Lynn Jennings needs little introduction to most in the running community, especially in New England. The three-time Olympian and World Champion joined our coaching staff this past summer and will be with us in '08 as well. This interview came from a series of emails this fall:
How did you start running?
I started running when I was 14. I was a freshman at the Bromfield School in Harvard, MA. I had always been the fastest runner at elementary school field days, so I joined the boys' cross country team (there was no girls' team) and was the slowest runner on the team. I would go home and collect Otis, my springer spaniel, and bring him to practice so I would have someone to run with. I was the only girl on the team and the only girl in the league.
I met John Babington, coach of the women's and girls running club in Cambridge, MA called Liberty Athletic Club, in the spring of my freshman year. Soon my parents were driving me to Cambridge so I could run track workouts with the other Liberty runners. I trained all summer and when I showed up at cross country practice my sophomore year I was the fastest runner on the team and among the top few in the boys league.
By the time I graduated high school I was the top runner in the nation: the junior national 1500m champion and the junior national cross country champion. I had run the mile in 4:39 and was the national high school record holder for two miles.
What event was your favorite? What result are you most proud of?
I was a jill of all trades during my career. I was a true middle distance runner. I raced everything from the mile to the 10,000m on the track. I raced indoor track, cross country and on the roads. I was an effective racer irrespective of the surface: smooth tracks and roads were as appealing to me as the rough and tumble cross country courses. My 39 national titles came on all of those surfaces.
I am proudest of my Olympic medal. It took so much work to turn me into a smooth, graceful, efficient track runner. The medal is a testament to success, grit and plain old hard work.
I adored cross country racing. I was so suited to the rough and tumble and utter physicality of it. To be successful in cross country a runner needs to be powerful, strong, undaunted by difficult conditions, willing to suffer through wind and rain and mud and even snow not to mention all of the hills. I used to think I could fly over difficult footing while my competitors got bogged down. No course was too challenging for me and I totally grooved on my ability to rise to meet the challenge of any cross country course anywhere in the world. Being the world cross country champion three times in a row was a dream come true.
Many of us like to daydream about making it to an elite level in whatever sport we're interested in, but you made it. What was the best part of the experience? Any part you can find yourself missing? What was the least dreamy/glamorous bit, or the perhaps part that us mere mortals aren't aware of?
It's a sublime feeling having a body and mind honed to perfection, like lightning in a bottle; an elusive and rare combination. To stand on a starting line and be powerfully fit and confident in the task ahead and the knowledge that you can ask yourself to go and do something so daunting is what I worked for. It's a powerful experience. That was the best part of it all. I miss that feeling of utter physical and mental perfection.
It's overwhelming to remember the work it took to achieve that sort of state though, and it's hardly glamorous work. Elite runners live highly structured, disciplined lives and I was no exception. My monastic life was a choice, not a sacrifice, and I gladly lived in a way that would horrify many. If I wasn't eating, sleeping, training, racing or traveling to race I did not do it. No exceptions.
I trained alone. I had no training partners. I worked under the guidance of a coach who lived in Cambridge, MA while I lived in Newmarket, NH. Two or three times a week I drove to Cambridge to do track workouts under his guidance. But I ran all of my miles by myself. The pure solitary nature of that was in step with my personality but it was far from glamorous. I trained to race and I raced to win. Every ounce of my self was devoted to this task.
May be an ignorant question, can you explain a little bit as to how the process of Olympic and National Team selection works in the running world, or at least how it worked for you?
Selection for Worlds and the Olympics in the running world is as straightforward as can be via the trials process. A runner qualifies for the Olympic Trials by running a time that is set two years in advance. At the Trials runners advance to the final by running heats and semis. In the final race the top three runners to cross the finish line qualify for the Olympics. There is an Olympic standard that a runner has to meet, and that time is also published a minimum of two years in advance. This process is the same for qualification for the World Championships teams.
I know that sometimes non-Olympic sports, like cross country, get short shrift in funding. Was that a problem during your time in the sport?
USA Track and Field (USATF) is the national governing body for running. USATF national championships are held every year in indoor and outdoor track, cross country, and road racing. Road racing national championships are held for every distance: 5, 10, 15k up to the marathon. There is prize money at all of these national championships.
Running is different than rowing, for example, in that there are myriad financial opportunities for elite athletes. Shoe companies, clothing companies, sports bar companies are just some of the businesses that associate themselves with runners. Add in prize purses, appearance fees and bonuses for top performances and the end result is that running can be a financially viable career.
You've been outspoken in your belief in the purity of sport. Where do you see the fight against doping going next? Is there a price that is too high to pay for clean athletics?
It is utterly disappointing with each story that comes forth showing another athlete who has succumbed to cheating. I believe in no notice drug testing. If you are an elite athlete you are committing fraud if you cheat and a fraudulent athlete needs to be prosecuted. Drug testing is the only way to root out the cheaters. Blood, urine and hair testing are all necessary.
In some Olympic sports (skiing comes to mind) there's some debate as to the best course for a young athlete to pursue, specifically, going to college or training full time. Do you have an opinion on this? How did your experience of college shape your athletic career?
Running in college can be a tremendous experience for a runner. The important issue is to make sure the training is tailored to the young athlete's developing maturity. Too much intense work (high mileage, hard and fast training, too much racing) can lead to injury and physical breakdown.
My collegiate years were the nadir of my running career. I had a tough transition from high school to college. For many athletes there is so much to adjust to in college that adding super intense athletics on top of that can be overwhelming. The pressure of succeeding can be tempered by the right coach who can bring young athletes along without risk of injury or mental overload.
What do you see as key to developing American distance running?
Running is a sport that rewards maturity. The key to developing young successful runners into mature successful elites is to allow the athletes to develop without too much pressure. Funding and coaching opportunities can go a long way to helping the post collegiate athlete find the right place to live and train in order to improve and become elite.
What do you see as the most common mistake you see runners making?
Not being patient with the process of running training - too often it's too much, too soon. The "more is better" philosophy instead of being thoughtful about balancing the right kind of training in pursuit of what the runner's ultimate target may be.
What's the one piece of advice you'd give to the novice runner?
Buy proper shoes and alternate running on harder and softer surfaces to avoid injury. Do work in the gym to strengthen core muscles and the corresponding muscles that don't get worked as a runner. Hydrate. Learn about the sport; educate yourself. I guess that's more than one piece of advice...
Often people ask me why they need coaching for running, something they've been able to do natively since around age 2. How would you answer that? How much of running technique can be changed after such an extended period of conditioning habits (good or bad) like many of us have?
It's not so much about technique, although some of that can be brought to a runner's attention and potentially changed. Everyone runs doing something a little "funny". Have you ever seen Paula Radcliffe (British world record holder for the marathon in 2:15)? She's frighteningly fast but has a head bob that is utterly different than any other runner in the world. Biomechanically, it seems not to affect her negatively - it's just how she runs.
The value of coaching for running is more about learning how to train in a way maximizing fitness and minimizing injury. Running's a tough sport with a daunting amount to learn about how to run fast. It demands as much mental training as physical. A coach can guide a runner so they learn how to race well in addition to helping design appropriate training programs.
I know when you came up you brought along your bike, and in fact, my first contact with you at Craftsbury was as a sculler in our camps. How does cross-training fit your life now? Has cross-training always played a part in your development, or mainly just in your post competitive life?
I'm a poster child for cross training these days. I NEVER cross trained when I was a full time elite runner. I never got injured so I didn't need to pool run or find other ways to train without stressing my body.
I am still a passionate and avid runner, but I do all of my running, 60 miles a week or so, on trails. I have fallen in love with rowing and road cycling as well. I like the way my body feels after a week of rowing and running and cycling. After a few days of hard running I like being able to use my body differently through rowing or riding. What I love most is moving my body through time and space. On the water, on the trails or out on the roads - my heart sings after I've come home hot and tired.
When I was an elite runner I used to come up to Craftsbury and skate ski on the trails in the winter!
I'm interested how you find sculling and running fit together. Are there lessons from one the other could benefit from, and if so can you tell me why I should try the other?
Running is hard work. It is a physically difficult and demanding action. Sculling is endlessly technical and takes years to master (using that word loosely). Both are endearing and alluring sports that, for me, go hand in hand. They are psychological siblings; rewarding the determined, mindful, passionate athlete who loves beauty. To run fast takes not only the physically honed body but also the mind that can learn to become inured to pain. Sculling is all about listening to the boat and your body and feeling the connection between the two; the mind/body duality and the honing of that connection in either sport makes for a successful runner and sculler.
I consider myself a runner and a sculler. I take great pride in saying that - like I am a member of a special tribe. When I meet another sculler there is an immediate connection about the all encompassing beauty and difficulty of rowing.