Kind. Loving. Generous. Modest. Loyal. Simple. Friend. The words come easily from my mouth when describing Joe Whelan. Anyone who knew him would agree. Joe was just a really good guy. There’s something about the word “good” that doesn’t seem good enough though. But in my eyes, being a good person is what I strive for in life, making it one of the best compliments I can give someone.
I first met Joe in 2008. My dad had just passed away from leukemia and I was training for the Honolulu Marathon with Team in Training. Joe was one of my coaches and my first introduction to running. I will never forget that first marathon. It took me nearly 6 hours because well, I was a rookie, and made all the rookie mistakes! But, what I remember most about that race was Joe finding me out of 20,000 runners and pacing me at the very moment I was hitting the proverbial “wall”. As Joe ran and talked with me, I completely forgot about how tired I was. This would be my first experience being lifted up by a pacer and being lifted up by Joe.
I got the opportunity to coach with Joe in 2017. I use the word coaching lightly because he was the coach, and I was more so the assistant coach/sidekick. I don’t know how much I loved the experience of assistant-coaching. What I did love was hanging out with Joe. Joe was a mysterious guy. It’s hard to discern if this was due to being a private person or being an introvert. Maybe these aspects play a role in why Joe was the way he was, but part of me thinks that the main reason is that Joe was so humble that he didn’t like to talk about himself too much. The conversation was always about you. How are YOU doing? What’s going on with YOU? When’s YOUR next race? Spending Wednesday nights at Kezar track and weekend long runs with Joe gave us the opportunity to get to know each other more. When I griped about my problems, he was always there to listen and to lend a non-judgmental ear. He was a great listener.
Joe could sometimes be flaky, which is a weird thing to say about someone who is so loyal and dependable. I always just thought it was Joe being Joe, and that this was simply part of his mystique. I justified this aspect of him with all of his other great qualities, but I was always curious if there was a part of Joe that I was missing. Did he not want to get too close to people? Was it part of his introvert nature? Was he forgetful? Do I read too much into someone not calling me back?
But like I said, you could count on Joe. In 2019, I asked him if he would pace me in the early morning hours of a 24 hour run. I knew he was a morning person. He got up at 4 or 5 every day. Running around in the dark around Chrissy Field, I began to become excited at the thought of seeing Joe. When I first met him I had never run more than a couple miles at a time and now I was running for 24 hours non-stop! I began to wonder, what if he doesn’t show up? He said he would be here, but what if he has a late night and forgets or something comes up? But right on the dot, Joe was there and with the help of the sunrise, I was once again lifted up by his company and his stories. It seemed fitting that the person who helped me run my first marathon over a decade ago would help me run my first 24 hour/100 mile+ race. After that run, Joe told me that I should write about my experience. So I started this blog.
In the Spring of 2020 I started grad school at SFSU. I couldn’t wrap my head around how the commute was going to work. Joe always wanted to help in any way that he could. He offered me a room in his apartment, but when the time came he was helping out another friend of his. This was typical Joe. Always helping out a friend. He told me he would get back to me when he found out his friend’s situation. But he never got back to me. I always try and be as compassionate as possible when considering my friends. I try not to be too needy or demanding. But at this time I thought, “Well, the ball is in his court”. I started taking public transportation to school which actually worked out great. Then COVID happened. The ball was in Joe’s court for a long time. I thought about him often but thought, he will reach out to me when he wants to. That Fall he sent me a text “I am such a bad friend…have not checked in with you at all but I think about you often”. Same here, Joe. And there is no way that you could ever be a bad friend!
Since Fall of 2020, I shared a few texts and one phone call with Joe. During that phone call he said he would call me back but never did. In his defense, I did call him at work. In our last conversations he spoke about his dog Asics getting older and how he was running less and less. Asics was everything to him, and he was everything to Asics. He was going to have a really hard time when it was time to say goodbye to Asics. Part of me is relieved he never had to deal with that day. I thought about visiting Asics after some of his last messages. I wanted to say goodbye to her because I wasn’t sure when would be my last time seeing her. I never once thought my time with Joe was numbered, too.
When you lose someone suddenly you think about all the things you should have and could have done or said. I wish I had kept in better touch with Joe. I wish I had paid him and Asics a visit when the thought came up. Did he know what a good person he was? Did he know what he meant to me? I have so many friends that I love yet keep at a distance. I want to call them, but I think they’re busy with their lives, they don’t want to be bothered. I wish I had bothered Joe more.
I wanted to sort out and remember my relationship with Joe in this entry, but I don’t want this to be all about me. Joe is the one who deserves all the attention now. During my time coaching with Joe, I had an assignment for a class where I had to interview a coach and write a paper about that person. I chose to write about Joe. At the time, I wanted to share it with the Kezar Road Runners, but I knew he would feel bashful about that. I want to share it now. I hope that it gives a little more insight into the amazing and selfless person that he was. His memory lives on in all the lives that he touched. Wednesday nights at Kezar and at the pub will never be the same.
Embracing the Lifestyle with Joe Whelan
Some people go through life working at a 9-5 desk job, wondering what lies on the other side of those glass windows. Did they make the right choices in life? Do they truly enjoy what they are doing for a living? Does it matter that one truly enjoys their career? For Joe Whelan, the lead coach of the San Francisco Bay Area Team in Training team, I can tell just minutes from meeting him that he has no regrets in life. He is truly living the dream. While his full time job as an accountant may involve pushing papers and sitting indoors, every moment before and after he walks into that office is used to its fullest. It is in those moments that Joe is using every free minute to embrace the lifestyle that he knows and loves, and to spread his love of running to everyone he comes in contact with. Through coaching beginning runners how to run a half or full marathon through Team in Training, and hosting a weekly track workout/hangout for intermediate to advanced runners, Joe has succeeded in turning his passion into a lifestyle and in inspiring others to do so along the way.
Joe grew up in a small East Coast town called Holland, Pennsylvania. Like many other children, his idea of “play” involved running around as little kids often do. In high school, he took up running, following in the footsteps of his older brother who ran long distance/cross-country. He may have gotten the idea from his brother, but Joe was absolutely certain of one thing; he did not want to follow in the shadow of his brother. It was at this time that Joe decided he would be a sprinter, and that the 400 meter distance would be his “thing”. In high school, he dipped his coaching feet into the water with the opportunity to coach the grade school kids. A scholarship to La Salle University in Philadelphia led Joe to run all through college where he participated primarily in the 5k and 10k distances, competing alongside the best runners from all around the world. In between his own college running, Joe helped out coaching runners in inner city high schools. It was here that he would begin to recognize his love for working with people as well as the need to share the love of the lifestyle and community with others.
After moving to the Bay Area, Joe found that everyone around him was running more long distance races such as half and full marathons. Formerly a 5k and 10k runner, it only seemed natural to do what everyone else was doing. In 2000, he trained with Team in Training (TNT) and ran his first marathon, the Honolulu Marathon. It may have been his first long distance attempt, but clearly Joe stood out among the rest of the team as someone who was not brand new to embracing the running lifestyle. Just one year later he was approached by TNT who asked if he would be interested in coaching. He would spend the next 4-5 years assistant coaching, co-coaching for the following 5 years, and after that taking on the team on his own. Since one of TNT’s primary missions is to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), they do not have a lot of extra money to give which is why most TNT positions are volunteer based. The coaching position provides a minimal stipend, but with a full time job, Joe isn’t in it for the pay. He clearly does it for the love of the sport, and has been known to spend more on TNT than he actually makes, generously gifting bottles of wine to participants when they perhaps meet one of their running goals or when they are the only one to show up to track in the middle of a rain storm.
In addition to coaching TNT, Joe also is the founder and head honcho of the Kezar Road Runners, a group of intermediate to advanced runners who meet rain or shine every Wednesday night at the Kezar track. The group was born from a desire to get a local group of runners together as running motivation, but now has transformed to a close knit group of runners of whom some might refer to not just as running partners, but as friends and even as family. The cost to join is $0 and no one takes roll when you show up, but this doesn’t mean the Kezar Road Runners don’t take themselves seriously. Accountability is high when it’s your friends and family that are waiting at the track for you and with you. Plus, most of these runners are self motivated and have particular goals in sight. At 6:45 pm on the dot, the Kezar Road Runner crew surrounds Joe as he quickly spouts out the workout for the night which consists of a varied list of distances and speeds. I wonder how they can all remember the “recipe” he has just concocted for them, but no one complains. Instead, they nod their heads in acceptance, and set out running. And after all is said and done, they congregate across the street at the local pub.
Team in Training and the Kezar Road Runners are two different groups of runners of different experience levels and thus different goals, but according to Joe each is rewarding in its own way. The biggest compliment Joe has ever received from a beginning runner is seeing that same runner years down the line, continuing to run and embrace the running lifestyle. When coaching someone who has potentially never done something before, there’s only so much you can do in one season. The primary goal is to have them succeed in their race distance with the proper training, to provide hints on efficiency in form, and to get them to enjoy it in the process. Once they are set loose, they are on their own, so it’s an added perk to have them continue on their own account. With experienced runners, the goals are different. The Kezar Road Runner group differs from TNT in that they already know the basics, but they come to Joe to learn how to run better, how to maximize their workouts, and seeking specific advice on their next race.
So how does he do it all with a full time job? Joe has consolidated TNT workouts to 2x a week and coordinates both of his track workouts at the same time and same place on Wednesday nights. But 2x a week is not all the time Joe spends with his running folk. Just this weekend he ran the Oakland relay with members from the Kezar Road Runners, and when someone has a particular request such as needing help with hill repeats, Joe makes plans to take them to the Marin Headlands to practice just that. This is the epitome of someone who has made running a way of life. “It’s not easy, but you make time for what you love and what is important to you”, Joe responds when I ask him what makes coaching sustainable. The sacrifices he makes for coaching he considers “good sacrifices”. The gratification of seeing both groups of runners achieve their goals is what makes coaching so special and worthwhile. Experiencing the excitement of seeing someone do something they’ve never done before and getting them to dream bigger and beyond their simplest dreams, whether it be a beginning runner or an experienced runner, is one of the best rewards that he has received from coaching. And of course, it is a huge bonus seeing someone years after he has coached them continuing to embrace the running lifestyle. I asked Joe if he found coaching as rewarding as pursuing his own running goals. While each has its own unique benefits, the similarities are clear. When something you love has given you so much, it only makes sense to pass on that knowledge to others.