Coaching runners is a passion for Tim O’Brien
There are several ways to measure the impact of coaches.
The traditional manner, not necessarily the best barometer, is by their won-loss record.
Another may be by how far up the coaching ladder they’ve risen.
A less tangible, more subjective manner, but one that may yield the best long-term effects,
is to take notice of the passion they bring to the sport.
Few people in the Grand Valley have been as passionate about coaching runners as Tim O’Brien.
O’Brien developed an appreciation for the sport in middle school and carried it through his years at Central High School.
“I went to state a couple of times but it was a weak year,” O’Brien said of his prep cross country and track career.
Fresh out of high school, he joined the Navy in 1993. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor, and his interest in running picked up again.
“I was so far away from home, it was something I had to look forward to,” he said.
He ran a few 5K and 10K races — “In Hawaii you can’t do a run without 300 people in it,” he said — and even tried the Hawaii Marathon once, although he didn’t finish.
Returning home after serving his two-year Navy stint, he enrolled at Mesa State College.
While there, he volunteered to serve as an assistant distance coach at his alma mater, Central.
He also began working for Hilltop Services and then Gateway Youth and Family Services, working with at-risk youth and the developmentally disabled.
After a year and a half, he took a break from coaching but decided to try his hand at it again in 2003 at Grand Junction High School.
“Ned Pollert (then the Grand Junction head track and cross country coach) and Darryl Simonton (now the Tigers head track coach) were giant influences as far as their enthusiasm and their passion,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien started reading books about running and downloading information off the Internet from some of the country’s top collegiate distance coaches.
O’Brien has been fortunate to have worked with some outstanding athletes over the years.
During his time as a volunteer coach at Central, he worked with Seth Hejny, who later went on to run at Stanford and try out for the Olympics.
Among those he helped coach at Grand Junction were brothers Richard and Martin Medina, both of whom are currently running cross country and track at the University of Colorado.
Richard Medina didn’t take up cross country and track until he was a sophomore.
“Coming in I really didn’t know anything,” Richard said. “Once I started talking to him I realized his passion. He really did his research. He definitely worked hard at it.”
By the time his sophomore track season came around, Richard Medina’s running form was starting to come together.
Seeing the enjoyment Richard took in the sport, Martin, one year younger, took it up as well.
“The main message for me was to do it for myself,” Martin said.
“Their talent afforded them more opportunity, but my challenge as a coach was to meet their individual needs,” O’Brien said.
“He always saw how far I was willing to go to get better,” Richard said.
Never a proponent of doing the same workout for every runner, O’Brien would stay up nights trying to devise workouts to benefit each individual runner.
If it was a workout on the track, “I would never tell them how many laps they were doing,” he said.
He would see how they responded to the workout and then decide whether to extend it, revise it or cut it short for the day.
“He was always good at knowing our limits,” Martin said. “He’d find hills or he’d find parks.
It was always fresh.”
“Even when we were resting, it was active resting,” O’Brien said. “Some of my best coaching was keeping kids out of training.”
More than that, however, O’Brien took an interest in their personal lives.
To show them what running was like at a national level, O’Brien would take them to college meets in Boulder. He twice accompanied Richard to the Foot Locker Regionals cross country meet in Wisconsin. In his second trip, Richard Medina qualified for the national meet in San Diego, and O’Brien went along.
“He was there year-round,” Richard said.
The same was true for Martin. After O’Brien gave up coaching at Grand Junction two years ago, he continued to work with Martin on an individual basis.
“He got to know us pretty well,” Martin said. “Tim saw it in himself to prepare us not just athletically but academically.”
That paid off when both earned scholarships to CU.
His interest in the sport went beyond the Medinas. Emma Coburn, a four-sport athlete at Crested Butte, used to come to Grand Junction to do track workouts with her coach, Trent Sanderson. O’Brien would time her.
“One time he told me in my interval workouts (that) these are more like checkers than chess,” said Coburn, who also earned a scholarship to run at CU. “That actually helped me.”
O’Brien’s philosophy for each runner was threefold: What’s the situation; what’s the goal; how do I rebound from a setback.
It’s an outlook that has served his coaching style well and produced great results for his runners.