Running coach pictures others’ successes

Mike DeDoncker

Ron Leonhardt brings a camera and takes a lot of pictures of runners in local races.

He has plenty of time to indulge his race photography hobby because he’s usually among the top five to 10 finishers. He has plenty of motivation to do it, too, because he’s usually recording the successes of people he helped to prepare for those runs.  

“Those are the people who need to be brought to the forefront, to be photographed and highlighted,” said Leonhardt, who headed the Rockford Road Crew training program at the YMCA of Rock River Valley for 15 years before switching to Peak Sports Club this year. “Everyone out there is who makes up the race, not just the ones up in front.”

The Rockford School District psychologist, who had been a Road Crew participant under other coaches, never envisioned himself as a teacher of anything when he accepted a job with the YMCA as an assistant in the program in the mid-1990s.

“They had asked a couple other people and they declined, but I said sure even though I had never coached anybody and wasn’t really confident that I had that information,” he said. “Then I found out that the woman I was supposed to be assisting was leaving the program in two weeks or some other very short time, I don’t remember exactly.”

Left to his own devices, Leonhardt said, he applied the same research techniques he used in psychology to putting together ideas for a training program. “The next step was learning to shut my mouth long enough to listen to the people — because everyone brings a different plate to the table, so to speak — and then be able to say let’s try this or try that.”

When Leonhardt took over the Road Crew program, it had six to eight devoted regulars and he began attending workshops “for the sole purpose of fueling the engine. The more information I had, the better off I was going to be as a coach.”

Leonhardt, 51, attributed his longevity in coaching the Road Crew program to the training he received under earlier coaches in the program, including Mary Maier, Herb Case, Tony Shockency and Tom Antczak.

“This is where I kind of stand on the shoulders of giants,” Leonhardt said. “I didn’t really blossom as a runner until I came to Rockford about 25 or 26 years ago. I was surrounded by good people with good knowledge and they turned that information around and made it available to everyone.

“It was a slow process in running development, but it kept providing dividends and I knew I was getting lots in return for the small amount of time I was training.”

The program’s core group of regulars expanded to about 30 runners before Leonhardt took advantage of some opportunities for his children and began training at Peak this year.

“There was some sensitivity,” he said, “but with two great coaches there (at the YMCA), Gary Kirk and Tanya Thayer, we came together and the highlight of this summer’s program was that we had 60 some people on the track running together for the sole purpose of improving. That was just tremendous.

“We started joking that we were going to need a permit to cross the street with that many people. I don’t even know where some of them came from and, instead of breaking away, we enhanced the core running group in town and thereby enhanced the larger running group in town, which is the Rockford Road Runners."

Leonhardt estimated the program has had about 100 runners total in his 15 years working with it, and said his main job now is offering support.

“We have pods of runners who run at about the same speed, and you work within that group,” he said. “Within the group, the psychology is that they move along and they encourage each other so my role is ‘Here’s the workout for tonight, don’t kill yourselves but do your best’ and off they go.

“So I just set the table. They’re the ones who had to come and take what was being offered to them. That’s why the spotlight should be on them because, frankly, I didn’t do it. They did.”

Mike DeDoncker can be reached at (815) 987-1382