Talking to David Roche is a bit like what talking to Quentin Cassidy might be if Quentin Cassidy were a real person, and not just a character in the novel, Once a Runner. Not only does Roche have the heart of a distance runner, he is eloquent enough to articulate the absolute bliss of running as well as the diabolical nature of the sport, both of which are familiar to anyone who has ever signed up for a 5K.
“The first thing to know is that every runner has the same finish line, and that’s death,” says Roche in his gentle voice. “Death is the ultimate reminder of our own fragility. And as athletes, we are reminded of that all the freaking time. The second thing to know, is that you are unconditionally enough in this moment of space and time, no matter what.”
This is how David Roche coaches. By reminding athletes that the only thing stopping them is death and that should they risk it all and fail? Well, no biggie.
“If you look at failure as a friend,” says Roche, who defines “failure” as any time we don’t meet our own expectations. “If you look at failure as something that you can embrace rather than something to be feared, then you lift the ceiling on what you can do in life. If you aren’t afraid to fail, then what can stop you? Nothing. Nothing can stop you."
Perhaps this philosophy is the natural progression of someone who used to play Division I football in the Ivy League, got a law degree from Duke University, and then decided to give that all up to become a running coach. In the process, he lost 65 pounds and every shred of ego that he may have once possessed.
“Twelve-year old me could kick 30-year old me’s ass,” admits Roche, who used to be a running back for Columbia University. “But I didn’t really have the mindset for football. Running saved me from going down a path that probably wasn’t the best for my personality. I’m an example of the fact that it isn’t always worth it to stick things out.”
While at law school at Duke, David met Megan, who was playing field hockey as an undergrad. David had gotten into endurance sports after leaving football, and Megan’s favorite part about her training was the running.
“We fell in love on the trails,” says Roche. “We both had that spark in us to run and we were each other’s support system.”
Together, the two were inquisitive enough to really look at what it took to be an endurance runner and they tried out different training philosophies on the trails and on themselves. Megan was so successful that after her field hockey season her senior year, she walked on to Duke’s track team and finished seventh at the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) that year in the 10K, which is virtually unheard of in Division I athletics.
This initial success encouraged the Roches to keep figuring out how to get faster and stronger and fitter.
“Our introduction to coaching was really just a curiosity to find out what worked and what didn’t,” says Roche. “We had an open-mindedness to learning, which anyone can have. In college, I was the guy signing up for astrophysics even though I didn’t have the math prerequisites, just because I always wanted to learn from people who are smarter than me.”
David is the first to admit that he wasn’t always successful in his initial attempts.
“Knowing you don’t have the answers is the first step to finding the answers,” he says. “Luckily, we coach ultra runners, which isn’t a field that’s totally figured out yet. But if you start with a base of knowledge and a genuine curiosity, you can learn a lot.”
Roche describes his journey into coaching as an evolutionary process.“It wasn’t like I woke up one day and was like, ‘Oh, I have a wing now.’” Instead, the Roches began sharing what they learned with their friends. “It was more like, ‘Here’s a good website,’ or ‘Check out this information.’”
Over time, the Roches gained enjoyment out of their friends’ running successes. This, in turn, motivated them to learn more and share more. The Roche's acknowledge that it was a backward process.
“I still remember putting out a super embarrassing Facebook post saying that we would coach anyone for free,” remembers Roche. “It was more about the joy than the money. And to our surprise, a few intrepid souls reached out.”
Those initial athletes are still members of the Roche team today, which says something both about the loyalty of the athletes and the success of the Roches' running philosophy, which is incredibly simple. David and Megan believe that if you are happy, you will run faster.
“Megan and I share the willingness to love and unconditionally support other people,” said Roche. “We are all in behind our athletes’ life journeys. We get so much joy out of their growth and development not just as runners but as people. Our coaching philosophy is based on full life happiness. You can be a good runner in the short term and miserable in the process, which is a bit like using the Dark Side in Star Wars. Our methodology is that we focus on progression in the long term and happiness in the short term.”
The other aspect that the Roches focus on is speed rather than strength, which may seem counterintuitive in the endurance world. Their coaching methodology focuses on how fast an athlete can be rather than how strong they can be. Most endurance training focuses on building a strong base and then adding in speed as the season progresses, but the Roche’s don’t want their athletes to forget who they are.
“It’s not about doing crazy intervals,” says Roche. “But we incorporate a lot of strides, short intervals, and hills into our training. Before they do long, they do fast.”
The Roche's call their team, SWAP, which is short for, “Some Work, All Play.” They coach XTERRA athletes Ashley Brasovan and Tess Amer, who was second at the XTERRA Beaver Creek triathlon to only XTERRA World Champ, Lesley Paterson. They also coach Corinne Shalvoy, who, like Brasovan, will be racing at the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship in Utah on September 16th.
The Roches are also successful trail runners in their own right. In 2014, they were both third at the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship, and last weekend, they each won the XTERRA Castle Rock 20K on August 5th.
“There isn’t much that correlates with happiness across time and culture and people,” said Roche. “But there are several studies that show that community and connection add to subjective well-being. Both ultra running and trail running are so good at elevating that virtue. And that adds to happiness. We want our athletes to not just be energized for running, but to be energized for life.”
In October 2019, the Roche's first book will be published. It’s called The Happy Runner, Love the Process, Get Faster, Run Longer, and it’s available for pre-order on Amazon.
Photo courtesy of ChasquiRunner.