Q-and-A with Olympic Medalist (and Avid Naturalist) Lynn Jennings
Lynn Jennings is one of the greatest distance runners and toughest competitors in American history. I first met her when I was covering track and field for Sports Illustrated in the 1980s and she was in the middle of a tremendous career in which she competed for three U.S. Olympic teams, earned the first-ever track distance medal for a U.S. woman (1992), won three straight world cross-country titles (a feat performed by only two other women from any country) and clinched a spot in the Track and Field Hall of Fame.
Lynn, who grew up in Massachusetts and went to Princeton, has always loved the outdoors. She’s knowledgeable about and appreciative of nature—not a formal bird watcher or trained biologist but a constant observer of all things living, even when she’s flying through the woods on a trail run with her dog, Towhee. Lynn happened to stop by The Naturalist’s Notebook last summer and we unexpectedly reconnected. Now you’ll have a chance to meet her. She’s coming to the Notebook on Tuesday, Aug. 21—with her Olympic medal—and she and I will talk about the Olympics and running during an open picnic on the Seal Harbor green.
Before I came over to the London Olympics I did a lengthy Q-and-A with Lynn about her track career, her Olympic experiences and her love of nature. I decided to wait until the start of the track and field events in London to post it. Tonight is the final of the women’s 10,000 meters, the event in which Lynn won her 1992 medal, so the timing seems perfect.
How and when did you become fascinated by nature and the outdoors?
This passion is by now a second skin and tracing the arc of my interest takes me back to second grade at the Bromfield School in Harvard, Mass. My family had just moved from Scotland and with my Scottish burr and complete bewilderment about everyday things like nickels and dimes, I was fortunate to land a teacher who was herself Scottish. Among other things, Mrs. Mannix showed me how to make peanut butter pine cone bird feeders and that was the beginning. Soon, I was begging my parents for all manner of feeders for my feeding stations. In parallel with this was the utter good fortune of growing up in Harvard. Room to roam, complete freedom and endless forests, orchards, and a huge lake meant I had every opportunity to be outdoors exploring and finding adventure with my dog Otis by my side. My best birthday present ever was a canoe when I was 14!
Do you have a favorite nature memory or memories from growing up?
Nothing specific from those years other than the memory of my growing desire to be outdoors and observing and learning. My mother wouldn’t let me go to bed at night in the summer until she’d performed a thorough tick check. I’d have been outdoors all day in all manner of environments and her tick check used to yield plenty of ‘em.
What attracted you to birds in particular?
The sheer variety and subtleties of birds is what attracts me still. Finding a bird, observing it and learning something about how it lives in its habitat fires me up. My love for birds is easily the longest love affair of my life.
When and why did you start running?
Informally, I was always the fastest kid in each grade at The Bromfield School. I would eagerly await Field Day and would train by asking my father to time me as I did laps around our house on Whitney Road. Formally, I joined the boys’ cross country team at Bromfield in ninth grade. I was the only girl on the team and the only girl in the league.
Did you incorporate nature-observing with your running in those days? Was nature one of the reasons you came to love cross country running so much?
As a kid I was, and I still am, one of those people who notices everything (I don’t necessarily comment on what I see but I see it all) and I was a challenging child. Being outdoors made life easier for me and combining my love for forests and meadows and moving water with running meant I was always looking and seeing everything all the time. Cross-country’s elemental natural challenges appealed to my desire for clarity and the purist in my 14-year-old self. This purism persists to to this day. My unhappiest times are when I am in an environment or situation that is the opposite of simple purity. I was a strong track runner but I was a fiercely passionate cross-country runner.
Did you run with your dog back then, as you do now with Towhee?
I did. Otis was a field-trial Springer Spaniel and he was a robust and eager runner. I ran with him at first as a survival mechanism: I was so slow that first cross-country season, I would dash home from school to collect him so I would have someone to run with. All the boys were so fast! By my sophomore year, I brought him to practice because I was so much faster than the boys and I still wanted a training partner! Otis ran with abandon and I would fix my eyes on him, which helped me learn to endure the discomfort of tough runs. He would usually cover several more miles than me by virtue of hopping stone fences to chase chipmunks, rabbits and the like. The train never stopped so he would have to race to catch up to me after his dalliances. One time he loitered and never caught up so he went home. My mother saw him come down the driveway without me, park himself on the lawn and howl until I returned. He lived to be 17.
Your Massachusetts high school had no girls’ cross-country team nor a track team at all so you ran on the boys’ team. What was that experience like and how did it shape you as a runner, competitor and person?
The Bromfield School was too small for those teams so I ran on the team that was available. It never occurred to me or to anyone else at Bromfield that I shouldn’t be allowed to run. In the beginning, it was lonely and hard. The cross-country team travelled to away races with the boys’ soccer team. All those boys and me on the bus. I always sat in the front row with a book. It was intimidating and isolating to be the only girl that first year. I always felt like an outsider and so different from the others. I’d get off the bus and invariably hear, “They’ve got a GIRL on their team!” I would pretend I never heard it.
I’ve learned in my life that everything that happens ends up having use and value in some often completely unintended way. That was totally so with my initial cross-country season. I didn’t figure into the team’s scoring and so I was free to create my own racing strategy and plan. I was desperate to never finish last so I would keep my eyes up and ahead and would find some hapless boy to run down over the last part of the race so I wouldn’t finish last. I became adept at forcing myself to focus and to will myself to run down as many boys as I could. Over time, this became my go to strategy as an adult runner.
My first season shaped my lifetime approach to racing. It also addressed my feelings of being “different” which I learned to embrace and to cultivate.
Did you have any role models in sports, nature-watching or life in general?
Did you watch the Olympics as a kid? Did a particular event or athlete or Games inspire you?
I was oblivious to the 1972 Olympics but by ’76, I was 16, and a fully fledged runner. My parents took me to Montreal so I could see some of the athletics. I remember being stunned by the grandeur of the setting and the heroic nature of the runners. By then, I had already told myself I wanted to be the best runner in the world by the time I was 30.
When did you realize you might be able to reach the Olympics? How did that realization affect you?
For five years after I graduated from high school I experienced the nadir of my running career. I struggled mightily at Princeton University and, in fact, retired, three different times. I was a runner in irons and I had totally lost my way. I resurrected my running career in the autumn of 1984.
In the fall of that year I was a recent Princeton graduate with no plans other than to run yet my running was a shambles. Nevertheless, in June of ’84 I went off to the Olympic trials in L.A. and promptly finished last in a heat of the 3,000 meters. I crossed the line humiliated and in tears. I can still hear the track announcer calling my finish, “And here comes former national junior 1,500-meter champion Lynn Jennings!” I ripped off my spikes, threw them in the rubbish and took a red eye home to Harvard. I told my parents, “I quit.” My parents hired me to stain their house and so I spent the summer of ’84 going up and down a ladder and sneaking inside to catch glimpses of the Olympics.
I watched Joan Benoit win her marathon gold medal. I clearly recall standing in stain-splattered clothes, holding my paintbrush and thinking, “Why is Joan winning a gold medal at the Olympics and why am I standing here painting my parents’ house?” I had routinely defeated Joan as a high schooler but now I was overweight, discouraged, lost and had no plan.
I was as far from the Olympics as I could get. “Life begins all over again in the fall” is what Jordan Baker said in The Great Gatsby. So it did for me. I started running again that autumn, moved to New Hampshire and rented a tiny cabin down a mile-long dirt driveway. My “rent” was to keep the cabin warm so the pipes wouldn’t freeze (the owner was a runner who took pity on me). I was poor, had no real plan and no coach. So I trained myself back into shape and soon enough the results started coming. I got a small contract with Nike and was sent to Europe to race where I raced five different distances and set five new personal bests. I was 25 and I was on my way.
By the time 1988 happened and the 10,000 meters was an Olympic event for the first time, I was in the mix for an Olympic berth. I placed third at the U.S. trials and was on my way to my first Olympics in Seoul. Because of the do-or-die nature of our Olympic trials, you never know if you are on the team until you cross that finish line. Top three make it. Fourth place stays home and watches on the telly. I was stunned that I had made it: Four years earlier I was nowhere.
What are your memories of qualifying for your first Olympics at the 1988 U.S. trials? How did your life change at that moment?
My first reactions to crossing the line in third were happiness and a sense of redemption. These emotions were quickly tempered by the realization that I had to now train for the Olympics. It was daunting. I had no coach and no training partners. I thrived on training alone and figured I’d just keep doing what I was doing and I’d get where I’d need to be. It was a leap of faith. I remember telling myself, “You’re not an Olympian until you stand on that starting line in the stadium and hear the gun go off.” This mantra served me well that summer. I returned to Newmarket, N.H., to some hoopla but I remember burrowing in, putting my head down and training with pure dedication and drive. With nobody to tell me how I was doing, I had to rely solely on myself. By then I was a hard-nosed and self-reliant athlete and that summer made me even more so.
Talk about your first trip to the Olympics—the emotions, the competition, the ceremonies, the daily life in the Olympic Village.
During my preparation in order to try and keep perspective for the Games, I would tell myself, “It’s just another race, 25 laps around the track. Keep turning left.” But, of course, negotiating the myriad ins and outs of how one actually travels to the Olympics with the team, goes through final preparation and then finds oneself walking into the stadium for Opening Ceremonies is enough to throw any athlete off their game. Emotions are heightened yet quotidian details all still matter.
One of my strengths as an athlete and as a person is that it takes a lot to get me flustered, rattled or pushed off my perch. Having been to several world cross-country championships and a world track championship, I was seasoned enough to keep my cool. Still, I was hardly prepared for the adrenaline and sense of wonder I felt walking into the Opening Ceremonies for the ’88 Games. I remember telling myself, “This is it. Take it all in, be present and aware because when this is over, I won’t be experiencing this again for at least four more years if I’m lucky.”
The Olympic Village is a housing project for 10,000 people. Every single one of those people is enormously skilled and talented and has the honed body to match. When I had to be off my feet and resting and was sick of my apartment in the Village, I’d go find a shady spot with my book and water bottle and I’d observe the bodies going by trying to figure out what sport they were in by how their bodies were sculpted. The variety is stunning and it was eye candy of the best kind!
When I toed the line for the inaugural women’s Olympic 10,000 meters, Francie Larrieu Smith gave me a hug and then we waited for the gun. I don’t remember much about that race. It was all a blur and I had NO idea what pace I was running or what any of my splits were. I hung on as best I could and scored sixth place with a huge personal best. Francie was one place ahead of me in fifth with a new American record. I have a great photograph of us with our arms around each other after the race.
I was thrilled with my place and time for about 48 hours. By then I was on a plane back to New Hampshire, and somewhere while I was in the air I realized that sixth was a long way from the podium. I vowed to go back to the Olympics in Barcelona and run fast enough to get a medal.
Your second Olympics were in Barcelona in 1992. You made history as the first American woman ever to win a medal in a distance track event. How was the Barcelona experience different from Seoul, and tell us about the 10,000-meter final.
In 1992, I was a more seasoned, confident and experienced runner. In the four years since ’88, I had won world cross-country three times, I’d run a mile in 4:24, had won numerous national championships in track, cross-country and on the roads and I was being coached by John Babington (my high school mentor). I arrived in Barcelona firmly believing that one of those medals could be mine.
I stayed in the Village but also rented a nearby apartment so I could escape and have solitude whenever I desired. I was focused so intently on what my task was that I never saw my family or anything of Barcelona until my race was over.
I was in France for about a week before I arrived in Barcelona and I ripped off some track sessions that had me feeling confident and ready. The Opening Ceremonies this time round were utterly memorable despite a kerfuffle amidst the American women. We could NOT figure out which was the front or the back of the red, white and blue skirt we were wearing so some wore it one way and some another way before we emerged from the tunnel to begin our Opening Ceremonies lap. I told myself, “The next time you are on this track you will be fighting for a medal.”
One of the toughest aspects of the Olympics that nobody prepares you for is the endless ceremonial nature of any little thing that gets done. To get from the practice track to the start line is an exercise in emotion control and patience.
The process is so protracted as to be laughable and the final 30 to 60 minutes is spent in the control room. Dressed in competition kit, numbers attached, spikes on, adrenaline at a fever pitch, 24 of us were in a small room lined with benches. Astroturf carpeted the floor to cushion our spikes. We had to sit there and wait. Warmups on the practice track were accomplished over an hour previously, we’d been marched from the practice track to the stadium, through the bowels and darkness to this small room. And this is where we would sit and wait until we were allowed out onto the track for our race. Twenty-four women. No talking. No distractions. I had nothing to do but sit and stare at the floor or into the eyes of the women I’d soon be racing.
Once we were released it was like a herd of ponies being let to pasture: I couldn’t do enough strides and fast running back and forth on the home stretch before being called to the line. I stared up at the Olympic flame, squeezed the hand of Spain’s Albertina Dias who was standing next to me and readied myself.
As the race unfolded the front pack of 10 winnowed to Elana Meyer of South Africa, Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu and a following chase pack of three. Scotland’s Liz McColgan, China’s Zhong Huandi and me. I bridged the gap up to Meyer and Tulu and hung on for about half a lap before realizing I couldn’t sustain the pace they were running. So I got back into my rhythm and soon McColgan and Zhong caught up to me. I tucked into the back of the two of them and let them pull me along for the next six laps. With 800 meters to go I got ready and with 300 meters remaining, I launched my kick and powered away from the two of them. I was in the bronze position! Little did I know that Zhong had also broken away from McColgan and she was chasing me down. If I had faltered or not run strongly all the way through to the finish line, I would have gotten pipped at the line and missed out on the medal.
I immediately put my hands on my knees and when I looked up again, Zhong was right next to me. She was fourth. I was third. I had earned the bronze! My fellow American Judi St. Hilaire crossed the line about 20 seconds later in eighth place and we hugged each other. It’s one of my favorite photos, we both have the biggest smiles ever.
You always seemed mentally and physically tougher than other runners. How did you keep pushing yourself when your body was exhausted and hurting? What was going on in your head during those moments?
The process of days, weeks, months and years of training is the method by which an athlete’s body and brain get inured to the pain of fatigue and exhaustion. In time, pain and fatigue were welcome visitors. They forced me to confront them and learn how to live with them. I made a special practice of training my thought processes as much as I did my body. Because I trained alone, I had endless amounts of time to hone my emotional and intellectual reactions to how I was feeling as I trained. I became acutely adept at holding myself to an unforgiving emotional line. I was hard-eyed: Things were what they were and I would endure. I refused to engage or indulge in rationalizations for giving in to the fatigue. By doing this over and over for years, I honed a sense of resoluteness that became a little frightening.
I also spent endless hours visualizing how my next race would unfold. I would picture the race setting in my head, the competitors I knew would be there and I ran the race repeatedly in my head. Because I had no training partners, I became skilled at relentlessly pushing myself. When I didn’t want to go out to train, I would stand at my front door and tell myself, “I can’t afford to wait to be motivated. Go now!” The idea that someone else would be training while I was dithering was anathema. Usually by the time I got to the end of my long dirt driveway, I’d be O.K. But whether I was O.K. or not, I got the work accomplished. The mental will I cultivated then serves me to this day.
I was a physically robust athlete with no time lost to injury or sickness. I was fortunate that way. I also directed that process by training steadily and with precision but I never overtrained. Athletes who overtrain are by definition insecure. I was not. I was a racer. I trained to race and I raced to win. Some athletes train so hard on a daily basis, they have nowhere to go on race day. The noted exercise physiologist Jack Daniels calls it “going into the beyond.” I saved my brilliance and my will for my races. I would stand on the start line and feel powerful and invincible. I had cultivated the concept of relentlessness to a startling degree and I would apply it when I was having a rough patch in a race.
In 1996 you made your third Olympic team and competed in Atlanta. What stands out in your mind about your experiences at those Games?
The 5,000 meters was added to the Olympics in ’96 and I made the decision to drop down from the 10,000 to run the 5,000. I figured I’d been there and done that with the 10,000 and the 5,000 represented a chance to see what I could do at shorter distances. It was a risky choice because the field at the trials was a strong one. At the trials, I outkicked Mary Decker Slaney for the win and made my third Olympic team. The Olympic final was a roller-derby affair. The pace wasn’t very fast and as a consequence there was so much pushing and shoving and jockeying for position. I recall the race as one in which I never got a chance to just run because there was so much body contact going on throughout. The best thing about those Games other than the racing was the fact that so many family members, friends and neighbors made the trip to see me race. It was almost as good as the chance I had to win world cross-country for the third time in Boston with so many people I knew cheering for me.
As you look back now, what would you say are the coolest things about being an Olympian?
In terms of tangible objects, there’s no denying some of the kit an Olympian gets is pretty neat stuff. One of my treasured things is a custom-made leather jacket. Olympic rings are on the back and inside is a silk pocket with my name embroidered on it along with Olympic Bronze Medalist, Barcelona 1992. It’s classy and handsome and I treasure it. I have each of my competition jerseys with the Olympic bib attached framed in shadow boxes. All three are on the walls in my office.
The arc of having the Olympic medal these years is notable: At first, I used to always know exactly where it was. It was in my sock drawer with my world cross-country medals. Now, when I look for it to take to a presentation, I have to hunt and peck in various places because I never remember where I last put it when I was done with it. The medal is a talisman and the concreteness of it has become less relevant to me. It represents an incredibly long self-appointed journey. It was a trip with failures and disappointments and self doubts, satisfactions and soaring successes. I like to remember James Joyce when it comes to this particular journey. He wrote, “They lived and laughed and loved and left.” I was on that trip for a long time and then it was over.
The intangible gifts of being an Olympian are life long. Pursuing a passion and being meticulous and gimlet-eyed about each detail of the pursuit for years on end has left its mark on me. I read a quote from T.S. Eliot that I think is true. “Things don’t go away. They become you. There is no end, but addition.”
Knowing I am an Olympian, for life, helps me stay true to myself when I struggle or have had difficult times. I know what failure is and so I have no fear of it. I’m not afraid to try. Being an Olympian is a subconscious beacon to myself. It’s also true that when others find out you are an Olympian it can lead to some remarkable and memorable conversations that start with that topic and range far and wide. It’s a gift in every way to be an Olympian.
Back to nature for a moment. At any of the Olympics, did you spot interesting birds or have any other nature experiences?
By definition, the summer Olympics are always held during the hot summer in some massive city somewhere and I was always on a rigid schedule of eating, sleeping and training before the Games began. I was a different version of me during those times. One great experience I had with birds while competing was in Indianapolis. I was there for the Olympic Trials in 1988 and I was in my hotel room on some crazy high floor. Of course, the window would only open the allotted amount which I could hardly bear. One night I heard a sound and I knew what it was but could hardly believe it. I looked out the window and saw a huge group of nighthawks swooping and soaring and feasting on mosquitos. I ran out of my room, down the hall to the elevator and got outside as fast I could to marvel at their antics. I was so happy to see something real in the midst of the hotel experience.
When and why did you take up rowing? What do you like about it?
I started rowing in the autumn of 2006 when I was looking for something to do. Everything seemed to pale in comparison with running and subsequently nothing held my interest. Sculling was the first thing I found that spoke to me as running always has. I like moving my body through time and space and rowing and running are psychological siblings that way. Both sports reward the mindful, passionate athlete who grooves on being amidst nature. Rowing and running are both challenging sports that force the athlete to hold a mirror up to their effort and motivation. There’s nowhere to hide in either sport and the starkness of the effort is always revealed. I raced the Head of the Charles in my 1x last October and it was an incredibly exciting and fun experience.
You’re now the director of Craftsbury Outdoor Center’s running programs in Vermont. What do you do in that role and how much do you run these days?
I am in charge of all aspects of the running programs and I also coach each week alongside my fantastic staff of coaches. I like thinking of ways to challenge the runners who come to Craftsbury and this year that will include summer biathlon racing (running and shooting). During the course of a week we do a track session, hill workout, fartlek and tempo work and a long run. The athletes learn how to improve how they approach their training and racing. We hike, bike, circuit train and do yoga. The best part of a Craftsbury week is the camaraderie and fun the athletes have. The second best thing is jumping off the docks into Big Hosmer Pond for a perfect post-run swim.
I am a daily runner with Towhee albeit only on trails now. I have no injuries or aches and pains these days. I like to think that part of my longevity as a happy healthy runner was from being smart while I was an elite athlete plus the fact that I am a trail runner now. My long runs are about 10 miles and the rest of the time I run as I feel. I still marvel at the freedom of not having to do workout X in Y amount of time. No more tyranny of the stopwatch! I do still find it hard to resist chasing down a pony tail if one is in front of me! That being said, I stopped running races when I retired and I only race in my 1x sculling shell.
Describe how you try to combine running with observing nature.
Being in nature is where I feel most at home. When I’m running, I’m not birding. I’m NOT a birder. I am observing everything though. On this morning’s run I saw wildflowers, fresh moose tracks, heard baby sapsuckers in their cavity, watched two ravens soaring, listened to a phoebe singing relentlessly and spied a blue headed vireo snug in her hanging nest. I also saw evidence of a porcupine chewing on a bark tree. I heard a broad-winged hawk, red-eyed vireo and a chestnut sided warbler, too. So there’s always plenty to see and hear but so few people really see and hear what’s around them. It’s always there.
Either near your Oregon home or back here in Vermont and Maine, which you visit frequently, do you have favorite birds or bird-watching spots?
I’m a real fan of raptors and accipiters as well as songbirds. Oh, I really like waterfowl, waders and owls, too. Hmm. I’m not too discriminating, I guess. What I like most is being in a habitat I love (forest, marsh, meadow clearing, pond or river) and observing its inhabitants conducting their lives. It’s like I am privileged to be able to observe the subtle habits and ways of these beautiful winged creatures.
Are you looking forward to following any particular event or athlete at the London Olympics?
The 5k, 10k and marathon always interest me. This year I think the women’s marathon will be uber fascinating.
What would you like to accomplish—as an athlete or a person—in the decades ahead?
I’d like to remain open and passionate about what I find beautiful in nature and athletics. I enjoy being old enough to know what I want and healthy enough to pursue it.