Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Lynn Jennings: A Coach’s Story

As you know, for my recent marathon, I was incredibly fortunate to be coached by Lynn Jennings, 1992 Olympic bronze medalist in 10,000 meters and 3-time winner of World Cross Country Championships. During training, we decided she would write a blog post after the race. Here it is:

Sunday long runs. Tuesday track sessions. Friday tempo runs. Easy days. Ice baths. Meticulous attention paid to health and well-being. How did I find myself back on this sort of schedule? Only this time, it wasn’t all about me. It was all about Sarah Bowen Shea.

For too many years to count, I was a world-class professional middle-distance runner. My life consisted of training to race and racing to win. I traveled the world racking up victories and personal bests, medals, and honors. If it didn’t have to do with training, racing, eating, sleeping, or traveling, I didn’t do it. I was a hard-nosed competitor who cut no corners and gave nothing away.

For the last four months, I have been Sarah’s coach. Her journey to my doorstep started with her disappointing race in the Nike Women’s Marathon in October 2007. I had invited her to call me after she crossed the line. Her disappointment and ragged emotions kept her from doing it. She wanted to call but she was afraid of crying on the phone.

A month or so after the race, I invited her to sit in my cozy kitchen and talk about what went right and what went wrong with her race. As I listened carefully, I was also thinking, “I could coach her to break 4 hours.” I said nothing. If she wanted me to coach her, she would have to ask me herself.

Months later, Sarah did exactly that. We had a few dinner meetings where she talked, I listened, and then I laid out her carefully plotted training schedule. There were only a few non-negotiables: She had to be honest when I asked for feedback regarding fatigue and the state of her body. She wouldn’t impress me by doing more than the workout assigned. She could ask questions about what we were doing at any time.

The weeks unfolded. Sarah easily accepted the higher mileage, the exacting and rigorous track and tempo work, the weekly ice baths after her ever-lengthening long runs.

It took me awhile to get used to her pace ranges. I was used to racing at 5:00/mile pace and faster. My track work was done at sub-5:00/mile pace. My easy runs were in the 6:00-7:00 pace range. At first I was at sea: 9:15/mile easy runs? 8:20/mile tempo runs? It was foreign territory. But the truth is clear: different levels of physical ability have no bearing on the important intangibles. Intangibles upon which I built a long and successful career.

Everything I hold dear, she exhibited. Sarah personified the hard-as-diamond qualities that point an athlete toward success.

She completed every single assignment with passion, vigor, discipline, and dedication. She was in control and professional. She was completely coachable. I had to laugh when she texted me from Boston to ask if it was okay if she ran 6 miles on the Boston Marathon course rather than the 5 I had on the schedule.

I designed workouts for her that were challenging and arduous. The bar was high enough that she would have to work to achieve it. My goal was that she would finish each assignment not quite believing she had actually done it. Each session was designed to nudge her fitness forward and leave her feeling confident.

By the time race day arrived, it was clear that barring injury or untimely illness, Sarah had done all the work to achieve a sub-4 hour marathon. I told her that it was up to her to determine by how much she broke the barrier.

I was all over the course on race day. Zipping from point to point on my bike, I was reassured to see her efficient marathon shuffle and relaxed upper body. She was holding steady and looking good. The last time I saw her before heading to the finish line was at mile 24. She was moving cleanly and easily. She was continuing to pass other runners. Only a short time later, it was a shock to see her crawling down the home stretch, her face a rictus of pain. I was stunned to realize she had left every ounce of herself out on the course. She careened across the line safely under 4 hours.

As a species, we should never underestimate our low tolerance for discomfort. Sarah’s months of physical training taught her how to focus her intellect and body on the task at hand. I was impressed with her willingness to bump up against extreme depletion and not back away from the raw pain of it. Her tears of relief (and disappointment) at the finish were a testament to how large this goal had become to her.

Today, thoroughly ensconced in retirement, I am still ruled by goals of my own. It’s not about running 5:00/mile tempo runs anymore. It’s about how to achieve the trifecta of running, rowing, and cycling in a single day. I run on Portland’s Forest Park trails with my athletic Australian cattle dog mix, Towhee. I row my sleek blue Hudson shell on the Willamette River, and I ride my fast Bianchi in the West Hills. Every summer I live in Vermont at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. I exchange coaching at the running camps for several weeks of rowing camp attendance. I just might be the happiest (and most active) retired professional athlete around.



Leah said...

Great post! Thanks to Lynn for sharing that perspective. said...

I love this!!!! What a wonderful combination the two of you made in preparing for your race, Sarah!!! I love hearing from someone so accomplished as much does she run now & does she still race? I don't want to spoil any article goodies, but I'm just nosy like that...I can't imagine being able to row the way y'all do in that part of the country! It must be amazing...thank you for your blog & FB updates! By the by, have you done any runs since the big one? Just curious...

jo said...

The inspiration you two have given from both sides goes without saying...Being the marathon cheerleader was an incredible experience, one that still makes me smile and gives me strength for a variety of reasons (Sarah knows...) and I didn't even run...

Lynn - Being a teacher elevated your abilities and passion to a higher, deeper, more meaningful level.

Simply put...

Sarah is YOUR opus
3:52:37 is Sarah's opus

Naomi said...

I have no intelligent words to add, but a thank you is in order for writing this, Lynn ... and sharing it with us, Sarah.

Encouraging, inspiring and touching. The bond you two now share is ... well, incredible!

Kelly(M&M) said...

I have loved following your training over the years, but this one takes the cake. I stalked your blog to find out the amazing workouts you were completing. What a great team the two of you made. I loved hearing both perspectives.

Online Bookmaking said...

It is impressive how a coach can make a huge difference. Specially when they succeed when they ran.

Kerry Sarris said...

Wow what a great story of hard work and encouragement. I grew up in Harvard MA and went to the Bromfield school. Lynn was the first women to ever run cross country there . She has always been an inspiration to me. Thank you for sharing this story.