A few (more) minutes with Shannon Rowbury

I interviewed Shannon Rowbury at last year’s Fifth Avenue Mile. This year she was as gracious and candid as she was a year ago. Rowbury was on the comeback trail for virtually all of 2011 after struggling with injuries, which were a central topic in our conversation last year. Rowbury finished seventh in the 2011 edition of the run down Fifth Avenue. She looked a little disappointed coming in, but was all smiles afterwards. Fun fact: my brother-in-law was close friends with Rowbury’s dad when they were little kids. Here’s last year’s interview.

You recently did a commercial for Dick’s Sporting Goods. I know you studied film in graduate school. What was it like for you to perform in front of the camera?
It was really fun, seeing how the professionals do it. I studied film in college and had I not gone the running route I would have tried to get involved in film production. I did some lower level things in college, but to really be a fly on the wall, watching how the pros get it done, was really cool. It gives you an appreciation for how much work goes into a 30 second spot. There was an all-day session with me. They’d been filming for the day or two before. Then they filmed the day afterwards. All of that just to go into a short commercial. Everyone was really friendly and it was cool to talk to them and learn from them. I’d love to be able to do more stuff like that, either on camera or off – both sides were really fun and exciting to me. I always wonder, when I finish with running, what I’ll do with myself. I want to have a family, but I also have too much energy to not have a career. It’s cool to observe something like that and it makes you feel like, “Okay, I’ll find something.”

You seem comfortable when you speak in front of people. Were you also comfortable in front of the camera?
I was. You know, it helps when you’re working with friendly people. They’re positive, they give you corrections, you try to adjust accordingly. Something like running in front of the camera, running is so natural, so it’s pretty easy. With my dance background, figuring out timing wasn’t too bad. I had fun with it. Compared to standing on the starting line at the Olympics or something, I thought, “This is easy, I’m not nervous at all.”

You’re defending two wins here. Do you feel like there’s more pressure on you this year since you’ve won the last two years?
Not too much. I want to win again because I love this race and it’s such a fun way to end the season. I feel like I’m a good road racer and have a good track record with road miles. This year, with all my injuries, I wasn’t sure if I’d even make the world team. To even have been able to race was exciting for me. I was very disappointed with how worlds turned out. But as I try and process everything and take in the bigger picture, I’m just excited and happy to go out and step on the starting line tomorrow, back in the US finally. And try and defend my title, try and get three in a row. It’s a great field of women and I know they’re all competitive. So they’ll all be fighting for it as well. I’m just going to do my best to be the best out there on Saturday.

You’ve always won by doing a last minute surge in the last 20 meters. Is that your strategy again this year?
Well, I don’t want to give anything away. But I think what’s neat about the road mile is that because there’s no turns, it’s not as tactical. You can be literally eight, nine, ten women across and you’re not in any sort of disadvantage. I like that about the race. I’m a tough competitor. I’ll grit it out if I have to and keep myself right in it. In every race, if you can’t hold it together the last 50 meters, you’re not going to do well. And that’s something I’ve sort of struggled with in track races. So I’ll keep working on that. Even though this is the road verses the track, it’s still a great place to practice.

I had a question about 1500 track racing. Oftentimes, when you watch them there’s almost a pattern, where in the third lap there’s this almost perceivable pause during which everyone seems to be gathering themselves for the last lap. Does the equivalent happen in a road mile?
Here it’s interesting because with the road mile it is sort of affected by the terrain. So here we have the first half mile that’s down, then up. Then you hit the half mile mark and you start pretty much going down. I remember my first year racing here, they said over and over again, “Make sure you don’t go too early. You’re going to hit the half mile mark and it’s going to look like you’re finishing. But you’ve still got 800 meters.” So I think it’s different. When you can see the finish line, straight in front of you, I think people get antsy and excited. With the 1500, because it’s laps, it can get almost predictable, because everybody has the same strategy going into it. “Lap one, I do this. Lap two, I do that. Lap three, I prepare. And lap four, I go.” When you’re on the road and you kind of have markers, but it’s harder to tell, it takes a little bit more finesse, maybe. Each person’s going to have a slightly different plan.

Can you comment on how strong and deep the field is this year?
I looked at the starting list and I was pretty impressed by it. In previous years we’ve had some international athletes, but it’s been largely US and Great Britain. This year we’ve got the top US women, the top Brit, a Norwegian athlete, German athletes. We’ve got a bunch of women, which I think is fun. For me, it hasn’t been the best year because I was injured early on but I’m still excited to go out there and race the best in the world, whether it’s on the track or on the road. Just test myself and see how I can do. So I think it’s going to be a really good race out there. We have 5K runners, we have 800m runners, so it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. You’re going to have both ends of the spectrum: people who want it to be slow with a kick, and people who want it fast from the gun, and then the milers inbetween, who aren’t really sure what we want. So, yeah, I think it’ll be an exciting race.

Can you talk about your injuries this year? What happened?
I had a series of Achilles injuries. First I hurt my right Achilles in October [2010] and struggled with that for a few months. Right as that was recovering my left Achilles started hurting. I think maybe from overcompensation, I’m not sure. But basically it was 6-8 months of struggling with that. The Achilles is a hard animal to tame because it’s different from other things. My last major injury was in 2007, when I had a stress fracture in my hip, and that I thought was challenging because you’re hip is the main joint of the body. But it’s also protected by a lot of muscles and tendons. So as long as you can be strong in other places, you can kind of get by. With the Achilles, it’s just the Achilles. So if it’s in a bad mood, it dominates everything. So I had to learn patience. I had to learn how to deal with a tendon injury, which was something I’d never had before. And manage my own crazy, wanting to train and feeling like time was slipping by. But you can’t will yourself to be healthy. You have to just give it the time that it needs.

Last year you told that your 2007 injury was ultimately a positive event because it made you reexamine your training. So did you have a different perspective this time around on being an “injured runner”?
Yes, it was different for me this year because in 2007 I was finishing college. I ended up transitioning from my college coach to my new coach. The injury was basically season ending. So I was able to let the expectations that I’d had for that year go and really focus on a long term plan for the next year. This year, I got injured at the beginning of training, so it was easy to be patient early on. But then as things weren’t progressing as quickly as I’d wanted, I was thinking, at first, “Okay, I’ve got eight months.” Then it was, “I’ve got five months.” Then, “Oh, my gosh, I have three months.” And then, “A month  and a half until USAs. What do I do?”

So that was the first experience I’ve ever had trying to train through an injury. It was kind of a gut check moment for me, figuring out why I was doing this, finding new ways to stay motivated. I still think I learned a lot of things. Competing now this past three months, over the summer, without as much of a base – we had to alter training a little bit – I’m proud of myself for still being able to do decently well, given that I missed so much. To be able to even hang in there with the best in the world off of first a month and a half of training and then three months of training. I think it gave me some pride. I was able to learn some stuff about myself when things aren’t going perfectly: what can I get? What are my strengths and weaknesses. I’m hopeful that that’ll inform my training next year and motivate me to be smart but also have that drive to be the best in the world, which I know I can be if things go well.

How do you warm up for a road mile?
My warmup doesn’t really change that much from the track. I’m a really big believer in consistency. So when I’m doing a hard workout on the track, my warmup for that is very similar to my warmup for a race. The difference with a road mile vs. a track race is that I get to run outside. When I’m doing these track races in Europe, it’s usually lap after lap on the infield because you have just the warmup area, which can be kind of boring. But for the road mile, yeah, it’s just a jog. I do my little run, 15-20 minutes. I do form drills, dynamic flexibility, active stretching. Leg swings, that sort of stuff. Strides. It’s pretty basic. I usually start my warmup about an hour beforehand. It’s fun, too, with a road mile, because you kind of get a bit of adrenaline that’s different from the track because the people are right there – it’s so much more up close and personal. So I always love that as well.

A few minutes with Sally Kipyego

Sally Kipyego, 26, originally from Kapsowar, Kenya, established herself as a standout runner at Texas Tech, becoming the first runner to win three consecutive women’s titles in the NCAA Division 1 championships, among other collegiate distinctions. But you probably recognize her more recently as having won Silver in the 10K at Daegu. She’s something of a rarity in that she races well from the 1500 up to the 10K, and seems able to move up or down in distance effortlessly. Kipyego is also beautiful to watch, always running with a relaxed form and an oftentimes almost serene expression.

I’m curious to know why you’re running a mile and what it’s like to go from 10K on the track to a mile on the road.
I love the 1500. I do them, just for speed at the beginning of the year, just to get my legs going. But this is a great race that I’ve known about for a few years now. But I haven’t had a chance to participate. I’ve always thought it was a fantastic race and a great way to end the season. But every year, at the end of the year, I’m exhausted and don’t want to do any more racing at the end of the season. It’s a wonderful way of finishing the season, in New York City, on Fifth Avenue. It’s a really well-known, good meet.

A track 10K is 25 laps. I’ve always wondered, when you race that, do you ever lose count?
No. Well, for 2010 I made a conscious decision to not wear a watch on the track. In 2009 my watch was affecting every race, because all I was doing was looking at my watch on every lap, trying to get the splits. It really took the fun out of running. So I made that decision, not wearing a watch. So now I don’t look at the lap count, I don’t look at my watch and I don’t look at the time. I don’t look at the lap count until probably the last five laps. I just totally zone out and get into a rhythm. At the end of it, maybe around five or six laps to go, I start paying attention because that’s when the race actually begins. In the first 5, 6, 7k, I’m pretty low key and I just need to get into a rhythm.

So you’re finding that you’re racing better without a watch?
Absolutely. It’s made a huge difference. Because I’m not paying attention to the splits now. I’m competing. I compete. I race against people, not a clock. It’s difficult on your mind, when you’re trying to get specific splits. Maybe you’re one second off, but it messes when your mentality. “Oh, I’m off. I’m not running well. Or I’m running too fast.” If you’re just rolling with it, it’s not about the clock. It’s about how you feel. It’s a lot smoother and a lot easier on your mind. At least that’s what I find.

What are you thinking about when you’re zoning out for the first three-quarters of the race?
I go to my happy place. I have a mental picture. When I’m doing my easy runs, I go to a place where it’s really calm and quiet. It’s strange, but I always think of water. A fountain. Or a waterfall. It’s really calm, really quiet. Just breathing. I try to bring that picture to my mind and zone out and get in that place. When I do that I don’t even feel the laps going by. I just get really relaxed and feel really light on my feet. I’m just really calm. And when I’m calm, I do better.

Have you always done this?
No. I read this book about visualization and relaxation to do before races. I started to, for 30 minutes before going to bed, laying there and trying to calm myself down, trying to get a mental picture of a really quiet, calm place. The more I did that, the more I got relaxed. I started doing that in my easy runs. It’s a skill. Why not try it? Give it a shot and see. I found out that when I’m relaxed in a race, I perform so much better than I do when I’m tense. So if I can get into that relaxed state, it’s just easier on my body.

Do you do any other kind of mental training? Do you, for example, simulate races?
I will go through my races ten times, so many times before I run. When I’m getting to a race I’ve got a plan A and I’ll mentally play that in my head many times during my runs. During my long runs I’ll go through a race and think about how that’s going to play out. I guess that’s what you do when you’re doing 80-90 miles a week.

It’s a lot of time to think.
Yeah.

Do you remember the first race that you ever ran?
Yes. I raced in 1999. It was my first time racing in Kenya. It was a district meet. I probably ran some races in school. But that was [the first] proper race, so to speak, where I actually raced against people who were fast. I just ran with them. I didn’t have a goal. I just ran. I got through the finish and thought, “That wasn’t so bad.” I didn’t have a goal, I didn’t have an objective – I was just running.

Do you still race the same way? Or are things more loaded now?
There’s pressure. If it’s your professional career, you’re running for a lot more than running a race. You have sponsors. But I like the purity of running. I think it’s one sport that’s very pure. It comes with that sense of you and the track – it’s just you and the race. I love that.

So you still like running, despite all these new pressures.
I love running. The first day I came out and ran in school, I was so stressed. I wanted to perform well, and put so much pressure on myself. I didn’t enjoy running at that time. Every time I toed the line, it was about something. I either wanted to impress sponsors, or it was something else. But now I’m just so grateful that Nike gave me a chance, that they sponsored me and gave me a chance to do what I love to do, because I know now that I truly love running. This is what I love. I can’t imagine my life without running. I love the purity of it and how it makes me feel. It’s a liberated feeling and I’m grateful that I get the chance and opportunity to do this for a living.

What do you want to do when you can’t run for a living anymore?
I’ll go back to nursing. My heart is still there. Even if I don’t work in a hospital, I’d like to do something related to nursing. I would still love to do something related to health care.

How do you warm up for a road mile?
The mile is quick. 1500′s are pretty quick for me, so I’ll take a little longer to warm up. For a mile I’ll probably warm up more than I would for a 10k. I’ll do a pickup, a two minute pickup that’s a little bit faster than tempo pace. Not quite race pace, but quite high – a fast tempo pace. Just to get my heart going, get my lungs going. Just to get that feeling, where my heart rate is elevated just slightly before a race, then come down. So that when the gun goes off, it doesn’t get me off guard, my body’s ready to go.

It’s funny. Everyone I’ve asked has a slightly different warmup.
I probably do more drills for a mile than I would for a 10k. For that distance you warm up slowly, because you have plenty of time to adjust. But in a road mile, it’s a pretty short event so you have to be ready to go.

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