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Passionate Mentor: Interview with Lisa Rainsberger

One of the most successful marathoners in U.S. history gives her thoughts on the sport today from training tactics to sponsorship.

After qualifying for the 1980 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials only to have the United States boycott the Olympics, Lisa Rainsberger went on to become one of the most successful marathoners in U.S. history. She finished fourth in the 1984, 1988 and 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials marathons, missing the chance to run in the Olympics by one place each time. She ran a speedy 2:28:15 PR with her second consecutive Chicago Marathon win, and her 1985 victory in Boston makes her the last American woman to win the iconic race. Rainsberger now spends her time coaching kids in her youth-focused development program. She’s a mother of three and also mentors her oldest daughter Katie, a
talented high school runner bound for the University of Oregon in the fall.

Why have runners’ injury rates remained level for years despite gear, data and training innovations?

That just goes to show that all the bells and whistles don’t make the difference. It’s not the shoes that are causing injury; it’s what runners are doing in the shoes. To avoid injuries, you have to listen to your body. I chuckle when all of these new fads happen. I think, “Good luck with that one.”

Why are runners getting faster?

I think pro times are dropping not because shoes are better or they’re smarter or they’re training harder, but because they have the chemists who can help them. I can say that with confidence today.

Given the alleged proliferation of doping, how do feel about sending your daughter into the world of running?

I think right now is probably the best time because the running world is under scrutiny. WADA and USADA are aware and addressing it. As cheaters are exposed, it’s going to open up opportunities and a level of hope for everyone else to win something legally. If you have a good moral compass, it’s easy to stay on the right path. There will always be temptations, but you have to stay true to you and your compass. This is a great time to be emerging into the sport.

What is your “less is more, fast is better” philosophy all about?

It has to be fun. Running can be quantifiable in its data. Parents and kids start to think that is the fun part. But what’s really fun is the social aspect and running with a group. I don’t coach by miles; I coach by minutes. When you do that with kids, they stop running to collect data and switch to running to do the workout well. It has to be collective positive energy because running hurts. It’s organized suffering. Some people laugh at me because I’m so rah-rah, but when my kids show up for workouts they want to be there.

What do you think about the state of sponsorship for elite runners?

It’s so convoluted. I think we’ve gone back in time. When athletes could be free agents it helped the sport grow. Runners could support themselves. I ran five Olympic Trials races and no one ever told me what I could not wear. If I had to tell my sponsors I wasn’t going to be able to wear their gear at an event, I wouldn’t have been able to run. I think USA Track & Field is doing a huge injustice to our runners.

What about youth sponsorship?

It’s tragic when big shoe companies scoop up young runners and get them to go pro before going to college. They miss out on that experience of running with their friends. College is a win-win. Katie asked me if she should think about going pro instead of going to college. I said, “Over my dead body.”

Given that Katie won Gatorade Cross Country athlete of the year, do you remember when you first had Gatorade?

Oh, I remember it vividly! It was the 1989 Chicago Marathon and blazing hot for late October. Prior to that I was just a water drinker, stupidly so. They called it “sports drink” at the time. I chugged it, and at mile 18, I perked up. I started to feel tons better and went on to win the race. At the press conference, I off-handedly said, “It if weren’t for the Gatorade, I never would have finished.” Someone from Gatorade caught on to the sound byte and the next week Gatorade delivered a palette of product, gear and bottles—easily enough stuff to last a couple of years—to my home. At the end of the day, energy is energy. Getting it in is what matters. If something works for you, then it serves its purpose.

These days, what makes a good run for you?

When I take my two dogs out and no one else is with me. When I run with other people I feel there’s an expectation to keep up with them or stay back with them. I never get to find the zone of my perfect pace. This morning I went on my happy run. I found my perfect trail, and I went for a run. I can just be Lisa. I don’t’ have to be a coach, a mom, a mentor or a supporter. I’m just me. And that’s my perfect run.

As a coach, don’t you have to give feedback on performance?

I ask them, I don’t tell them. What did you do well in that race? What did you accomplish? What could you have done better? I’m not going to tell them what they don’t want to hear. They already know. I let them tell me what they need to share. Who am I to critique them?