A few minutes with Shannon Rowbury

Shannon Rowbury, 26, is one of the better known American middle distancers. You’ll mostly see her running the 1500 (where she placed 7th in the 2008 Beijing Olympics) or the mile; although she’s done well at the 3000 (winning the National Indoor Championships at that distance in 2008) and 5000 distances too, as well as the 800. Personal records of note include: 2:00.47 for the 800, 4:00.33 for the 1500 and 4:20.34 for the mile. I hired my former coach, Kevin Beck, partially on the basis of a 2008 Running Times article he wrote about Rowbury (and her then teammates Erin Donohue and Shalane Flanagan). I figured anyone who could connect that well with his article subjects and write as intelligently as he did about them and about running would probably be a good person to work with as a coach too. Kevin has described Rowbury as a “sweetheart” — and she is. I enjoyed talking with her about her running and other things — and even received the bonus of getting some injury advice from a real, live Olympian.

On your blog, maybe about a year and a half ago, you had a couple of posts — they were kind of poignant — about the difficulty of adhering to drug testing requirements? Has anything improved since then?
After I’d made those posts, and there was some talk about that problem, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) came out with a list of “suggested” supplements. There’s still a lot of work to do. They still say to use things at your own discretion. But they said, “These are some things that are a little bit more…”

It was crazy, because they were saying “You can use this kind of Midol, but you can’t use that kind”…
Exactly. I felt, and I still feel, that it’s so naive to say, “Just don’t use anything. Don’t take any vitamins. We can’t guarantee that any of them are good. You can get everything from your food.” I wish that were true. There have been times when I’ve tried to do that. But when you’re training five or six hours a day, when you’re trying to get a workout every other day — you’re asking your body to do these things that are somewhat unhuman, and then expecting that you can eat a good sized salad to get all the vitamins that you need. It’s just not practical.

Would you ever want to get involved in influencing the drug testing policies to make them a little more doable for runners?
My goal when I finish running is I’d love to be involved with the sport in another capacity. Taking what I’ve learned and taking my experiences and trying to help future athletes to have better opportunities and a better situation. Because I think it’s so important for the athletes who’ve lived through it to then go on to share their experiences and help shape the direction that the sports heads in. So I’m hopeful.

You’re kind of already involved now in that way with the Bay Area Track Club. What are you practically contributing to that club?
For the club right now I’m involved with David Torrence, Magdalena Lewy-Boulet, Bolota Asmerom, Tony Kauke and Crosby Freeman. We’re the founder’s committee, if you will. So we meet to talk about what we want to do with the BATC and what direction we want to head in. For me, specifically, I manage the blog that we have for the website. We’ve also got a cross country race that we’re putting on. So I’ll get on different committees we create to try and help with specific projects. But across the board the six of us are just doing whatever we need to do to make things happen. We’ve been around for a little bit more than a year now, but all of us are still working for free because we’re passionate [about it]. So if something needs to be done, it’s like, “Okay! I’ve got the time! I’ll do it!”

Do you ever get sick of wearing the same Nike racing kit? Are you ever tempted to “customize” it?
[Laughs] You know, I don’t get sick of wearing the same thing. I’m a product of the “uniform system” growing up, from elementary school, and I kind of liked the consistency. “This is what I wear.” But I do wish — and I have shared this with some other friends — I think it would be really cool if the Nike athletes could ID their uniforms. Because in, like, the women’s 1500, in a field of 20 athletes, 15 will be wearing the same exact uniform.

Right. Sometimes you can’t actually pick out the individual athletes.
Yeah. Nike already has the Nike ID set up for shoes. I wish they would have, maybe, a small color scheme of, say, five colors that are allowed and then let each athlete go in and ID their uniform the way that they wanted. That would be cool. And then I’d wear that all the time.

This one is from my friend Joe: Have you ever finished a workout and thought, “I should really go back to stepdancing.”?
[Laughs] Sometimes I do think that after some of those monotonous, really boring workouts. I think, “It would be so fun to be dancing again.” You get to learn a routine and have music, and it’s so energetic and lively. So there are times when I miss that creative aspect. But not so much from workouts where I’ve been so trashed that I didn’t want to run anymore. Usually after that I just go home and melt into my bed.

You struggled with injury a few years ago. What were the details of that?
I was diagnosed in April of 2007 with a stress fracture in my left femoral neck.

Hmm. What were your symptoms?
It first started with tightness on the side of my hip. Then it went back into the glute. Then, with that kind of injury, you’ll feel it in your groin, kind of in your adductor.

That’s what I have…
Uh, oh.

I have an injury and I’m convinced that’s what it is. It’s been seven weeks, so I think it’s healing.
I would suggest getting some really good massages and chiropractic work — when I was diagnosed I started getting that twice a week, every week, for, like, three months. In order for me to even get that injury in the first place, all my muscles had just gotten so knotted up and were misfiring. So one of the biggest things for me was getting everything back in alignment so that, once I was healed, I wouldn’t have that same bad pattern.

How long were you unable to run?
After six weeks I started running on an Alter-G treadmill. It was about three months until I ran on the ground.

Did you do any other cross-training during that time?
Yes. I first did swimming, then biking and then elliptical/Alter-G — my doctor kind of saw them as synonymous. That was mainly it. Primarily either bike workouts or Alter-G.

Did you do speedwork equivalents when you were doing elliptical or just steady paces?
I did do workouts. The pool, not so much — it’s more for recovery, like jogging. For the bike, I would do interval workouts there that were harder than some of my running workouts. And then on Alter-G I would do uptempo stuff. The highest intensity work was on the bike, just because there wasn’t the impact or the danger of reinjury.

Did you have trouble accepting the injury mentally?
It was weird, because I’d had a period from late February into March where I was injured and unable to run “right,” but was being told by my trainer that it was just tendonitis or something. So I should be able to run, but I couldn’t. So once I was diagnosed it was actually a relief. “Okay, I’m not crazy. I’m not a wimp.” So once I had that diagnosis and a plan of attack, I was so focused on getting healthy. It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be running again, that I wouldn’t be back by the fall, training. So I just powered forward — cautiously — but kept making progress in small steps.

Did you feel that you lost any fitness, or did the cross-training help you maintain — or even gain — fitness?
It was one of the best things that could have ever happened to me. It was extremely hard emotionally. But it gave me a separation from college. It pushed me towards my new coach. It forced me to sit down and study where my weaknesses were biomechanically and across the board — and really fix all of those problems. It really set the foundation from which I could move forward in my professional career. Maybe I lost a little bit of fitness base from not running for that many months. But I think I gained general strength that I’d never had before.

A lot of the European races this year were ridiculously crowded.
Yes.

I’m curious to know how you deal mentally and strategically with a race of, say, 20 people vs. something more manageable in size.
It is a little bit frustrating. It’s crazy, the difference that even three extra athletes can make. That being said, I have no control over the entries in a race, so when it is a really packed field, I just try and do my best to get out, get into a good position, and just be very aware of what’s going on. I fell once at Worlds last year, which was more of a trip than a stumble. I think my dancing background helps me stay on me feet. I try to just defend my space and get myself into a good, clear position. Also, I think it’s important to be relaxed when you’re in these big crowds. Because if you start getting frantic, then that’s when falls happen, that’s when you get into trouble. So I usually just try to “go to a Zen space” or something [Laughs].

It seems like a lot can go wrong very quickly at those speeds.
There were falls in multiple races this year. It definitely was not a clean season. It was frustrating with the 1500. I would always get so jealous of the men’s races because they would have David Krummenacker perfectly pacing every single 1500 that was raced. [In our races] every single rabbit would go out in 61 and then run 66 for the second lap or something. So, it was kind of challenging for that race to have a good one. But it’s good practice, because the Championship races are always tactical, so getting better and better at that [is important]. And you can really only get good at that through practice.

And they’re rough races sometimes.
Yeah, they’re also good practice for that. I try to, in general, be a nice, friendly person. But the more I get into these tactical races, the more I can get good at just defending my space. Not being a jerk, not being aggressive just to be aggressive — but learning how to keep other people from taking advantage of me. As I’ve gotten more adjusted to it, I think I’ve developed more confidence in myself to not let other people push you around, like when they try to guide you or take over your space. Usually you can see ahead of time if it looks like someone’s going to impede your space, and you can just tap them or make a little noise to let them know that you’re there. But it’s about protecting the little space that you’re in.

Have agents complained to the organizers about the size of the fields?
I think a lot of the field sizes come as a result of the agents. A lot of the agents are pushing to get a dollar or two out of having one or two more of their athletes in a race. They’re hoping to get something from the prize purse. So there’s still some work to be done to figure out how to make these races a little bit more fair in size.

How do you get yourself through really tough workouts?
I remember a workout in Mexico — a tempo run at altitude in the hot sun — where I was making a deal with myself in my own head as I was finishing the workout and feeling exhausted. “Okay, body, just get through this and I will give you a great lunch afterwards, we’ll take an ice bath…” Bizarre, neurotic deals you make with yourself.

It sounds like, from a professional standpoint, you want to stay involved in running once you finish your competitive career.
When I studied film I was really interested in the production aspect of things. Had I not gone into running I think I would have done further schooling to try and get an MFA to work in film production. But because film and running are mutually exclusive, that’s kind of taken a backseat. But I enjoy multimedia and media — and being a distance runner, you’re kind of Type A — I enjoy being involved in a project from many angles. And so I think when I finish with competition [I’d like to] be involved in some sort of role of helping to promote the sport and getting to have a hand in many things.

Do you see yourself as a “behind the scenes” person or someone who’s out front, like a spokesperson?
I could see myself doing either or both. I like the behind the scenes, organization, making things happen [role]. But I also really enjoy getting out and getting to talk to people and hearing from them. That interaction is really important. So ideally I’d get to do a little bit of both.

I know last night you co-hosted a fundraising event by the Young Professionals to raise money for the youth programs that NYRR runs.
It’s a group in their late-twenties to mid-thirties. It was so cool to walk into a fundraising event and see a crowd that was so young — see my peers already starting to “give back.” I think that’s really important and it was really neat to see that.

You seem like a fairly outgoing person. Are you comfortable playing that role? The public aspect of competitive running is something that you wouldn’t necessarily think of when you start out.
You know, I’m excited by it. When I first started — you know, I came from a dancing background, where you had to learn a routine, and then practice it and get it down. In high school and college, we had to do some extra stuff, but it was pretty straightforward [running]. I found it not very stimulating mentally. Once I started with Coach [John] Cook, there were more drills and things like that to work on that I enjoyed. And finally, as I’ve been doing this, to have more opportunities to speak to people, to challenge myself mentally — I fell in love with the sport even more, because the mental aspect comes into it. I feel like I can be doing my career and being a complete person rather than just a runner.

Training: Oct 10-23

The grind continues. Today marks 11 weeks since someone or something gave my running the stinkeye.

I continue to train hard using alternate methods. To break up the monotony, and make sure I’m working hard enough, I’ve started getting creative with cross-training:

Spinning: I naturally tend to work harder in a spin class than when I’m on my own. Unfortunately, my schedule does not always mesh with the gym’s, so I’m doing a lot of spinning on my own these days. I focus on getting my heart rate up, evidenced by a) a high heart rate and b) getting myself to sweat like a pig. I achieve this with lots of standing up while pedaling alternated with 2 minutes of pedaling like I’m being chased by a mob of zombies — the fast kind, not the slow kind.

Elliptical: You can do speedwork on the elliptical. You can also do hillwork, but I’ve been told to stay away from doing that because it could aggravate whatever my injury is — plus the focus for us distance runners is high turnover, strength and endurance, not being able to do the equivalent of running up stairs carrying a dishwasher. So I do surges here too, getting my reps up to 210 (and making sure I’m pouring off sweat) for 2-3 mins with 1 min recoveries. In the case of both spinning and elliptical, I note the days I’m doing intervals with a plus sign.

Weights: I have yet to have found a way to make this work creative. Although I do enjoy the fact that I’m usually the only woman in the weights area. I feel so special. Let’s move on.

Pool: I’m beginning to not mind the pool so much. For one, I’ve developed some mind games to play. But when I’ve got an entire lane to myself for upwards of an hour and a half, there are no distractions and the act of running in circles becomes meditative. Pool running is the priority among all these gym activities, so it’s where I work the hardest. I tend to “save my strength” for the pool — meaning I am conscious of not trashing my legs in whatever I’m doing before I hit the pool for a hard session, meaning anything harder than an hour’s steady effort of 72-75%. What are hard sessions? Right now it means three things: long run (80-90 mins at 75%+), fartlek session (around 18-25 minutes of short and long intervals with very short recoveries), progression run (I start at 65% and work up to 85% in 10 minute increments). Once I’m back to regular running training, I’ll still be hitting the pool 3x a week as well as doing 3 sessions of spinning and frequent weight work.

I met up with Sandra a couple days this week at the gym. She was doing a little training, but as she’s dealing with a knee problem, couldn’t do everything with me. Still, she hadn’t seen me at work in a few weeks and she seemed surprised at the effort I was putting into it. I also sent her my training log and her reaction was that I’m probably training a lot harder than I was when I was “just running.” She swears I’ll be faster when I hit the roads again as a result of this conditioning work. I hope she’s right. At least I’m getting a nice pair of legs out of the deal.

So, where do things stand right now? An MRI should provide some clues this week. If it’s a stress fracture then I guess I’m sidelined according to how serious it is. I would be very surprised if it needs surgery, but what do I know? The other possibility to be ruled out is a hamstring tear. I have not looked into what that involves because I’ve already wasted so much time Googling injury-related information. I can’t do it anymore. I’m sincerely hoping it’s merely inflammation in the joint that can be treated fairly quickly so I’m back on the road next month.

As for training and racing plans, there will probably be adjustments. In the training realm, one piece of news is that Sandra and Khalid are moving to Colorado Springs next month to pursue some opportunities she has out there, live at altitude and leave the high cost of living in New York State (and horrible weather) behind. It’s also a quicker trip to Mexico, where they spend a fair amount of time every year.

I knew when I started working with Sandra in July that this was their plan, but now it’s really happening, which has not been easy to accept. I got a mere month of road/track training in before I got injured. So that’s been a source of disappointment. But I have to acknowledge that I learned a lot about training in that month — and in the “injury months” since then in terms of how to apply cross-training (both while injured and as a supplement to regular training). Sandra and I communicate well, so I’m feeling confident that we can keep up the good work using the various modern tools at our disposal — Skype, Google docs and email. I was also encouraged to discover that the majority of the Houston Hopefuls are successfully working remotely with their coaches.

As for racing, I have no idea whether I’m going to Houston in January. If I can start marathon training in, say, two weeks, it’s probably enough time — around 12 weeks — to get me in shape to run a good marathon, if not a great one. If it’s a longer wait, another option is to train for and race the Houston half instead. I love the half and working toward a PR there would be a good stepping stone to returning to the marathon, so that’s a compromise I could live with. And if I’m completely screwed for a January race, one idea I’ve proposed is switching my plane ticket and targeting the Napa marathon in early March.

Nearer term, I would love to race something, anything, as soon as possible. Watching the Fifth Avenue Mile last month — not just watching, but limping around as a volunteer — was enormously depressing for me, as will be watching the New York Marathon next month. I don’t want to get greedy and demand a race when I should feel lucky to be able to run anywhere for any distance, which I still can’t. But I’ve appreciated in the past couple of months that, while I enjoy training, the racing is what the training’s all for. I have it my head to try to run the Joe Kleinerman 10K in Central Park in early December. It’s a carrot to chase after mentally. But, ultimately, my body’s going to be the one calling the shots.

At least I’m not living alone in Injury Land. And I have a reliable cross-training partner most days, although he recently had to drop out for a bit while battling an infection. Anyway, here’s yesterday’s quote of the day, triggered by the arrival in our mailbox of an entry form for the Marisa Fund 5 Mile Turkey Trot.

“It’s amazing to think that just five months ago, I won their 10K on that course. And now I couldn’t even win a snail street-crossing contest.”
— Jonathan Sumpter

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