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The Catalyst: 5 Questions With Bob Kennedy

We caught up with one of the greatest American distance runners of all-time.

Twenty five years ago, a schoolboy from Ohio named Bob Kennedy won the 1987 Kinney (now Footlocker) High School Cross Country Championships, kick-starting a competitive career that would go on to include two Olympic appearances, multiple national championships and three U.S. records, one of which was the first sub-13 minute 5,000-meter performance ever by an American. Kennedy, who ran 12:58.21 for 5,000m in 1996, also held American records at 3,000m (7:30.84) and 2 miles (8:11.59). He won national cross-country titles in 1992 and 2004, the latter coming in his final year as a professional athlete.

Kennedy, who lives in Indiana, the same state where he went to college, recently sold his interest in the Blue Mile, a chain of running and fitness stores he and his wife Melina founded 12 years ago. caught up with Kennedy recently in San Diego, where he was on hand as a guest of the Footlocker Cross Country Championships to be recognized on the 25th anniversary of his victory.

You won the Kinney (now Footlocker) high school cross country championship in 1987. How has high school running evolved in the last 25 years?

Twenty five years ago there was a big void in information, meaning we’d be waiting for Track & Field News to come out every month before you knew what the guys in the rest of the country were doing. Now it’s instantaneous with the internet of course. So, what I think that has done is raise the level and depth of competition at the high school level just because you know what you have to do. Now I know I need to run 9:10, 9:05,  8:55, whatever, and that changes how you approach your training — and your racing, ultimately.

You’re looking pretty fit these days. What’s going on in your world?

I’m not that fit actually [he laughs]. When I retired I actually didn’t run for three years — at all. And I gained a lot of weight and then I started running again, but I’m really only running about three days a week, about 30 minutes. But what I’ve done is I’ve found joy in it again. I really like it when I’m out running. And for a long time I didn’t because I was the kind of runner that ran to compete, not because I loved a two-hour run. And I still don’t love a two-hour run, but I do love a 30-minute run now. It’s good.

Did it take you a while to get out of the mentality of 12:58 Bob Kennedy to Bob Kennedy being fit for his life?

It did. And still I find myself there sometimes. In fact, I was talking to Adam Goucher at Footlocker this weekend and we were talking about how you still find yourself out jogging and your mind goes back to when you were running for a living and you find your body kind of following that and it starts to hurt a lot. Then you ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” and you just slow down, which is really a nice option at this point.

Back in your heyday you were the man in American distance running. This past summer Galen Rupp finally got that Olympic medal that’s been eluding the U.S. for so long. How big was that for this country and do you feel like you kick-started that back in 1996 when you took the lead at the Olympics with two laps to go?

I’m not sure I kick-started it, but I’m sure it builds on itself. There’s a business philosophy that’s really a philosophy on life that says accomplishing really big things only occurs by small pushes on the flywheel, or small building blocks on top of each other and when you do that consistently over time you get to a certain level. And I think that that’s what happens. If someone says I jump-started it that’s fine but Galen and Meb and many other American runners have gone to greater heights than I did and in the future I think we’ll see even greater heights from American distance runners and that’s a great thing.

If you could give an aspiring American distance runner today one piece of advice, what would it be?

The greatest lesson I learned from running is don’t be afraid to fail. And failure is part of being successful. When you’re smart about your training and when you constantly educate yourself and are willing to take chance, you’re putting yourself on a path to success.