Profile: Coach Mike Barnow

by Dick Vincent

Mike Barnow has a coaching career that spans over half a century and so storied that trying to include the names of all the athletes and all of his accomplishments would take volumes. Invariably any article will not do Mike justice. I have been tormented by this for months, finally realizing that trying to include everything was futile. In my attempt to give the reader an overview of Mike as I know him, I submit to you this story. The photos and captions will cover many of those athletes. Still, far too many have been left out. My apologies to the multitudes of deserving athletes and people, who have been part of one of Mike's legendary career. I hope you the reader enjoy this short story about, an influential figure in my life, a mentor, a fellow coach, and most of all my friend, Coach Mike Barnow.

It's a Friday night and inside the physical education building at SUNY-New Paltz the Shawangunk Runners Club is having a workout on the 180-meter track above the gym. Standing there with multiple stop watches is Coach Mike Barnow. Over the course of the next 90 minutes nearly every runner in attendance will ask Coach a question and he will answer as if he is sharing a secret family recipe with a trusted friend. But these are not the stars or elites that Barnow coaches, rather this is a gathering of local New Paltz runners, members of the Shawangunk Runners Club. Mike volunteers to coach them every week in part because they are his neighbors and his community. During the summer they will use the outdoor track but while the snow is on the ground, Mike drives from his home in High Falls along the slippery roads to mentor the local harriers. The track-in-the-attic is suspended from the ceiling high above the basketball courts and weight rooms. Runners file their way in entering the track through a maze of doors and stairs, the final door being held ajar by a running shoe wedged in the doorway, keeping it from locking participants out. Mike answers questions and gives advice about shin splints, hamstring pulls, diet, runners knee, and more. He instructs them how to warm up, run progressively faster throughout the workout, and how to avoid injury on this track with hard floors and tight turns. He remembers who in the group has raced recently and inquires how they performed. It might have been a sub 20-minute 5k runner or a sub 30-minute 5k runner; it makes no difference to Mike.

Steve Schallenkamp gets the word out weekly, gets the facilities lined up and works out the details of signing in runners. I have not yet been to a workout that Steve wasn't attending. Steve says of Mike “What has always amazed me about Mike is how he has coached on all levels from youth to Olympic caliber athletes and he seems to see all runners as equals in terms of his time and generosity. I did my best running when Mike was my “sounding board” and giving me advice. When he told me I was capable of doing something I believed him. He was very motivating and made you a confident runner. In terms of supporting the local running scene Mike has always just given of his time without any mention of remuneration. He is dedicated to how the sport can help the individual.”

Mike Barnow was born in the Bronx in 1944, his family moving to White Plains when he was 13 years old. In the summer they would rent a bungalow in Putnam County where Mike developed a love for nature. He planted seeds and watched the birds, something that has become a lifelong passion. He ran a few track races in Jr. High but then gravitated to basketball. Although he didn't run in high school Mike remembers watching coverage of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and being fascinated by all of these people being able to run so fast. In 1960 the East African's made their emergence into the Olympic Games. Watching Abibi Bekela win the marathon, running barefoot through the streets of Rome and entering the Rome Coliseum, completely captured his admiration and imagination.

At age 19 Mike started running and in a couple of years he was running for the St. Anthony's Boys Club, one of the more prominent running clubs in the NYC Metro area. He remembers going to Van Cortland Park for cross country races and for 50 cents runners were assigned a cardboard number to pin on their shirt. There were very few good coaches/teachers back then, so Mike learned by trial and error. Barnow describes himself as being a mediocre runner. With 10-mile personal best of 53 minutes (5:18 per mile pace), he was mediocre only compared to the people he was running with. This was now the early 70's and he had become friends with the legendary Joe Kleinerman and he commuted one day a week to train with the Millrose Track Club. Mike was training with Gary Muhrcke (winner of the 1st NYC Marathon), Norbert Sanders (1974 NYC Marathon Champion and driving force behind building one of the world’s premier indoor track facilities in NYC).

In his late 20's Mike started training with a group at Manhattan College led by Tony Colon (member of the 1976 Olympic Team for Puerto Rico). Mike ran with the B group. Soon Mike would become the director at Manhattan Cathedral Prep H.S. coaching there for 2 years. In 1976 Mike was asked to start a track and cross country team at his Alma Mater, Pace University (Mike is a 1969 graduate with a degree in math). He would continue as head coach at Pace for 21 years.

Mike began gravitating towards coaching two years earlier. In 1974 he bought an ad in the White Plains “Reporter Dispatch Newspaper” advertising the start of a running team. 12 guys and one woman showed up. The best was Mike Doyle (4:12 mile). By 1980 Charlie Bevier and Bill Krohn joined the team. Charlie, a native of Kingston, would become a two-time Olympic Trials qualifier at 10,000 meters (best time of 28:19), course record holder Van Courtland Park 5 Mile X-C (23:50). Bill Krohn was equally good. Back in the day I recall watching Krohn run the Millrose Games 5,000 meters in Madison Square Garden. That bandbox of a track was a narrow, 11 laps to the mile, high banked wooden track. Bill chased Doug Padilla and Alberto Salazar to the finish crossing the line in 13:38.

JeanKerrFinal.jpgI first met Mike in the summer of 1982 when I was dating Jean Kerr (photo on right) who I would marry a year later. After running for Princeton, Jean came under the guidance of Mike and joined his Westchester Track Team. With Mike as her coach Jean ran her personal best of 2:47:30 at the Boston Marathon and won the Maryland Marathon (with the famed Satyr Hill) in 2:49. Nearly every week I would go to the White Plains track to run the workout or to time one of the pace groups. The top guns were off-the-chart-good, and I got more thrills out of timing them than running myself. One particular week the workout was 8 x 400 meters and then followed by a timed 2-mile run. Andy Robertson of the UK was one of the guys in the fast group that was coming through each 400-meter circuit in 60ish seconds. WOW, I was impressed, but Andy's 2 mile in 9:13 really caught my attention. Nearly every lap Mike would call out not to push too hard, but Andy would hold his hands out to his side and say, “I feel great.” Andy went on to run 2:13 in the marathon that year.

At a meet at Harvard University Bill Krohn and Charlie Bevier were first and second ahead of Jama Aden of Somalia. After the meet Charlie introduced Jama to Mike. Jama decided to join the team and moved to Westchester. About this time Puma became the sponsor of the Westchester Track Team. Puma sent Mike to Somalia with Jama. Mike became the Coach for the Somalian National Team for the upcoming 1984 Olympic Games. At those 84 games in L.A. Jama Aden would run national records for both 400 and 800 meters.

                                              Bitok is on the far right

In 1983 Mike got a call from a Kenyan runner named Sosthenes Bitok. Sosthenes was an up and coming talent more interested in winning prize money than anything else. After a short time being coached by Barnow, Mike convinced Sosthenes that it would be in his best interest to try to make the Kenyan Olympic Team at 10,000 meters. Sosthenes hadn't been interested in Olympics because it didn't pay money, but he trusted Mike and so followed his lead. Mike first had to get him a qualifying time for those trials and that meant a good finish in a top race. The Penn Relays in late April had a field stacked with elites but to gain entry Bitok had to have a seed time. Sosthenes ran a 10k and got a fast time, so good that it had him seeded 1st in the Penn Relays. The field was loaded with names like John Tracy (2 time World XC Champion), Bruce Bickford (#1 ranked American), and other international class runners. “Sos”(as Mike calls him) wasn't a household name so the officials wondered about this guy, was he for real. As the field was lining up for the starting gun, the #1 seed was nowhere to be seen and the race was about to begin. Last call had been made but where was Sosthenes? Suddenly, across the field, behind the pole vault pit, they saw “Sos” standing there taking a leak. By the time he got to the starting line the aggravated officials stuck the #1 seed in the back of the field. Mike told Sos not to worry, it was 25 lap race, just be patient. The gun sounded and off they went. Charlie Bevier, also in the race, said in the first turn he could hear Sos, who was not light on his feet, stampeding around the field of 20+ runners, tucking into 3rd place. A crazy fast start. None of this seemed to phase Sosthenes and by the race's end, Bitok was 1st in 27:50 (still a meet record to this day) and fast enough to gain him entry into the Kenyan Olympic Trials. The next stop was the Kenyan 10k Trials.

When Sosthenes went back to Kenya to prepare for the Kenyan Olympic Trails communication was a challenge as very few people had a telephone. The local grocery store in Sosthenes village had a phone and the owner would let Bitok take phone calls there. Two or three times a week Mike would call Sos at the grocery store to discuss training. Without internet or public telephones this was the only means of communication. After the race there was no immediate results to follow via the media so Mike patiently awaited a call with the results of the trials. Finally, the next day, a collect call comes from Sosthenes. Mike was anxious to get the result but Bitok took Mike through the race step by step, lap by lap. Mike recounts the conversation with a grin. I wanted to say,”Cut to the chase, how did you finish?” but decided to let him describe every lap. Finally Bikok says to Mike, “and I won!!!”

Mike met Sosthenes in L.A. where they did a few workouts building up to the race. The final workout was 5 days before the Olympic 10,000 race (which consisted of a quarter final, a semifinal, and a final). It was a pyramid workout of 800 meters/1200 meters/1600 meters/1200 meters/800 meters with 4 minutes recovery. Bitok ran the first 800 in 2:06, the 1200 in 3:09 and the 1600 in 4:07. At that point Mike realized what great shape he was in and said let's stop here, there is nothing else to be gained.

The 1984 Olympic 10,000 was the year of Marty Vaino as Vaino would finish 2nd. Three days after the 10,000 the Finnish runner would be pulled off of the starting line of the 5,000 meter race for testing positive for steroids after the 10,000 meter final. Although Vaino wouldn't get to keep his silver medal, he did ruin the race for everyone else. The first 5k was rather slow as Mike remembers. At halfway Vaino began throwing in drug-fueled surges that only Alberta Cova (Italy) could handle and out-kicked Vaino in the last 100 meters for the win. But Vaino's surges broke apart the field changing everyone's tactics. Bitok finished 6th, 3 seconds out of the medals.

After the race, Vaino was tested and came up positive for steroids and probably was blood packing as well. Without the PEDs he probably couldn’t have thrown -those surges (increased pace, so like a mid-race sprint, back off, then sprint again, and break up the field. The other runners were at a disadvantage.

Although the 3rd and 4th place finishers moved up to 2nd and 3rd, he had changed the tactics of the race. Sosthenes felt as though he would have been able to medal had the race pace not gone crazy at 5k.

Eamonn Coghlan who was living in Rye, NY was occasionally training with Mike prior to the 84 Olympics. Most of Eamonn's training was hammering on the roads and he got hurt and had to miss the 1984 games. At those L.A. Olympics Eamonn was working as a commentator for Ireland. He sought out Mike and said he wanted to start training with Mike full time. Mike got him on the soft surfaces more and convinced him not to hammer all of his workouts. One day while training with the group back in Westchester, Eamonn said to Coach Mike, “this is possibly the best training group in the USA and nobody knows about it.” Flying under the radar suited Mike's style.

Harbert Okuti (2:13:01 marathon best run at Grandma's Marathon 2019 – third overall and twice top 8 at Falmouth road Race) is one of Mike's current elites but you might think Harbert was a son. In 2015 I drove to New Paltz every week or two with Jaime Julia (2:20:17 marathon), one of the runners from the Albany Running Exchange that I was working with. Harbert and Jaime became friendly and would run fast workouts together or knock off a long run on the soft surfaces around the Mohonk Preserve. Mike and I would have coffee and then meet them after their 40-minute warm up. Although Mike and I have always stayed in touch, this was a chance to reconnect as friends and colleagues. While Jaime and Harbert were building their fitness, I picked Mike's brain. We never ran out of things to say, we only ran out of time to say it.

Often our conversations would morph into wildlife and nature. We would exchange photos of birds, bears, or whatever else crossed our paths from living in rural New York. We seldom get together without a conversation on the latest sighting or unexpected wildlife encounter.

Mike's office so to speak, has often been the best diners in Westchester County. For years he never cooked. Other than at the track, whenever I met with Mike it was always at a diner. Mike met his athletes and friends at diners too. For years he lived in a studio apartment in Westchester. Mike chuckles telling me a story about a friend asking him how to operate his stove to make some tea. Mike said, “I don't know, I have never used it.” A good diner was Mike's home cooking.

Over the years Mike has become not only a coach but pillar of support for many African Runners. From Morocco, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, Sudan, and more. He is constantly trying to find a place for a new arrival to live. Mike is so much more than a coach, he is a father figure to many, helping with living issues and trying to make ends meet. Although we may be in awe viewing these African runners as super humans and fearless competitors, we can forget that they are young men & women living far from home, trying to make a better life doing what they hope to be successful at. Some come from countries where it isn't safe to return, where it is frowned upon to have left, and they fear for what the days and months ahead might bring. With his years of experience Mike has become a expert at filing for visas. On occasion lawyers have sought Mike's advice on getting a visa. If an athlete is here on a sports visa, they aren't allowed to hold a regular job so being successful enough racing to keep a roof over their head is paramount. If injury or illness strike, they can't compete for prize money to make ends meet. Mike is a trusted confidant; someone these young men and women turn to for guidance and comfort to get them through the difficulties of living abroad in a different culture.

                                                                    Million Wolder

A protege of Mike's is the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games 5,000-meter gold medalist, Million Wolde. Mike and Million worked together for years and many of the Ethiopian runners find their way to Mike via Milli. Whether it be Ethiopia or from another country of one of his former athletes there is a never-ending stream of athletes seeking Mike for help and advice.

In 2009 Mike and his wife Adrienne moved to High Falls. Not long before they had come up to visit a friend and something made him want to stay. Mike has always been a bird watcher and has a fascination with all wildlife. That passion that started years ago in the summer bungalow had a new beginning. Here in High Falls, at his comfortably home tucked away on a quiet road, Mike does those things all over again. Adrienne earned her Ph.D in Health Education at Columbia University. She taught classes at U. Mass for 4 years but now teaches at the College of New Rochelle, a more reasonable drive. From his home* Barnow gets out to run a few times per week on the soft trails nearby. Coach Mike still goes to Westchester 2-3 times a week. Wednesday night is his track workouts. Saturday mornings he meets his gang at Rockefeller Estates for a workout on the carriage trails. Had it not been for the COVID 19 pandemic this past April would have marked 43 years of Wednesday Night Track Workouts.

Mike coached Lindsey Scherf who as she was setting the women’s world record for an indoor marathon gave Mike her thumbs up sign. 3/17/2018 2:40:55

Mike's knowledge of exercise physiology is immense but I think of him more as an artist than a scientist. He observes someone running and just seems to know what they need to do to improve. He doesn't seem to be breaking down the data and calculating all of the formulas to prescribe workouts. He just knows how fast and how often an athlete should do specific workouts. Intuition and years of experience give him Yoda like insight into a runners strengths, their weaknesses, and needs. Jean Kerr says “Mike had a talent for predicting performances at races based on watching me at the track. He accurately predicted my fastest marathons-- as I remember, within seconds.”

One of my big take-ways while spending time with Mike is that nobody improves when injured. His belief is in a training cycle that is sustainable over the long haul. When coaching elite athletes he spends a lot of effort holding them back, allowing for recovery, and preventing them from over-reaching and being the fittest spectator on the sidelines come race day.

It wouldn't be a proper end to an article without including some of the Barnow training principles. It is worth making note of them to keep yourself on a sustainable training program for years to come.

Mike Barnow's Principles

  • MikeBarnowFinal.jpgStay on soft surfaces whenever possible. Mike has a home near New Paltz, NY and his athletes train on the many miles of dirt carriage roads around the Mohonk Mountain House Preserve and Lake Minnewaska State Park. Trails, grass, synthetic track, and soccer fields are much better on your legs than pavement.His athletes in Westchester use the carriage paths of Rockefeller State Park Preserve not only for their long runs but often their intensity runs.
  • Show up for your intensity workout days reasonable fresh. You will get more out of the workout, recover faster, and reduce your chance of getting injured or sick. Limping into or away from a workout is not part of the recipe for a long term, sustained training cycle.
  • Finish the workout feeling like you could do more. 85-90% of maximum effort in practice is adequate. Save “going crazy” for race efforts.
  • Work on race-specific endurance and learn the rhythm of the race. A 5k effort is much different than what you would put out in a 21k or 42k race.
  • Design workouts that are challenging but doable. You want to sustain two to four months of building fitness and going too hard doesn’t allow for a long buildup. Patience learned in your training will be key when you race.
  • Negative split your workout. Having spent a lot of time with Mike and his athletes I observed his runners starting conservatively and slowly increasing their effort and pace. Much of the faster running, although fast, is controlled and gets progressively faster.
  • Base your workout on perceived effort. Not trying to hit an exact pace teaches you how to relax throughout the session.

Mike Barnow’s Workout Suggestions

  • Before any workout, Mike’s athletes warm up with some easy running, stretching, drills, and some easy strides.
  • For 5k and 10k training: 2 x 8 minutes, 2 x 6 minutes at tempo with 3 minutes of rest between repeats (28 minutes total). This workout is great for groups of athletes of various abilities as they all start and finish together. Mike has them run out 4 minutes on rail trail, then turn around and come back. They are encouraged to run slightly faster on each repeat, finishing each one about 15 seconds faster than the previous. A conservative start is important. What’s nice about this workout is that It is easy to play around with the repeats, 8/8/6/6 one week, another week 10/8/6/4. With 25-30 minutes of total tempo volume, you will slowly build fitness while also finding your race rhythm during the workouts.2.)A similar session for the half marathon athlete would be 40 to 60 minutes of tempo volume structured as 2 x 12, 2 x 8, with 3-4 minutes rest in between each repetition. Over the course of a training cycle, Mike would increase this workout to a 4 x 15 minutes, 6 x 10 or 2 x 30.
  • Since 1982 Mike has worked with many of the East Africans and currently his best athlete is Harbert Okuti of Uganda, who has run 1:03 for a half marathon and mid 28’s for 10k. He has finished 7th at the Falmouth Road Race and twice won the Hartford Half Marathon. In 2019 he was 3rd at Grandma's Marathon in 2:13:01. Here is how Mike described one of Harbert’s workouts. “I would want him to run negative splits in any repeats in any of the above situations, starting out at about race pace (4:55-5:00) and if it comes relatively easy, increase the pace in last 5 minutes of each repeat.”
  • Mike also does a similar workout for his athletes in the Westchester area on a loop in the Rockefeller Preserve that is about 40 yards longer than a mile. It is not flat but it is gradual up and down on dirt carriage roads.
  • 5k session might be 2 x 2 laps, 2 min rest with 2nd lap slightly faster than the first. Might build to 1 x 4 laps, or 1 x 3 laps, 1 x 2 laps
  • 10k session might start at 2 x 2 laps and build to 2 x 3
  • laps, or 1 x 5 laps, or 1 x 6 laps, depending on
  • athlete. Always want the last lap the fastest without
  • digging in.
  • Half Marathon & Marathon session. The effort here would be easier than the 10k training. Athlete might start with 3 x 3 laps building to 10 laps. The combination may vary; 1 x 4 laps and 2 x 3 laps. 2 x 5 laps or 1 x 6 laps and 1 x 4 laps.

            Barnow with the author, Dick Vincent

For more photos, click here for Dick’s article on Facebook

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