Running Training Tips

Treasured Trails: Cross-country reflections by Lynn Jennings

Lynn Jennings


Lynn Jennings Mudcross
"These high wild hills and rough uneven ways draw out our miles and make them wearisome" ----William Shakespeare, Richard II

I live near the protective embrace of Forest Park's northwest shoulder in Portland. From my bedroom window I can scan the forest's flanks and wonder how many runners are hidden in those verdant folds. I was running on those trails only hours ago - an early morning 9-miler accompanied by my stout-hearted dog Towhee. Wending our way past luxuriant ferns, faded thimbleberry bushes and piles of dying leaves we are both satisfactorily tired and muddy after scaling the hills and slip sliding down the descents. Our outing was far from wearisome.

For 15 years, I was a world-class elite middle distance runner. I trained twice a day, 365 days a year. I raced on tracks and cross country courses the world over. Appearances at three Olympic Games yielded one bronze medal and an accompanying American Record. I was an accomplished track runner with a fearsome finishing kick.

But it wasn't track running that made my heart sing. It was cross country running - the sort of races that are held in leg-numbing conditions. Boggy fields, frightening hills, hairpin turns, blazing stampedes off starting lines with hundreds of competitors - all jostling to funnel from a wide arcing start into four-abreast paths...cross country racing was my forte. I relished the adverse conditions, unpredictable weather, the rough and tumble footing. Sadly, the season is short, culminating each March at the World Cross Country Championships. At the end of March I would reluctantly store away my cross country racing shoes with the dagger-length spikes and dig out my light-as-dragonfly-wings track spikes. The capricious spring and sultry summer months were devoted to the discipline and symmetry of track training and racing.

One hundred miles a week. The endless trips to the track for interval sessions were leavened by road miles. Alas, I stayed off the trails for fear of rolling an ankle. Speed and sinuous rhythm are the coin of the realm for international track racing. As much as I missed the trails, churning through mud and flashing around tight wooded corners are worthless skills on the sleek European tracks where I spent my summers.

Summer after summer I chased fast times on European tracks, travelling ceaselessly. Germany, Spain and France. Norway, Sweden and Finland. England and Scotland. Russia and Poland. I would tuck into the leading group of women and force myself to concentrate on the swinging ponytails of the women ahead for lap after lap.

These were exhilarating and rewarding times, but by mid summer I would yearn for autumn's arrival and the serenity of the trails back home in New Hampshire. The familiar snap in the air, the dancing leaves, that particular slant of the dying afternoon sun all meant I could forget about the tyranny of track training and racing and could return to my familiar forest haunts. I would run for miles on trails covered with crisp leaves as October disappeared into November. I reveled in the flinty air of December in New Hampshire knowing it was preparing me for conditions anywhere in the world. Mostly I loved knowing I wouldn't have to step on a track again for five months.

My racing career is long gone - as are the endless tasks of analyzing my training, reconstructing races bad and good, examining my weaknesses, honing discipline and mental strength, and getting up every day knowing that only I was responsible for my success or failure.

Now every morning I ponder my route through this oasis in my backyard. Should I tackle the uphill-all-the-way Holman Lane? Last time I was loping up Holman Lane I startled a sharp shinned hawk on a low hanging branch. She had been enjoying a breakfast of fresh mole. Maybe I will swing down Birch trail. Last year, in early June, I trotted around a corner on Birch and had to hurdle a spotted fawn whose mother was lurking nearby.

The richness of Forest Park and its choices of beautiful trails make the resounding cheers at sleek European tracks a fond but distant memory. Now, the chattering of the kinglet and the buzzing of the winter wren accompany me on my runs. My passion for racing was happily extinguished in a successful but exhausting career. I realized every dream I'd dreamt.

But I must confess a secret. My competitive desire has one last manifestation: I still can't resist the sight of a dancing ponytail ahead of me on the trail.

The treasures and secret joys of cross country running are something every runner should seek out and experience. The tyranny of a stopwatch, the mental grind of accounting for pace and miles, the noise of humans and their industry will fall away as you learn to cope with uneven footing, hills and muck. Shake up your everyday training on the road and seek out a trail, a field, a meadow. Allow yourself to focus on your rhythm as you run according to the terrain. Forget about times and miles and pace. The physical exertion of the running combined with the necessary piercing, concentrated focus on the trail underfoot leads to a sense of relaxation. Rediscover your stout heart and let the forest and her beauty replenish your running and your soul.

Adapted from an earlier essay "Treasured Trails" by Lynn Jennings, 2004