West Loop man preps racers for October's Chicago Marathon

Runner who has completed 84 marathons lends a hand to others

09/19/2012 10:00 PM

By Ben Meyerson

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Marathon coach Brendan Cournane (center) is preparing runners for the Chicago Marathon with training sessions at Lake Shore Park in Chicago on Tuesday.
David Pierini/Staff Photographer

Brendan Cournane has done a lot of running. The West Loop resident has run 84 marathons, including races in all 50 states of the U.S. He’s closing in on finishing a race on every continent, too.

Today, he leverages his talent and experience to train other marathoners on the best ways to run 26.2 miles, finishing the race strong, at their own pace and without harming their bodies. Every week since Memorial Day, he’s gathered groups of runners on Saturday mornings and Tuesday evenings, training them for Oct. 7’s Chicago Marathon and other races.

While he’s a prolific runner these days, well-schooled in the intricacies of making it through a marathon at his best, it wasn’t always that way. He knows the value of good training, having operated without it early on in his running career.

Before finishing his first marathon — in Chicago, of course — in 1985, he had signed up several times. But for various reasons, he never made it to the starting line, mostly because at the time, he was too busy at work, trying to make his way up the ladder as a young lawyer.

“I originally started looking to run a marathon as something to just check off my list. I was a practicing lawyer going for partner at my firm, and looking for a distraction,” Cournane said. “But I didn’t have time to train, and I didn’t know how to train. I knew I had to prepare, but for a couple of years, I never got about a five- or six-mile run before I got to the starting line.”

When he finally got the nerve to do it in 1985, he finished with a five-hour time — now a respectable time. Back then, in the early days of marathon racing’s renaissance, it was a time that put him in the back 5 percent of the pack.

“I was passed by a woman who was 80 years old and a woman who was seven months pregnant,” he recalled. “From about mile 22 on, I said I would never do this again. … I finished that race with sheer determination and willpower.”

Cournane did run two more marathons in the next two years, but then took about seven years off. When he came back in 1995, he found a training group and the whole way he ran races changed.

“Up until the mid-’90s, structured training programs didn’t exist,” he said. “If I was going to do it again, I knew I’d have to have good training.”

Racing as a charity runner for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society that year, he worked with their in-house group, Team in Training. When he ran it for them again the next year, Team in Training’s coach asked Cournane to fill in as a coach. It caught on. From there, Cournane gradually became more and more involved with Team in Training, working with them until two years ago.

Since then he’s split off and started his own independent training program under the simple moniker of “Coach Brendan.” He works with groups large and small, from runners doing their first race under the banner of a charity, to experienced runners hoping to leverage his techniques to improve their times.

On Tuesday evening around dusk, Cournane gathered a group of runners in Lake Shore Park, along Chicago Avenue just west of Lake Shore Drive. They were there for speed training. Since June they had been meeting here, preparing in phases — first, with basebuilding, conditioning to make them stronger runners; second, with sharpening, running 10K races at a 5K pace.

Now, with less than a month until race day, they’re tapering, running a mile at a time at their marathon pace, ensuring they don’t blast out of the gate too fast and get tired at the end. This way, they know what their target pace should feel like, something they can consistently hold throughout a marathon.

As the sunlight faded, Cournane instructed his runners before sending them off.

“Treat every one of these miles like it’s the first part of your marathon,” he said. “Now it’s time to lock into your pace.”

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