Coach Mike Byrnes

from B Team Running

I originally had a different post planned for today. However, my dear friend and coach, Mike Byrnes, passed away this past weekend. Therefore, today, my post is dedicated to one of the most important people to ever grace my life.

I know that Coach meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. His accomplishments and contributions to the world are far too many to ever recount so I am not going to try and cover all of those today. If you want to read them, simply google “Mike Byrnes, Track & Field”, and the resume you’ll find will be long and distinguished. No, instead, I want to give you a small glance into my time with Coach. Several months back, I was approached to write down some of my memories of Mike and now seemed like an appropriate time to share them more publicly. Here is just a glance at Coach Mike and I’s story. A story that is forever etched into my heart…

Mike Byrnes

Sarah & Coach at outdoor nationals during Sarah’s senior year

Before meeting Coach Mike (MB), I was a naive young high school runner with no concept of proper training, pacing or racing tactics. I knew one thing – when the gun goes off, take the lead and stay there. MB had a big task on his hands when he took on coaching me. However, he never tried to change my running style or mindset. Instead, he worked to teach me about the sport. He never put limits on what I could accomplish. It was because of Coach that I left high school with the 1k HS indoor national record and the fastest high school mile time ever run in all high school competition … a race I won by “taking the lead from the gun and staying there”. Below are a few of the memories that I have from my time working with Coach Mike. They include everything from funny events to some of the lasting coaching lessons that I learned.

I first met Coach at an all-comers indoor meet my junior year. I was sitting in a hallway with my mom, crying because I had performed poorly in my race. MB came over and told me that it was a “Mickey Mouse” meet and to keep my head up because this meet was “meaningless”. At the time, I had no idea who he was but he gave my parents his contact information in case we ever needed anything. After contacting him, we learned he used to be a coach and asked if he could help me with my training. Luckily, he said yes …

From then on, MB would drive up to my scheduled practice in his old Cadillac with UVA stickers on the back window. He was always wearing some type of hat, whether it was a baseball hat or an ivy cap and he loved to whistle & sing tunes. And although I can’t remember what the specific songs were, the point is that he always showed up in a cheery mood. His positive coaching and disposition made him an easy man to show up for.

At practices, I think I amazed MB at how many times I had to pee before, during and after a workout. It was a standing joke with him. I guess he was not used to working with a young lady very much, especially one that constantly needed a bathroom! When my husband and I visited him over Thanksgiving, it remained a talking point as we joked at “how bad it really must be now that I am pregnant”.

MB also gave me a hard time about my running outfits, or should I say, lack thereof. In high school, I was known for running in my soccer attire and was never really fond of official running apparel. It really bugged him that I did not own “real” running clothes! To fix it, he himself gave me my first true tracksuit. I still remember the white jacket with yellow trim.

As MB started working with me, I think he began to realize just how clueless my family and I were when it came to the sport of track & field. When he learned that I had never heard of, nor completed, a “long run”, he sent me out to “try and run for an hour”. I ran for 1 hour and 13 minutes just to prove to him that I could do it! He challenged me and knew that I’d challenge back.  It was a good dynamic.


Sarah & Coach after Sarah officially signed with the University of Tennessee

MB’s nickname for me was “squirt” or when I dazzled him with my whit, “little shit” (although he usually mumbled off at the end so I only heard “you little shhh”). However, even though he called me that, he excelled at not putting up with my shi*t! If I tried to put on an Oscar-worthy, dramatic display of fatigue mid-workout, which usually involved moaning & rolling on the ground between intervals, he would simply ignore me. He would not yell. He would not scream. He calmly ignored my “show” and would tell me when it was time to get up and run again.

That said, MB was also full of his own whit & sh*t. After a big race, I could always find him sitting in the hotel bar or a restaurant bar with his “ginger ale” or at least that is what he would tell me! Although, I know all too well that MB prefers something with a little more kick to it – like his athletes! I also remember him trying to get a closer parking spot at a big cross-country race. He drove right up to the media parking area with no credential and was able to talk his way into the lot by telling the attendant he was a journalist. I was so embarrassed that I ducked as low as I could in my seat. Another time is when I was trying to eat a protein bar before the Penn Relays. We were sitting in the stands and I was taking baby bites of the bar; not making much progress because I didn’t like the taste. Finally, MB had enough. He snatched up the protein bar saying, “give me that” and ate it himself. I doubt he liked it either! 😉

To this day I still remember his coaching … his message … his lessons. He always reminded me that the last interval is where it counts. “Anyone can run fast early”, he’d say, “but you have to learn to run fast when you are tired.” I carry that thought with me into the last interval of all my workouts to this day.

MB always reminded me of two things: “remember who you are” & “if it were easy, anyone could do it”. He did not just teach me to remember who I was but he helped teach me who I wanted to become. He showed me that I could dare to dream big and removed previously set boundaries. Coach Mike helped shape me as an athlete and a person – not an easy feat. But, then again, if it were easy, anyone could have done it. And not anyone could have done it. Mike Byrnes did it. I am very blessed to be just one of the many athletes he blessed with his presence during his coaching career.

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