally the mile,  my progression was not unlike the English system of developing middle-distance runners as they mature from youth to young adults.

It would seem that I was developed in a pre-planned system of training, what track coaches call “periodization” – except that in my case it was quite unintentional.  Perhaps  I should call myself an accidental middle-distance runner who became a long- distance runner? It must be unusual to have a collection of medals from the 50-yard dash to the 50-mile run. Honestly!

The fortunate opportunity to train with a man like Laszlo is astonishing when I think of our chance meeting. Naturally, he trained us as middle-distance runners because of who he was and how he was coached. When I met him, he had been in the U.S. for more than a decade. Now retired from running, he coached the L.A. Valley College cross-country team.

Laszlo’s story is historical. He was a protégé of the famous Hungarian coach, Mihaly Igloi, a man some call the  “father  of  interval  training.”    His runners broke world records from 1000 to 10,000 meters. In 1955 alone, the Hungarian runners broke nine world records and included three of the fastest 1500-meter men in history. Laszlo was the third man in the world to break four minutes in the mile,  after  Roger Bannister and John Landy.

The Hungarian team had broken a total of 23 world records prior to the 1956  Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. However, all hopes of prevailing at those Games were disrupted by the Hungarian revolution and Soviet invasion. Of all his teammates, Laszlo survived the Games the best with a fourth-place finish in the 1500 and sixth in the 5000.

Along with Coach Igloi, Laszlo and some of his Hungarian Olympic teammates defected to the United States directly from  Melbourne.  He resumed a successful running career for a number of years in the U.S. but was a man without a country in 1960, and he never competed in the Olympics again.

I knew little of the time between Laszlo’s departure from running and how he came to coach at Valley College. But I did know that Mihaly Igloi coached at the University of Southern California campus and that the team competed under the name Los Angeles Track Club. The newly formed club at the time included Jim Beatty, Max Truex, Jim Grelle, Ron Larrieu, Joe Douglas, Bob Seaman and, for a brief time, Bob Schul. At one point there were five sub-four-minute milers on the team at once.

Upon Igloi’s departure from the U.S., Joe Douglas took the reins as the coach. The team name changed when it moved to Santa Monica, where Joe continues to coach the Santa Monica Track Club. My late husband Tom Sturak ran under Joe for years, many of which paralleled my running time under Laszlo in the San Fernando Valley. Joe and Laszlo had both run for Igloi and coached similarly in a parallel existence.

When I first joined Judy Graham and Laszlo, we were members of a different Los Angeles Track Club. This was now an all-women and all-events club with distinguished coaches for the variety of specialties. Our star was the great Chi Cheng from Taiwan. At one of my first LATC meetings, we viewed a movie of her recent European tour where she garnered many titles, records, and glamorous awards. I was enthralled. A few years later the LATC disbanded. Laszlo and his ever-expanding group of followers eventually formed our own club: the San Fernando Valley Track Club.

 

 

While competing for the LATC, I ran my first track and field national championships in July 1971, competing in the 880. I had qualified by winning my division in a regional meet, but losing the race to Becky Dennis. I had no idea what “AAU” was when told that I qualified for Amateur Athletic Union national championships. Laszlo said, “Of course you’ll go.”

Judy and I drove to Bakersfield for the meet, but my old VW bug couldn’t make a tough climb over the mountains called the Grapevine. We were stranded until picked up by none other than the coach from another local women’s club, Roy Swett, whose top runner was Debbie Heald. She was one of the best milers in our region, and in the nation. She later became a teammate of ours, but this was our first meeting.

In November that year, I competed in my first cross- country national championships with the LATC. Running in the snow in Cleveland, Ohio, I fell and broke my wrist, but I finished the race and was casted upon returning home.

Even at 2.5 miles, this was close to the longest distance I had ever raced. While still recovering from the wrist injury, I would be introduced to an event 10 times longer.

(continued in chapter 5, Marathon Start)