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.

The “Faves” page: now taking nominations

I need to update the posts on the Faves page with some more recent posts. While I’d like to keep some of the posts that chronicle my athletic failures, mental illness and immaturity, I think it’s time for a little new blood around here. Have I posted something (about me; because it’s all about me) recently that you thought was worthy of showcasing? Please let me know in a comment.

A few minutes with Leo Manzano

Leo Manzano, 26, loves his job. And he’s getting much better at it. This year was a watershed year for Manzano, who specializes in the 1500 (and now the 800 as well) — especially on the European racing circuit, where he racked up one PR after another. His string of great races culminated in a 1:44.56 in Berlin followed by a 3:32.37 in Bruxelles less than a week later. That was the third fastest 1500 run by an American this year, behind Lopez Lomong and Andrew Wheating. I came away from this interview with a nickname for Manzano: Mr. Fun.

Can I monopolize your time for a few minutes?
Sure! Let’s do this!

Great! So, your closing speed this summer was really good, putting you right up front in a lot of the European races. Was that something you worked on specifically this year?
My closing speed has always been there. But there was a mental aspect of being able to run with a lot of the African runners. They’re just so tough and so good. I think sometimes as Americans we tend to put barriers on ourselves and we just can’t do it. But it was kind of a progression where I got thrown in with the guys and had to figure some things out about myself — and then mentally that really opened up a lot of doors and the barriers just kind of went away. It was like, “Man, I can run with these guys!” So I started finding myself up toward the front. But I think the speed has always been there.

Was that a realization you had over time or was it a “Eureka” moment?
I think I run really well when I take it back to the basics. That’s what running should be all about: having fun doing it. When you start thinking about times, and who’s going to race, and all this other information that’s really useless…I just want to take it back to the playground, “Let’s go touch the tree, or race to the fence.” Just take it back to those times and make it fun. And all of a sudden you’re not thinking about anything except the running.

Has running always been fun for you?
I’ve always loved it. I used to race with my grandfather back in Mexico. One thing I didn’t like, of course, is that he’d always beat me [laughs]. I’ve always been very competitive, always enjoyed running. This year I hit a little bump in the road, where I was thinking, “Is this really what I want to do? Is this what I like?” Because after awhile, you train so much — it’s all these hours — and am I seeing results? It becomes really tough to stay focused and enjoy it, because of the workload. But after awhile you realize, “I have one of the coolest jobs in the world.” I could be sitting in an office or working construction — doing something that I probably wouldn’t enjoy.

How do you deal with the inevitable plateaus in development and performance?
The lows in the sport help you appreciate the highs. Looking back on The Prefontaine Classic and Monaco — those were horrible races for me. But I felt like I turned it around and made it into a very positive season.

Do you go back and look at recordings of your races, either to analyze them or look for issues with your form, for example?
I definitely go back and look at them to see what was a strong point, or where I could have worked [harder]. But every race is its own race. Even if I were try to come back and have the same race, it’s kind of difficult. You aso have some races where you just don’t want to look at them. And others you think, “Oh, I can look at this race again, rerun it in my mind again.” I don’t tend to analyze a lot. When it comes to my form, I’ve done things with my coach where we’ve filmed and then seen what’s out of place, more for physiotherapy. For example, I sometimes have a nagging knee problem. So we’ll try to figure out what’s causing that – you’re running a certain way or your foot’s coming in a lot. So we’ll try to correct that, whether with exercise or therapy.

What do you have to do besides running? Things like weight work, drills, massage.
With sports massage, I do that and ART. I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody, but I try to get in to see somebody at least once a week, once every two weeks.

Is that to treat niggles that come up? Or is it purely preventive?
It can be a little bit of both. When you’re training at this intensity, at this level, it’s hard to stay there. You’re putting so much stress on your body that sometimes you need to get worked on. Something’s bound to happen.

Do you mind doing these interviews?
I love it. I work off people’s energy. So, I’m like, um…

An extrovert.
Yeah. If I’m around people with really low energy, then I kind of get like that. If you’re a very excited person and there’s a lot of stuff going on, then I’m ready to go. I get very fired up about stuff.

You guys travel around a lot and train in different places: London and Mexico are two places I can think of where you’ve trained. Where’s your favorite place to train?
I don’t think I have a favorite place. But the fact that we move around to different places makes every experience fresh. Meaning when we’re in one place, it gets tedious. But once you move and you change locations, you’ve got a new place to run. You’re changing it up, which makes it that much more fun.

Within those places, like in Mexico, do you always go to the same place in Mexico?
The good thing about that is that we have a variety of places [in that one area]. We try to not always go to the same place. Because after awhile, you’re getting up out bed and going to the same place. It doesn’t make for an adventure. You want to get out and see something new and go somewhere that you haven’t been before.

How do you minimize the stress of travel?
Well, we try to wear compression socks. Your legs get swollen – you get the cankles. The biggest part of keeping stress away is realizing that this is one of the coolest jobs ever. I think I would have a really rough time going back to a 9-5 job. One thing you’ve got to realize is that it’s fun. It’s fun to travel. It’s fun to see new places. And when it comes to the actual competition, in front of anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 people, you don’t need to stress because you’ve already done the work. You’ve already put in the hours and the time. The only thing you’ve got to worry about is just going out there to compete.

Have you thought about what you want to do after your competitive running career is over? Obviously not work in an office.
There’s a couple things that I’ve thought about. I’m not totally sure just yet. First things first is that I’ve got to focus on my next couple years. Really get down to the grind with that.

Meaning the World Championships and then the Olympics?
Yeah. And, really, I know that our lifespan for running is not that long. I may have six, maybe a maximum of ten, more years of competitive running. I know that I’ve got to take every opportunity that I can and really try to enjoy it to the fullest.

When you’ve got goals that are that far away, is it difficult to stay motivated?
It is a little bit difficult. But you always have something every year that you put in front of you. For example, this year was kind of an off year, so there wasn’t much going on in terms of a World Championship or an Olympics as the main events. But you start looking at different races in different countries, where you get to travel. On top of that, it is a job. But even though it’s a job, you’ve got to have fun with it.

And you’ve had a great year. You really seem to be hitting your stride at your chosen distance. Do you want to stay there for awhile or are you looking to move up to longer distances?
I don’t see myself moving up. If anything, this year I ran 800s more.

What was that like?
Man, it was amazing. That’s the first word that popped into my head: amazing. I loved it. It’s not like the 1500 where you’re more in a rhythm; you’re thinking a lot more about strategy, whatever that may be. The 800’s more about – you step onto the line, you run the first 200 meters, and then all of a sudden you just hold on for dear life. The next thing you know, it’s over. So in the blink of an eye, it’s done. You don’t really think about it. You just go.

How do you pace an 800?
With me, I don’t have the “get out” speed that a lot of the other guys have. A lot of the guys just take off from the gun and really get out. They probably go through in 23-24 seconds for the first 200 meters. I usually hang back a little bit and come through in 25-26. After that it’s kind of like a freight train. All of sudden, they’re getting weaker and I’m either staying the same or picking up. That’s where my bread and butter is – I’m suddenly at the front feeling very strong and starting to pass people. It’s just a good thing.

What else do you do for fun?
I love coffee, actually. One of the things I really like doing is hanging out with my friends in coffee shops and just doing what you and I are doing here. Just talking. I love talking.

I heard you mention a foundation that you’re starting up. What’s that about?
It’s hard to narrow it down because there are so many things I want to do and so many things I get excited about. Two things that come to mind: the first is health promotion, health education — aimed at youth. But not just for youth, everybody, really. I think that’d be a lot of fun. And then the other idea is to help people who can’t afford to get citizenship. I went through that process and became a citizen in 2004. I have a friend who helps people with the process. Sometimes it’s very difficult for people to apply for citizenship and to pay for it. There are single mothers out there who would have a hard time affording it — it’s something like $675 to apply.

I imagine a lot of them would need additional legal help as well.
Yeah, exactly.

So are you looking to raise money to connect people who want to become citizens with people who can help them do that?
I’m not really sure on the details just yet. But it would definitely be something along those lines. For people who can’t afford it, I’d like to help them out.

You should open an office in Arizona — and change those laws.
Yeah, I’m not going to comment on that [laughs]. It’s a very touchy subject, and probably something I don’t need to be getting into.

I understand. It’s a good idea. I wish you luck.
Thanks!

Words and Worlds of New York

My friend Ellen got a mention in the Wall Street Journal today. The article, while in many respects is a great intro to her language project, Words and Worlds of New York, also demonstrates that when you agree to be profiled, you never really know how you’re going to be portrayed to the world. I guess this is why I’m pretty careful when I write about people I don’t know that well, or at all. And why I’m so careful about to whom I grant interviews myself (Ha ha. Yeah. As if.).

Suffice it to say that Ellen does not aspire to be portrayed by Julia Roberts in a film. I could protest other points in the piece, but if you meet her one day you’ll be able to instantly recognize which ones were also sole products of the reporter’s fevered imagination.

Because the Wall Street Journal is stuck in the 19th century, they apparently do not include URL links in their web articles. I find this almost impossible to fathom. In fact, I still don’t believe it. My interpretation? They don’t want to “lose” readers by sending them somewhere else (note to WSJ: you can open a new browser window; code is “target=new”), so instead they irritate those readers by neglecting to provide them with information they probably want (“Sounds like a great project! I wonder what it’s called and where the hell I can go see it.”)

Anyway, I grumble.

Here’s the article: 13 Tongues, Three Years

Here’s the blog link: Words and Worlds of New York

New Houston Hopeful Interview: Julie Wankowski

“Don’t sweat the small stuff; focus on your goals; take it day by day; and never doubt that you can do it.”

If these aren’t words fit to live by, then I give up.

Houston Hopefuls > Julie Wankowski

Failed Fiction: “Human Resources”

I sometimes try my hand at fiction. It’s a huge struggle and I usually end up hating what I’ve written anyway, so it’s a rare outing for me. I was going to start up a separate website for my failed stories. But I already have too many websites to maintain properly and I don’t need the pressure. So I’ll just post the unwanted detritus here for your enjoyment and derision.

As for the history of this piece, I wrote it for NPR’s most recent 3 Minute Fiction contest. It was, of course, rejected.

—————————————————————————————

Human Resources

Brian leans in. “Okay,” he smiles. “Are you ready for this one?”

He begins: “So we have this massive project that’s weeks behind. I have to hire someone, like, yesterday to do the coding. I’ve only got one name, someone named Craig. But I’ve never met him.”

Brian takes a sip of beer. “I do a phone interview on Thursday afternoon and he checks out. His references and samples are great. Thank God. I ask him to come in Friday for an interview, although at this point I’m sold. But we have to meet him to be able to say we did.”

Brian shifts a little on his bar stool. “Next morning, I get a call from downstairs security that I have a visitor and can I come down to sign him in. So I go down and there’s this guy standing there: suit, button-down shirt, tie, decent haircut. And…earrings.”

Brian pauses for the reaction. “So you’re probably thinking, well, so? He wears an earring. He’s a weekend warrior.”

Brian shakes his head. “No, it’s not like that. The guy’s wearing, like, women’s earrings. They match. And they’re, you know, elegant. I mean, I’m not a jewelry expert or anything. But these looked expensive.”

Brian’s eyes are alight. “Right! You’re doing what I wanted to do. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t laugh at this guy because I really needed to hire him. So I try to ignore the earrings and I bring him upstairs and steer him straight into the interview room. It’s a group interview, so Scott and Nicole are waiting.”

Brian moves the bottle so it’s perfectly centered on the coaster.  “So Scott is just sort of, okay, whatever. He’s taking it in stride. But Nicole is like a deer in the headlights. She’s looking for the nearest plant to crawl behind. She can’t even look at the guy.”

The bar’s filling up now. “So the interview’s going okay. Craig’s giving us all the right answers and he’s basically hired. I’m not worrying about the earrings. I know this won’t fly with management, but I have to deal with that later. Maybe hide him until I can straighten him out on the dress code. Right now I just need a programmer who can start on Monday.”

Brian lowers his voice to a near whisper. “We’re winding down the interview and then, there’s this weird moment. I swear to God, this guy has done something with his head, something really subtle. It’s almost like he’s swiveled it in a certain way. To show off the earrings.”

Brian picks at the label of his empty bottle. “I know, right? This is so strange. And now I’m thinking it’s some kind of trick. Like some twisted kind of diversity training we’re being put through.”

A big group of loud women are filing in. “So Scott’s texting me all weekend. This is all either of us can think about. What happens if he shows up in something else on Monday? We’re actually taking bets. It’s funny. But it’s not funny.”

Every bar stool’s taken. “Okay, so Monday I’m at my desk and I get a call from downstairs. It’s Craig. I have to go sign him in. Oh, God. I’m listening for a clue, anything, in the security guy’s voice. But I can’t tell.”

The bartender taps Brian on the arm. “Gentlemen. Sorry to interrupt. Another round?”

Posts I wish I’d written

From my friend TK over at Pigtails Flying: An Open Letter to a Fall Marathoner

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 38 other followers