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This is the first article in the Run Like McMillan series, a series of profiles on McMillan athletes.
It started out as a twin thing.
Sean Baker’s twin brother was a state cross-country and track champion their sophomore year of high school, and the coach wanted another Baker.
“He’d say ‘Hey Suzie, I’m still waiting for you to be a man and come run cross-country like your brother,’” said Baker. “I finally gave in – I joined junior year and really found my groove.”
Baker considered himself more of a soccer player, and found anything faster than a mile far too painful. But after finding himself in the top seven of his high school cross-country team, he started to enjoy the pack mentality his team had.
“We had a solid group of seven and we often would just run away with the team score,” said Baker. “My senior year (we) the Baker brothers went all-state in cross-country and track and we went 17-0 my senior year during the season.”
Following high school, adulthood came knocking and eventually a career in the beer industry for Baker.
“I gained 80 lbs after high school, so I got really fat and got into the beer business,” said Baker. “I woke up about six years ago and I wasn’t happy with myself. But I figured I know how to run – so I’ll eat healthy and get back into shape.”
Baker went and ran two miles that day. He got up the next day and ran two miles again. Over the summer, he gradually increased his mileage to 25 miles a week by the fall. He started eating cleaner and in January 2015, Baker received a discount code from his company to run the Arizona Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon.
“I had no plan, I found out a couple weeks before the marathon I had this code and I was at like 35-40 miles a week,” said Baker. “I went in with zero expectations and ended up getting a 3:22.”
A few months later, Baker tried a McMillan a-la-carte training plan his twin brother had used and improved his time.
“Getting involved with running groups doesn’t work for me – I’ve been really accustomed to self accountability – [tend to] hold myself accountable to do things,” said Baker. “I’m a creature of habit and I want to get up and run when I want to run every day.”
Baker qualified for his first Boston Marathon a year after he ran that first two mile run. After trying his brother’s plan, Baker purchased his own plan from McMillan and began to add more races to the calendar.
After using the plan with success, Baker decided to further delve into the McMillan training system and reached out to coaches Greg McMillan and Andrew “Lemon” Lemoncello. He committed shortly after having the opportunity to meet them at a McMillan camp in Flagstaff, Ariz. in the fall of 2016.
“I really love the foundational principles of what Greg teaches and what he wants in all of his own coaches,” said Baker. “They can put their own spin and flavor on how it’s going to best adapt to the athlete.”
Baker noted he has also always been a fan of Arthur Lydiard’s work – a key coaching influence of McMillan training systems.
“I’m a believer in Lydiard and what it’s built around – the whole foundation of Greg and his philosophy and the whole program makes total sense to me,” said Baker. “I talked to a buddy of mine who was trying a different training plan and he couldn’t even tell me what it was built around.”
Baker would often even rise at 3 a.m. to complete workouts if needed. He even did long runs on the treadmill if the hot Arizona weather became an issue.
“He went through an amazingly crazy period with his work schedule, traveling across the country all week long, yet he still got his runs in,” said Lemoncello. “He was tired and his sleep and diet would suffer so I had to make sure and let him know that it was okay to not be at 100% everyday when his life was so stressful.”
Despite qualifying for Boston, Baker struggled with work/life balance when he took a new job requiring a lot of travel. He and his wife also had a child, and squeezing in workouts became more and more difficult.
Lemoncello worked on tailoring the plan to his busy schedule and helping him make adjustments where needed.
“Some days he didn’t feel like it because he had no energy, and that was okay. I focused on making sure there was a balance of work/rest and play for him,” said Lemoncello. “I think this was essential because he was in planes all week long and that was taking a lot of energy out of him. He had to be okay with taking days off when he had little energy left.”
Baker admitted this season of his life was tough, but said as a creature of habit he would still get it done.
“His biggest strength is definitely his mental strength but like anyone, it can be tough on you when life is crazy and it’s hard to perform well,” said Lemoncello. “What we as coaches do is help the athlete understand the whole life picture and how it’s affecting them on a physical level.”
Despite the obstacles, Baker stuck to the plan and began to see results come streaming in. Since his first marathon in January 2015, Baker went from a 3:22 marathon to a 2:55 marathon, and the goal is 2:40 in the future. He had hoped to reach 2:40 at Boston earlier this year, but difficult weather conditions deterred him.
“True distance running is so much bigger once you start training,” said Baker. “I PR’d at my marathon this past January and ran my first 100k in February.”
Baker feels the customization piece of McMillan training plans is key.
“I was in Chicago and I saw this coach training 30 athletes and you could tell he was trying to fit the training program into the athlete and not vice versa,” said Baker. “You can’t just take 16 or 20 weeks and say they’re all going to get the same great results – individualization and customization is important.”
Baker’s determination is something his coach finds both a pro and a con.
“Sometimes I have to keep a lid on him because he’s so determined to do well, [so] positive reinforcement works really well to allow him to understand that even on his bad days, he’s still building towards his goal,” said Lemoncello. “He took everything in his stride, relaxed on race day, went out nice and easy, and ended up winning the race and getting his BQ!”
Baker won the Foot Traffic Flat Marathon in Oregon on July 4 this year, securing another BQ in the process. He’ll run the Arizona Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon in January, and Boston in the spring. In the future, he’s entertaining a 100-miler of some kind – perhaps on the track.
“I really love the rhythmic feel of running on the track,” said Baker.
Whatever race he’s training for, Baker appreciates the accessibility of his McMillan coach for whenever he has questions or needs advice.
“I like the availability and open communication I have with Lemon,” said Baker. “I can just schedule a time to call him when I’m in a funk and work through it with him over the phone.”
Lemoncello describes Baker as a highly driven athlete, which can present its own set of challenges when it comes to training.
“[It] can be difficult because of the risk of burnout and injury from pushing hard all the time,” said Lemoncello. “Teaching the principles of training as well as why rest is good for you is especially important so that they can understand that doing less or being smarter can reap higher rewards.”
Baker’s results have certainly reaped the rewards, but it’s the training and the running that always remains steady.
“Running is the purest sport, and it’s the epitome of the purest form of a human trying to conquer their own limits,” said Baker. “Anybody no matter their ability can start to figure that out within themselves.”
Melody Karpinski is the Community Manager for McMillan Running’s Run Team program. She enjoys coaching high school cross-country and track, trail running and writing. Follow McMillan Running on Instagram at @mcmillanrunning.
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