Coach Lisa Taylor has inspired hundreds of people to lace up running shoes and thrive. Feel it.
“Are you up for an adventure?”
The words popped up on my phone screen. I would come to receive this kind of message from Lisa Taylor on many more occasions as our friendship grew, but this marked the very first. And at the time—a frigid February morning in 2011—I was just getting to know the energetic, seemingly always-smiling woman whom I’d hired as I trained for my first marathon.
Slick, snowy roads closed schools that day, and my mother-in-law had my three kids in her care, so I could work—and log some miles—as I soon learned from Coach Lisa, who had an idea for shaking things up and taking advantage of the elements. The plan, she explained after I replied to her text with “Um, I think so!” was to drive seven miles from my house, drop me off, and have me “run all the way home with the wind at my back.” And a little over halfway there, given Lisa’s house was along the route, she’d meet me at the end of her driveway (with a warm cup of tea, as it happened) to encourage me in the final stretch.
Maybe Lisa meticulously mapped out this excursion for me, as she prepared my training plan for running 26.2 miles at the Bayshore Marathon later that spring. But I am guessing maybe not so meticulous. A little planning, sure, but mostly sprinkled with spontaneity. Later it would be an impromptu trek on the Vasa single-track, and a daylong visit to Leelanau to mark a half-marathon course together and, of course, explore a not-so-well-known trail and majestic barn because we were out there, after all. This is the Lisa I’ve come to know.
It’s what many others appreciate about her as well, whether they’re fellow runner friends, or the young athletes she’s coached for more than two decades, or the adults, like me, who embark on a health and fitness journey later in life and turn to Lisa for help. (When I began asking around about a running coach, at age 35, her name came up again and again: “You absolutely must get in touch with Lisa Taylor.”)
Lisa is known in Traverse City as a passionate runner and coach, someone who has introduced the sport to hundreds of people through couch-to-5K and similar training programs. She’s also behind the Farmland 5K Run & Free for All Bike each December on the east side and is the longtime girls’ cross-country and track coach at Central High School, a position that earned her Hall of Fame inclusion at the school in 2015.
Lisa’s coaching cred? Gold plated: she’s been nominated 11 times as the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association Coach of the Year and won the honor in 2008. Her high school runners have qualified as a team for the state finals in 21 straight seasons, earned 18 top-10s, 12 top-4s, three runners-up and the 2008 state championship.
“She has such a childlike adventurous nature to her, which helps her relate to the girls and the girls relate to her,” says longtime friend Julie Jenkins, who spent a couple of days a week a few years back running with Lisa’s cross-country team. “Yet, at the same time such maturity to know when to be fun and when to get to business. She loves all these girls from the top seven down to the new runners who just want to part of a team. She wants to make lifetime runners out of everyone. Her own love of running is evident in her actions.”
Lisa grew up playing ball. “I dreamed of being a basketball star,” she says. “I could do any ball sport. I could throw a football better than most guys when I was 10 years old. I played baseball. I played all those games that the boys in the neighborhood taught me.”
At age 13, however, an entirely different sport caught her eye.
Lisa had a friend down the road, and in the summertime she’d go down to her house to play, and on occasion she’d glance into her friend’s dad’s office. She would notice certificates on the wall, but didn’t think much about them. But “one time I stopped and snuck in there and looked at these certificates mounted on the wall and there were about 10 Boston Marathon Association finisher certificates that he had mounted on the wall. And I was like, He is a runner.”
Something else also got her thinking. She noticed he would run by her house every morning. “And I thought, This is kind of weird. This guy, he was probably 48, 49, 50. I became fascinated and curious about it, and one day when I was 13, he asked me if I wanted to go for a run with him.”
So she did, and discovered something life-changing.
“I remember that day like it was yesterday. I can remember the clothes I wore, the shoes I wore and where I ran—it was an ‘aha’ experience for me. I went running with him, and it came quite easily to me, and I felt like, I love this. I love how this makes me feel. I can do it, it didn’t feel difficult.”
Eventually, Lisa realized basketball wasn’t her thing after all. And in her junior year of high school, she went out for cross-country. She was a good runner and earned a scholarship to run at Michigan State University.
Her success as a collegiate athlete led to a job with a mouthful of a job title, as she tells it, at Alma College: assistant athletic director, sports information director and assistant cross-country and track coach. “It was an unexpected entry into coaching. I was offered that based on my knowledge as a competitor, but then I realized how much fun [coaching] was, how much the process was something that became a new and exciting experience year after year after year.”
Along with her husband, Dave, an avid runner whom she met at the running specialty store Playmakers, Lisa moved to Traverse City in the late ’80s and began coaching thanks to former MSU teammate Polly Prouty Walker. Lisa started as a sprint coach, moving into distance running. Since then she’s coached nearly 40 seasons at Central High School, and is still at it. In recent years, she coached her daughter, Ellie, now in her second year at MSU and a member of the cross-country team.
“I am fortunate that I can still channel my competitive desires onto the kids that I coach and help them really achieve and improve and excel at the sport,” says Lisa, a 7-time marathon finisher. “I have the best of both worlds. I can still run, but I don’t have to worry about going fast anymore. I get to teach the kids how to go fast.”
With older runners, she nurtures a love of lacing up the running shoes. Janice Beyer, a Traverse City runner, has worked with Lisa personally as well as watched her own high school daughter Chloe be coached by her.
“It had been a while since I had run, and with a milestone birthday coming up, I figured it was time yo get back out there,” says Beyer, who signed back on for a Couch to 5k running class Lisa taught. “Coach Lisa was so encouraging and enthusiastic that we all wanted to please her with our running triumphs. She was training to run the Boston Marathon at the time—what an inspiration to us!”
Fast forward 10 years and countless races later, and Beyer is still at it.
“Lisa is still interested in my running and is still encouraging—that’s one thing that I noticed, is that she maintains relationships with her runners long after they have graduated from high school or her running class. I am always surprised when I talk with someone whose daughter graduated 10-plus years ago and they are still in contact with Lisa.”
“Today is supposed to be a hard effort.”
Lisa, in a purple shirt and black shorts, stood in front of her team of 40-some cross-country running girls. It was a sticky-hot August afternoon, one of the final days of the running camp her team attends each summer at the Leelanau Outdoor Center overlooking Lake Michigan.
In a few moments the girls would embark on a tough hill workout—running up a gravel road and back down … several times.
“The ability to push hard—it’s either something you’re born with or you have to learn,” she told the group, also standing, some stretching their limbs as their coach gave this pep talk. “The pain of effort is a special kind of pain. It’s a very safe pain, it will not hurt you.”
But if you don’t amp up your own individual effort and make it harder? “You’ll stay where you are and never improve.”
Talk turned to lactic acid and muscle burn, and the feeling of your heart beating fast. And then, this: “If you can do something hard for 20 minutes, if you can know, ‘I can put this effort in,’ the stuff in life, it’ll feel smaller and easier. I want you to learn to race.”
It’s the kind of message I’ve heard from Lisa, and have taken to heart. It’s reminiscent of the gems she shared throughout that first marathon training years ago. The run-life correlation is one Lisa understands well, and shares often.
Having run, by her conservative estimation, more than 30,000 miles in her lifetime, Lisa certainly has logged the miles and put in the time to ponder such things. These days, it’s fitness running she is after.
“Fitness running to me, my goal for running, is to be able to do it when I am very old. I don’t know how old that will be. God willing, it will be into my 80s, and to me fitness running is all about keeping healthy and how running can help you stay healthy. And the number one thing it does for me is it’s good mental therapy … I know if I stop moving, my body is no different than anyone else. I am going to get weaker, and less flexible, maybe gain weight that I don’t necessarily need.
“I think having a goal is important,” she adds, “but I find that more and more I realize the journey of running has more value to me than the destination or a specific goal. It used to be that my training goals were to be able to run at certain paces in my training, but now it’s more to just be able to run as often as I want and need to … I am kind of back to my roots. I love how it makes me feel, I love how it makes me think, how it cleanses my mind and feeds my soul.”
This article is featured in the April 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy!
Heather Johnson Durocher writes from Traverse City. She is the founder of michiganrunnergirl.com. Erik Olsen is an active lifestyle, commercial and editorial photographer with a Michigan influence. Find more at erikolsenphoto.com.