The world championships finalist will move up to the marathon this fall.
Interview by: Duncan Larkin
Until a few weeks ago, former Stanford University standout Lauren Fleshman was going to sit out the upcoming IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea.
But things changed for the 29-year-old on August 6 when she won the 5,000-meter event at the Aviva Grand Prix in London, clocking 15:00.57. That ‘A’-standard victory secured a slot for Fleshman on the U.S. squad for the championships, which also includes American-record holder Molly Huddle and Amy Hastings.
After the World Championships, Fleshman, who owns a 5,000m PR of 14:58.58 and is coached by Mark Rowland, plans to transition her efforts toward a marathon debut in New York City this November.
Competitor.com caught up with Fleshman by email as she was making final preparations for her semifinal heat on Tuesday.
Competitor.com: How are you feeling as you head into the 5,000m semifinals? Are you nervous at all? Do you ever feel intimidated racing East Africans?
Lauren Fleshman: I’m feeling pretty good. It’s the first championships I’ve been in where I don’t feel completely burnt out. It’s refreshing to be genuinely excited to compete for a change, and not having to waste a bunch of energy convincing myself “I can do this.” Nerves aren’t an issue yet, but I’m sure they’ll kick in; they always do. And no, I’m not intimidated by East Africans. I respect their ability of course, but I don’t give them a second thought beyond that. I’m focused on my own progression as an athlete.
Your win in London a few weeks ago was a comeback of sorts for you. Were you surprised at all by your performance there? Does it give you any confidence at all going into Worlds?
I was surprised only in the sense that I finally felt good. I had been struggling with stomach cramps all year. Plus, it has been years since a race felt natural and smooth. It felt like “I am meant to be doing this.” The workouts Coach Rowland put me through between USA’s and London were indicating good things, so it was great to see that take shape in a race.
Tell me about your expectations at Worlds. What kind of training (workouts/mileage) have you been doing in the lead up to the event?
I’ve maintained a high level of training, with tough track sessions all the way up to seven days before the semi[final]. Volume has tapered down on the in-between days, so my mileage is about 50-55. During the last two weeks, I just do whatever feels good between workouts. Some days that’s two 3 mile runs at 9 minute pace. Some days it’s 7 miles at 6:40 pace. I tune into my body and listen hard to what it needs. The last couple days before the race, I’ll do practically nothing.
I don’t have any expectations to be honest, other than competing my best. Hopefully that’s enough to get me into the final. And then in the final, anything can happen. There are all kinds of factors out of my control that will affect the outcome, so all I can do is put myself in a position to jump through a window of opportunity if it opens.
Any concerns about the weather in Daegu (heat/humidity). How have you prepared for that?
I love weather conditions that favor slower starts and fast finishes. I’ve prepared for the heat by coming to Daegu two weeks before my race to acclimate, and putting myself in a positive frame of mind about it.
You’ve struggled with injury in the past, and have recently announced you are debuting in the marathon this November in New York City. With that in mind, are you concerned about re-injury since you will be ramping up your mileage to train for the marathon?
I won’t have any problem with a weekly long run and a long workout every week, but I’ll need to be really smart about how I fill in the other days. I’ll take a day off every week as well as a day of only cross training. I plan to ramp up my total volume but not my running mileage. I’ll be spending a lot of extra time on the ElliptiGo every week, which is low-impact and mimics the running motion nearly to perfection. I know a lot of people are hard core about runners only running to prepare, but I’ve learned from my pro triathlete husband, Jesse Thomas, that aerobic cross training prepares you for running way more effectively than runners think. Runners (including myself) are usually just too lazy to put in time cross training when they are healthy, since running is so much more fun. It will be an experiment, but health is the number one priority, so I’ve got to do it that way for my first one.
You will be 30 when you run New York. Why are you taking on the marathon now? Any regrets for not moving up to the marathon sooner in your career?
Thirty is a great age to do my first marathon. I believe in doing what feels right when it feels right whenever possible. I’ve been coaching a group of runners in Eugene once a week called The Flyers, and many of them do marathons, so I can blame them for opening my mind to it.
Will you be still competing on the track as you transition to marathon training or will you race exclusively on the roads?
There will only be eight weeks to prepare for the marathon after my track season ends, so I will most likely do only one road race before New York, if any.
Depending how the marathon goes, will you ever return to middle-distance racing?
It’s not like moving to Siberia never to return! The marathon can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Some people do it to lose weight, or raise money for a cause, to hit a time, or get away from their kids for a few hours a week. For me, it has a very specific purpose: to make me a stronger, tougher athlete who brings a fresh perspective back to 5K training for 2012. And to see if it’s something I want to do in the future.
Many elite runners aren’t as “fan friendly” as you are–meaning, you field questions from runners of all abilities and make yourself available as much as possible to share your wisdom and ideas on Facebook and on your blog. Why do you think some elites choose not to reach out to their fans like you do?
A lot of athletes don’t put themselves out there because it’s a lot of work, its draining, and it makes them vulnerable. Our fans can be pretty critical sometimes. The key to being a great athlete is putting your energy into things that fill you up rather than drain you. For me, meaningful interaction with the running community fills me up, so long as I balance it with the rest of my life. I want to contribute to the richness and depth of our sport. I can’t answer everyone’s questions, but I do what I can in a way that’s sustainable for me. I’m still learning and growing too, so my readers and community help shape my opinions on things. It’s a great resource for me as well.
Do you listen to music when you run? What’s on your playlist?
I’m more of a chit-chatter than a music listener, but when I’m alone, my favorite thing to run to is the podcast All Songs Considered from NPR. Right now James Vincent McMorrow’s entire new album and the song “Citizen” by Wye Oak are rocking my world.
What kind of effort do you put into mental preparation? Do you practice visualization? How do you prepare for a race, mentally?
Mental preparation is everything. Literally. It is the catalyst for goal setting, the fuel for good training, and the bridge that takes you from preparation to rewarding performance. I use verbal and visual cues to get the most out of myself, inspired by my positive experiences with sports psychology and the things I’ve studied in yoga and energy work. An Irish Olympian friend of mine with a Psychology background (Ro McGettigan) and I spent a year designing visual cues that help put you in a particular frame of mind the way affirmations do, using the words and images that work for us in our running. It is super fun putting our artistic hats on and finding a way to communicate the messages and skills to other women. We used this bank of knowledge and designs to create a totally unique training diary that includes both mental and physical preparation. The diary is being released next week on BelieveIAm.com and we are bursting at the seams with excitement! It’s so fun to work in an area of uncharted territory, and to create sports psych tools that can help other people with a sustainable business model.
Elite running can be an incredibly taxing job–both mentally and physically. You’ve experienced many highs and lows in your career. Have you ever contemplated hanging up your spikes?
Elite running is the best job in the world when things are going well. But the lows are devastating. I’ve never been able to look myself in the mirror and say “I’m done. I’m over it.” Whenever I tried to say that, it felt like a big fat lie. So after my biggest injury challenges, when things were most bleak but I couldn’t quit for some reason, I changed my attitude and decided to be fully present where I was. I let the old me go and started over. It was like learning to be a runner all over again…a totally different experience that went beyond just running. It was more holistic I guess. I’m still competing because it’s fun and I want to see what I can do.
For the average runner reading this interview, the concept of covering 3.1 miles at sub-15:00 pace is nearly impossible. Still, you have the same challenges that all runners have, specific to achieving breakthroughs in performance. What advice can you give to someone who has, for example, been trying to PR in the 5K for several years in the search for that elusive breakthrough?
Let go of time. Identify the training and lifestyle adjustments you need to make to hit that goal, and then let go of the time. Focus instead on absorbing 100% of the benefits from training that you do by being mentally present and enjoying yourself. Recognize the power of your mind to help or hurt you and you will break through that ceiling before you know it.
Besides running, you are a gifted writer. Any plans to ever pursue a career in writing?
Sometimes I fantasize about being a novelist in a cabin on a lake somewhere, on a roll at 3 a.m. with a cup of black coffee as the words pour out of me. Who knows; it’s a long life.