David Roche’s journey to coaching


Roughly a year ago I was in the market for a new coach. My coach at the time had guided me to my first 100K finish and taught me about training for such longer ultra. Still, there were regular communication issues.

I don’t need constant hand-holding. But as a masters athlete, there are times when I need guidance on how to deal with a niggle, nagging pain or want clarification on a prescribed workout. As a coach myself, I know how important it is to running clients to be there with advice when they need it, not when it is convenient for me.

When considering the type of coach that would be a good fit for me, I zeroed in on a few factors: someone who communicates effectively and timely, has experience with ultra training, and can guide a competitive masters athlete to achieve whatever is possible.

David Roche was my clear choice. And it’s been an honor for me to have him as my coach for almost exactly a year now.

From a legal fellowship to fellowship with athletes

Roche, with wife Megan, coaches athletes from elite 100-milers to back-of-the-packers. Their Team SWAP (Some Work All Play) mantra captures the “have fun, work hard, give-no-fucks” attitude they empower their athletes with. (Their philosophy is captured perfectly in their book.)

It’s precisely the approach I needed.

But to truly understand how Roche developed into the happy runner and coach he is today, one has to turn the pages back to when he was in law school and revved up his running.

“I started really getting more focused on running when I was at Duke and I met my now wife Megan,” he recalls. “We would go on runs together, exploring the North Carolina trails. And from there, we both built up a lot over time and did races and all these other fun adventures. But I was still 100 percent focused on being a public interest environmental lawyer, even while athletics was a big part of how I structured my day-to-day life.”

When Roche took a fellowship in Washington, D.C., Megan was at Stanford University. So, of course, he ran even more, commuting to and from the office.

“My law life and my running life grew hand in hand,” he recalls. “Then I started coaching right around that time as well, just because the sport had given me so much and I wanted to really try to see how I could help other people. It was shooting a big shot without really understanding the scope of what was going to happen from there.

Following his passion

For runners who are coached by Roche, have listened to him on podcasts or read his weekly columns for Trail Runner magazine, they can easily discern his affable demeanor and passion for rest days, yummy food and doggie snuggles. It’s a far cry from the stereotypical lawyer who works nose to the grindstone, six or seven days a week, 16 hours a day.

“I've been who I am, whatever that means, since I've been a little kid,” Roche says. “I brought that to law, and perhaps that shows why maybe it wasn't the best career choice. I was a public interest lawyer and my work was primarily with communities along the Gulf Coast and in Alaska. So, I was not dealing with corporate interests as much as I was dealing with people at their homes, in communities, things like that. The public interest sector that I was working in wasn't focused on litigation. I just wanted to connect with people and try to help them with the environmental issues that they were dealing with, and that worked. I think the problem I ran into was that, as a lawyer, there are certain expectations of formality, and you need to balance that out. So I always felt that I was going to be playing a little bit of a character in law.”

It took Roche a little while to find his true calling after he started coaching friends.

“When I started coaching, It was never with the idea of making money from it,” he explains. “It was just something that I thought I could do for friends, hopefully helping people in a way that was different than the legal processes that I was working under, which are so much slower. In coaching, you're able to interact more one-on-one, and that's why coaching, the way we do it is so focused on daily interactions because I think that that's where a lot of what I might've been missing in law. I stumbled into my calling.

He balanced his legal work, coaching clients and his own running, but there was no master plan. As he learned more about coaching elite runners and additional athletes reached out to him, the path became clear.

“Eventually it became, ‘Wow!’” he says. “Every day I would wake up and I can't wait. I’d be so excited to open the training log or talk to an athlete. And I didn't necessarily feel that same way about the legal work.”

A friend in need

While Roche has been an instrumental teacher to countless runners, he has also learned along the way, too. He drew upon a common theme of his philosophy when I asked him to tell me something that he wished he knew early on in his coaching that he takes for granted now.

“There's no magic workout or perfect plan,” he says. “You don't need to spend an hour debating this run versus that run for an athlete. What matters so much more is being as in tune as you can with an athletes' mental health and physical trajectory over time and letting the art of it become more center stage than the science of it. The science really matters, but books and journal articles only tell a bit of the story of how athletes grow over years.”

A coach in 2020 needs to be part mental health counselor, part nutritionist, part physical therapist, often from a remote setting. And at the same time, the coaches need to have the knowledge to draw up a smart training plan.

For Roche that means the coach-client relationship is actually friend-friend.

“Each athlete is a fully actualized human as they are,” he says. “Their running and their family life and their emotional response to current events are all wrapped up into their day-to-day behaviors and feelings. So running is one very important part of that because it structures the day for almost all the athletes we coach, but it's not the only thing.”

It really gets back to the daily communication, a hallmark of Team SWAP.

“Ideally, someone is comfortable talking about whatever is relevant in their lives, and that means different things to different people,” he says. “The people on our team truly are our best friends who we hang out with all the time. I want them to hopefully feel fully comfortable always. If anything ever does happen, they'll know they'll have a place of love and support. We want people to talk to mental health specialists for specific issues, and our role can be this background beat of ‘Hey, we got this!’”

A safe place for athletes

Worries and blood pressures have spiked this year as the world deals with the coronavirus first, and then racial tensions and protests that continue to embroil the United States. That has made it challenging for coaches to take in the daily concerns and fears of athletes, and at the same time, processing their own.

“Things aren't perfect in the world, even though we want athletes to always know they are perfect as individuals.” Roche says. “And so while I really strive for people to embrace the power of their potential and their growth and all these other lofty ideals, that external world doesn't give a shit when it comes to COVID or the race protests, or people's businesses failing. The focus for us is you're a full human and you have a full range of emotions, from the lofty ideals that we all want to embody to the worst impulses that we wouldn't even be comfortable talking about in public. My hope is to give athletes a venue, a person, where yes, you can do no wrong in my eyes. That means that you can be open talking about the good stuff, but also the bad stuff.”

It’s a safe place for athletes, a sort of coach-client privilege.

“When we're talking about bad stuff — bad stuff that you aren't really proud of about yourself — I view it as an ultimate privilege that anyone would be willing to tell me anything,” Roche says. “The one place that being a lawyer really comes in handy is the whole idea of confidentiality and building up this openness.”

At this time, America seems to be at a tipping point. There are heated debates over civil rights, the upcoming election and — of all things — whether to wear a mask during a pandemic. Runners face a less consequential but important internal debate: Are we being selfish by going out for a solo one- or two-hour run?

“Living your life is not selfish,” Roche asserts. “The world comes alive when we come alive. And the goodness that is possible in society starts with individual goodness that is able to shine with each person. For most people, we try to get running to be one of those avenues of getting that self-expression and self-belief to really show itself. And with that in mind, running is a supportive part of the journey toward being a part the beauty that can exist, even when it doesn't seem like it's there right now. If you love running, you should be running, for the same reason that if you love knitting, you should be knitting. Because those things are what lets you be the best version of yourself, to fight the battles for justice and equality that are the most important ones on a society-wide level.”

‘There is no nutritional magic’

On a much lighter topic, Roche is an advocate of a specific nutrition plan – eat plenty of food, whatever you want, just be sure to get enough protein.

“The main thing is trying to develop a relationship with food that is fun and uplifting, rather than a business one,” he says, while noting that Team SWAP also has nutritionists who can assist with specific diet questions. “Business relationships are not fun and uplifting much of the time. What that means in practice is: eat fun food. Don't worry too much about the specifics of it, as long as you're getting enough. For most athletes just getting enough is plenty, or is plenty when it comes to performance, and then if a doctor has concerns about your health, that's when it's really essential to talk to a nutritionist or do more. But short of that, an athlete will reach their potential as long as they're giving their body enough fuel.”

At the same time, some of Roche’s clients include elite athletes like Hayden Hawks, Clare Gallagher and Matt Daniels. For them, proper training, plenty of rest, mental toughness and a diet that works for them set them up to succeed on race day.

Yet there is no magic formula for how nutrition breaks down simply into percentages of carbs, fats and protein. Every athlete has their own unique biological makeup after all.

“There's a general backstop we'll give athletes, telling them to make sure you're getting enough protein,” Roche says. “In our consultations with our go-to nutritionist, Kylee Van Horn of FlyNutrition, she has helped us understand that many athletes do not get adequate protein, as crazy as that is. They'll do a dietary log for her and they'll be at 30 grams a day, or something like that. But other than that, as long as an athlete's eating enough, there is no magic.”

Roche has had world champions who binge on pizza and ice cream. And others who opt for more traditional, cleaner diets.

“The only thing we have not had is an athlete who has had success while inadequately fueling their bodies, or overthinking it to the point of trying to hack their physiology,” he says. “It's a slippery slope from thinking about these issues enough for performance, to thinking about these issues too much for happiness. And with that in mind, eat foods you love, make sure you're getting enough protein, but there really is no nutritional magic.

One year and growing

It’s been an honor to have Coach Roche on this journey with me.

In the past year, he has navigated me away from potential injuries, communicated every damn day and infused me with the support I need to grow as an athlete.

That growth has included the completion of my first 100-miler, a PR in a 5K a month later and perhaps my most significant racing achievement – so far — a third-place finish at the Bel Monte 50K where I bested my time by 45 minutes from the same race three years earlier.

As a masters athlete, I know there will come a day when PRs are no longer attainable and podium finishes will be reserved for age-group awards. But thanks to my friend/coach/sage, I will continue to train wisely, find joy and – on race day — shoot my shot.

And whether I succeed or fail, I know Coach Roche will be there, offering me words of encouragement and telling me to go eat ice cream.

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