Friday, November 2, 2012

Meeting a Running Legend: Lynn Jennings

Let me start by saying that besides being a runner, I am a huge running geek and fan of the sport. I have books and videos of great runners and their performances that I draw inspiration from over and over again. I am also guilty of a fair amount of hero worship, so spend a lot of time idolizing and in awe of the greats in our sport. 

Last Sunday I had a wonderful opportunity to attend a presentation by Lynn Jennings. For those of you who may not be familiar with Lynn, she is one of the best American distance runners ever. She was at the height of her career in the late 1980s and 1990s. She excelled in cross country, road, and track. She was a three time World Cross Country Champion. She competed in three Olympics, at 3,000, 5,000, and 10,000 meters, and won a bronze medal in the 10,000m in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona (setting an American record). She won 39 national titles at a range of distances and held 10 American records. (Oh, and for all my MI readers, she ran a 52:53 at Crim!) This barely scratches the surface of her accomplishments. (A really nice and more complete bio is available at the Ivy Women in Sports site) She is just an amazing runner and an amazing person.  

The opportunity to hear her speak was courtesy of a local running store (that I am not naming here because they continually delete my posts from their team board). I am very fortunate to live close to such a resource. They do a lot to bring in speakers for the local running community. Since I have been here, I have met Dick Beardsley, Scott Jurek, and Lynn Jennings. What amazing and motivational experiences these have been. One thing that has really impressed me about these runners is how really down-to-earth they were and also how passionate. Each one of them has been inspiring, but Lynn was by far the most so for me, probably because she was a woman and close to my own age.  Also the range of her accomplishments appealed to me, as well as her competitive spirit.

Lynn spoke about her life and her beginnings in distance running as a freshman in high school, the only girl on the boys’ cross country team, running alone in practices and always at the back of the pack in races, with the goal of beating just one poor hapless boy in each race. It was in what happened the next that her true nature is revealed. During the off-season she decided to keep running and began running with a club. By the time she came back for her sophomore year she was again running alone again, but this time at the front of the pack. The boys could not keep up with her.

She was on a remarkable trajectory by the end of her high school years, but then she told a story that I am sure many of those in the room could relate to: she ran a marathon and got injured. She decided (against her coach’s wishes) to run the Boston Marathon. She was too young to officially enter (17) so she ran as a bandit. She came in 3rd.  In the process, though, she became injured and went through a period that lasted through her college years where she could not regain her previous level. It was in her adult, post college, career when she reconnected with her original coach and was able to recognize her full potential.

As Lynn talked about her adult running career, I was reminded of something a swimming coach I knew was fond of telling his kids: “tough as nails, be tough as nails.” Lynn is truly a tough-as-nails competitor. Lynn put together a wonderful presentation that included video clips of various races to illustrate her points. It was in these videos that her physical and mental toughness were apparent, from her blazing finishing kick to the mental games she played with her competition. It was fascinating and inspiring. I wanted to cheer right there in the room when she won the races. I know that is silly, but that is how into it I was.

In terms of information that runners could take away and apply to their own life, Lynn had several good pieces of information:

  • ·       Don’t wait for motivation to strike, just get out there and do it: That was really a golden piece of information for me. I sometimes tend to procrastinate on workouts, waiting for the perfect temperature or mood to come over me. If I really want to excel, I have to do it regardless of the external situation or my internal level of motivation in the moment.

  • ·       Build a repertoire of running skills: This was one of my favorite parts of the presentation, just because this one had some great video footage. She spoke about her natural talent as a runner with a strong finishing kick, which served her very well in most races. However, to be a well-rounded runner and a fiercer competitor, she also needed to be able to run from the front. She showed video of her practicing these skills in races. It reminded us as runners to work on a range of skills, even and especially those that are not comfortable or our natural areas of strength. It is through this that we can further develop as runners.

  • ·       Her last point was one that also struck a chord with me because this is an area where I sometimes falter:  train for the mental side of racing as well as the physical. Again she had some really great video to go with this. She had some footage from the Freihofer’s Run for Women. She was sitting off the shoulder of her competition (I think Anna Marie Letko/Lauck). She played a mental game where she moved from one shoulder to the other to keep her competitor off balance before finally putting on that blazing and brutal finishing kick to win the race. She also showed footage from the Barcelona Olympics and talked about how her mental composure and smart race tactics allowed her to win the bronze medal in that race.

One of the most memorable parts of the experience for me surrounded her Olympic medal. She had brought it with her and pulled it out to pass around the group. I thought it was just amazing that she was willing to share such a rare and precious symbol of her achievements with all of us. How many people get to actually hold and touch an Olympic medal? 

However, what happened after the presentation really blew me away. I had waited in line to talk to her and hopefully get a picture. I was telling her how jealous my son, a coach in California (whom I had texted), was that I had gotten to actually hold and touch an Olympic medal. Just a minute or so before that, someone had handed her back the medal. She said well “let’s get a picture with you wearing the medal” and slipped the medal over my head. It was awesome!!

While Lynn is not running competitively any more, she still runs regularly. She also has branched out into other sports and activities. One of her new hobbies is competitive rowing (which, of course, she excels at). She is also Running Program Director and Coach at the Craftsbury Running Camp in Vermont. You can see her passion coming through when she talks about all of her activities. Having the opportunity to meet her and hear her presentation was definitely an opportunity I will cherish. If you ever have a chance to attend one of her presentations, do it!! 

1 comment:

  1. It always amazes me that Olympic athletes carry their medals around in their pockets. I remember a similar experience with Sheila Taormina.....getting to hold and try on her gold medal. Here I thought Olympians kept their medals in glass cases on their mantel, or some such thing (I guess I've watched "The Cutting Edge" a few too many times). Great report! Sorry I had to miss seeing her, but happy you covered the highlights. Thanks!


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