The Track North Athletic Club is not especially well-known as a source of relay specialists.
True, the very core of the setting that has seen middle distance talent blossom now includes a much greater involvement in areas ranging from hurdles to jumps, from sprints to throws.
Yet as one looks to the inevitable passing of the baton in the coaching ranks, one cannot help to walk away thinking that succession planning for this group is in very good hands, whether one is talking about the coaching foundation of Dick Moss and Darren Jermyn, or the youngins who are next in line.
Kaitlin (Tallman) Toohey and Joseph Burke have retired their spikes, while Dylan Brown is blending his role as both an athlete and a mentor. All three have enjoyed success on the track or the trails, though each brings their own unique flavour to the shift from competitor to coach.
“I got to a point where I was content with what I had accomplished as a runner,” said Toohey, who was a member of an NCAA championship team at Villanova and more recently the top Canadian woman at the Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon, posting a personal time of 2:45.07 in May of 2018.
“I was thinking about how I can give back to the community that supported me. You have great experiences, experiences that you’ve learned from. Some of those things, I wanted to bring forward.”
Where Toohey gradually morphed from the nearly inevitable self-coaching that comes as an element of marathon training, Joseph Burke isolated a more specific turning point. “For me, there was one particular experience in my last competitive season that really solidified the notion that I wanted to coach,” he said.
“I was involved with guide running, working with a visually impaired athlete. It was my first time to partner with someone on their journey towards their goals – and it was very rewarding.”
And while Brown balances his pursuit of a Masters in Human Kinetics at Laurentian with the waning moments of his U Sport varsity career as a cross-country runner, he does so with the ability to draw on memories of a very similar juggling act. “During my undergrad studies (at Lakehead), I was leading a track fundamentals programs in Thunder Bay, very similar to our Bobcats program here,” he said.
“That kind of sparked the initial interest in coaching. Now, while I am training, I find myself thinking of coaching at the same time, which makes it a little bit weirder, in that sense.”
The commonalities that bond this trio together are obvious. First and foremost is a love of running, beyond all else. But even as the Track North troika draws upon an array of different coaches, from their own background as runners, the overriding approach of the two men they now work with most closely returns these coaches in training to common ground.
“The culture that Dick and Darren have created, long before I was one of their athletes, was to develop independent athletes who have an active role in their own objectives and goal setting,” stated Burke. “I quickly learned that there was no cookie cutter approach to training a group of athletes. Even with a small group of just two or three, their needs are very different.”
A long-time native of Manitoulin Island, Toohey takes it a step further, incorporating her job-related experience to further support these notions. “I draw a lot on my work as an occupational therapist,” she said. “You work with all kinds of people, trying to motivate them to do rehab. It’s very individualized, as it is with your athletes.”
“It’s not one size fits all. The training programs might be similar, but there are different approaches that can be used.”
That individuality is also prevalent when one looks at the specific distances where these three tended to prosper, as athletes: from Burke in the 800m/1500m range to Toohey with her cross-country and marathon success. “I think you feel comfortable in areas where you have the most experience,” admitted Brown.
“For me, trying to coach anything under the 800m is a little out of my realm. But the beautiful thing about what we have here is that I can simply refer out. If you don’t know, just ask. We all tend to bring our own specialty. It’s great for the athletes, in the sense that they can try a lot of different things.”
“The beauty of a smaller club is that you get to work with athletes across all disciplines, if you want,” added Burke. “You look at Dick and the fact that he has developed expertise in the hurdles, the steeplechase right through to cross-country. Being mentored by someone like that, and Darren as well, you just can’t ask for any better mentors.”
Not to mention mentors who are often cited for the wonderful balance and perspective that they bring to their coaching craft, understanding when to push and when to pull back. “I’ve been in areas where they err on the side of caution and maybe the athletes don’t do as well because it’s almost too easy, in a way,” noted Brown.
“And I’ve been in areas where they are trying to maximize performance all the time and you end up getting injured, all the time. It’s a grey area, and it’s tough to find that line.”
With the proper physical preparation out of the way, race results are so often driven on establishing just the right mindset for the athlete, that sweet spot between confidence and determination, between comfort and an acceptable level of discomfort. “It’s a bit of a balance,” Toohey agreed.
“I’m a very driven person; I have high expectations for myself. I think that helped me in sport and with life, in general – to an extent. That can also bring a lot of pressure, too. I’ve learned that even with a big race or a tough workout, you still have to have fun.”
“You just try and be approachable, be available to listen to the athletes, make sure that they feel comfortable coming to you.”
Toohey, Brown and Burke don’t have to look far to find glowing examples of these basic coaching principles, core beliefs that someday, may well be passed along to the next wave of Track North coaches.