Workout of the Day

Yonas Tesfai was Mr. Everything during his time at UH. Once he chose to believe in himself he was a competitive force from 800m on the track to 10,000m in XC. 

Yonas Tesfai was Mr. Everything during his time at UH. Once he chose to believe in himself he was a competitive force from 800m on the track to 10,000m in XC. 

3 x 1 Mile

Splits:  4:38.3 / 4:27.7 / 4:15.1

Recovery: 3' rest between reps

Yonas Tesfai — Mar. 31st, 2013


Context & Details

How many times have you seen an athlete who is capable limit themselves on race day? I'm talking about those who make large gains and look like a brand new runner in practice, but when it comes to racing, their performance stagnates or inches forward. As a coach, you are left dumbfounded. How is this athlete, who is so much faster in practice, not making significant progress on race day?

Yonas Tesfai was such a case, and we needed to figure out a solution. He had so much to offer but was holding himself back.

During the 2013 indoor season, Yonas ran a slew of 8:30ish 3Ks as well as a decent mile (4:07), but he was grossly underperforming. At the conclusion of indoors, I decided it was time for Yonas to prove to himself how fast he really was. 

So I created this straightforward workout and provided him with simple instructions:
1. No watch.
2. I'll pace; you follow me, stride for stride, no matter what.
3. Trust yourself.

In my head, the goal was so simple. I wanted Yonas not to be afraid of the splits he was seeing, be cautious, and back off. After watching hundreds of his workouts, I had a good idea of what he was capable of and designed this session to gradually push those boundaries. I wouldn't tell him any of the splits until the workout was finished. 

That day I played the dual role as pacer/coach because he needed the path lit for him due to his lack of confidence because of his youth. My goal was to get him through 85% of the workout. I knew if I could set him up, his competitive instincts would take over and he'd crush the last one. I decided a simple progression down in pace (4:40, 4:30, 4:20) would be best. My hope was that the last mile would make him realize that 8:30 3Ks and a 4:07 mile should have been child's play for him.

We took off at full steam from step one. I led the first mile, running 4:38, right on target. There was barely a word spoken between us, as we were both engaged. Yonas had no idea how fast he just ran or how fast he was about to go. 

Mile 2, 4:27. 

Before the 3rd mile, I started questioning why I was doing this. "I'm old and this is tough work," I thought. But during each prior rep whenever I looked back, Yonas was right there, locked in. I had to do it for him. So I started bargaining with myself, telling myself I could make it to 800m and no further. Yonas smashed all of those hopes and dreams,  when he let out a simple "We got this coach," right before the start of the final rep. I was now committed for the full ride. Damn it.

65, 2:10...And this was when I knew I was in over my head; my body was redlining, I looked back, Yonas was loping along, bobbing side to side, doing what we affectionally called the "Yonas Wobble." He was fully present. Right in the moment. A hungry tiger, ready to pounce. 

We passed 1200m in 3:15 and by now I knew I was going to make it. On the backstretch Yonas moved wide and flew past me. I momentarily hesitated, being content with Yonas pulling away, but my competitive instincts took over. I thought "I lead 4500 meters of this thing and now he is going to pass me — No way!" 

I latched on behind him and attempted to go for the ride. Over the final 100 meters we poured everything we had into our final steps, flowing along side by side, coach and athlete, not really competing anymore, but trying to bring out the best in each other. We crossed the finish line in 4:15 and both collapsed to the track. Exhausted yet thrilled. 

Yonas had just beat his high school mile PR in practice on that rep. Right then and there it hit him like a stack of bricks — he really was better than he had previously been racing.

Three weeks later, Yonas got to stare at my back some more, but this time showed his clear superiority. In a 1,500m race at Rice, I rabbitted Yonas through 3 laps, hitting 60's on the dot. Every time I turned around, there was Yonas, wobbling along. As soon as I stepped off, Yonas fought all the way home to run 3:46.75, a 5 second 1,500m PR at the time. 

That race cemented in Yonas' mind he was a top-notch runner and he could compete with the big guys. He went on to run many crucial races and relay legs for the University of Houston team over the next two years. 

Yona left UH with PR's of 1:48.40 (800), 4:03.1 (mile-indoor), 8:08 (3k),  30:54 (10k XC), and a crucial 2:54 1,200m leg on our 9:36 DMR. He was a trailblazer who brought legitimacy to the UH middle and long distance program. For an inner-city Houston immigrant, who overcame his fair share of adversities, one couldn't have asked for a better representative. 

And all it took was me destroying myself on the track for 3 miles —  which I'd happily do it again in a heartbeat.


Any questions? You can send me a Direct Message on Twitter.  Thank you for reading.| SM

Steve Magness