Interview with Lauren Fleshman
by Kevin Beck

Above: Lauren Fleshman running track for Stanford.

Below: Lauren Fleshman running cross country for Stanford.
All Photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners

Since graduating from Stanford University in 2003, Lauren Fleshman has made significant progress toward her dream of climbing to the highest echelon of track and field. Fleshmanís methodical, incremental approach has already earned her four IAAF World Championship appearances (two in track and two in cross country). The Santa Clarita (Calif.) native brought formidable credentials to the Cardinal in 1999, having led the nation in the 800m, 1600m and 3200m (10:18.82) her senior year at Canyon High School.

She built on that success in college, racking up 15 All-America honors (more than one per season) and setting an NCAA championship record (15:24.06) in 2003. In winning her third consecutive outdoor 5,000-meter title that spring, she matched a feat accomplished only by one other womanóFleshmanís current teammate Jen Rhines. She set an NCAA record (15:23.94, since broken) at the 2003 Mt. SAC Relays, and finished no lower than 11th in her four appearances at the NCAA Cross Country Championships.

Last March, Fleshman took fifth in a closely contested 4K race at the USA Cross Country Championships, after placing sixth in the 8K event the day before. Then she claimed 11th placeóand second among non-Africansóin the World Championship short race, where she was the top American on a squad that earned the bronze medal. In 2004, Fleshman was 24th in the short race.

On the track, Fleshman was second at last yearís outdoor nationals 5,000m in 15:16.80 after placing fourth in 2004, when she earned a masterís degree in education from Stanford. Still in need of a World Championship "A" standard, Fleshman traveled to Rome, where she easily cleared the 15:08.70 standard with a personal-best 15:02.52. At the World Championships in Helsinkióalready the second outdoor worlds for the 22-year-oldóshe placed 10th in her opening heat. Fleshman has improved her 5,000m time every year since 2000, and also ran a 1500m personal best of 4:13.63 last spring. conversed with Fleshman shortly after she finished an ice bath in Woodside, California, where she is currently training with her Running USA teammates. So how frequent are the ice baths?
Lauren Fleshman :
As often as possibleóideally once a day, but at the very least, after a harder workout.

FW: I think the popular perception is that you were training on your own after college. When did you hook up with Running USA, and whoís coaching you?
LF: I decided to keep working with Coach Lananna on long-distance after college, so I went through big chunks of the year on my own, and would make trips to see him one-on-one a few times a year. During cross country season, I traveled to Albuquerque and Boulder and ran with other elite athletes as much as I could, even if it just meant meeting at the track at the same time and doing different stuff. But spring training was a lot harder and I needed help, so Coach Gagliano and the Nike Farm Team took me under their wing and made sure I had a community to feel a part of when training got tough. Without the help of Gags and [former Stanford coach] Dena [Evans], I never would have been able to do the training set up for me by Vin, because when it comes to doing hard stuff on my own, Iím kind of a wuss!

This fall I joined up with Team USA for some base training in Mammoth and I fell in love with the group, so I plan to work more closely with the coach of Running USA now, Terrence Mahon.

FW: It sounds as if your experience as a Stanford runneróathletically, scholastically and in terms of the bonds you forgedówas thoroughly incredible. How has this factored into your early professional career?
For one thing, I learned that a group training environment, however intense, can be fun and rewarding, which led me to eventually seek out training partners in the next phase of my career. For another, Stanford created high expectations. At Stanford, commitment and success are expected of athletes, and learning to deal with that kind of pressure has translated extremely well into running as a professional. Running at a program like Stanfordís forced me to have good habits; in some respects, itís almost as if Iíve been running professionally since age 18. Iím very lucky.

FW:Based on past interviews, it seems that youíre a genuine adherent to the hard/easy credoóthat is, youíre not afraid to run really, really slow, and youíre also not hesitant to push for days on end if your body has it to give, but have little use for mileage for its own sake.
LF: Philosophically, this is still true. I donít think Iím the kind of runner who responds well to junk mileage, extra miles or whatever you want to call it. As a 3K and 5K specialist, I donít think "excess" mileage is necessary anyway. (Some would disagree.) But I can always improve on adhering to that philosophy. Like most other athletes, I have a tendency to push hard too often, and I need a coach to keep me in line sometimes.

FW: Yet as subjective as that approach seems, you also loosely integrate heart-rate data into the scheme, right?
LF: Yes. I feel that if you have a keen sense of body awareness, you can use a heart-rate monitor here and there and benefit from it. I sometimes use it as a "leash" on easy days to prevent myself from overtraining. This became important when I first left Stanford, because training on my own tends to breed insecurityóthe idea that Iím not training hard enough because Iím not with a group. So my main use for the monitor is to hold myself back.

FW: Do you still take every eighth day off?
LF: Actually it averages out to one day off every seven to ten days. Iím on a slightly different schedule now that Iím in a group setting.

FW:Throughout your ascent to the world-class level, youíve been remarkably consistent. Do you attribute this as much to your overall training pattern as you do to basic race-day focus and mental toughness?
LF: I think that one philosophy I have embraced as an elite runner is narrowing the window of acceptability in terms of my performances. When mental or emotional baggage creeps in, it tends to make this window larger. Just looking at physical factors, this shouldnít be a big window at all. I thought that my race at the World Championships last year was a poor oneónot terrible, but it showed some emotional factors involved. Everyone is prone to them sometimes, I guess, even world record holders. They just do it less often.

I want my career to be punctuated by consistency. The positive feedback I get from running consistently makes me want to do it every time out. Itís habit-forming.

FW:You were regularly doing 18-mile long runs in college. Do you have plans to tackle a 10,000m as soon as youíre satisfied with what youíve done at 5,000, if not before?
LF: I feel that my athletic peak, if I follow in the footsteps of some of the great American women, will be in my late twenties and early thirties, and I want that peak to happen in the 5K. If I do any 10,000s, it will be for training purposes, but I will be more often racing 1,500s and 3,000s to get ready for the 5,000. I want to do this one thing really well.

FW: If forced to choose, would you fancy yourself a track runner who excels at cross-country or a strength runner who brings her assets to the track?
LF: Iíd say Iím a track runner who toughs her way through cross country pretty well. The great thing about being a 5Ker is that I donít have to choose whether to run cross country or not, because it complements my spring goals well, as perhaps marathoners like Deena [Kastor] or Jen Rhines might have to choose since it could conflict with marathon racing. Cross country is short, so itís easy for me to transition.

I do well on the oval. I like the crowds. I guess I am kind of a ham, because I like the exposure and performing is fun to me.

FW: Youíre meticulous in planning your training, even for a distance runner. At some point did you sit down and plot out a block of training aimed specifically at preparing for a national cross country championships?
LF: Yes and no. Fall and winter is generally the most flexible time of the year for me, and I like to focus on fun and go with the flow a bit more. But in terms of training specifics, Iíve taken a pretty aggressive approach toward improving my lactate threshold, and Iíve done more with drills and plyometrics. Iíve got my long run up to two hours.

FW: What kind of feedback tells you that your lactate threshold is higher?
LF: The [USA Running] group has spent the past few weeks at Palo Alto doing sea-level training after being at Mammoth Lakes before that. This means that I can do many of the same runs I did in college and, because I keep good log books, compare where I am now compared to then in terms of pace and effort.

Just the consistency with which I can do threshold runs is encouraging. Iíve definitely built a good platform toward racing right up through September, which is what I want to do. I did some physiological testing this week, some blood testing, and all indicators point to being in a good place. I feel energetic, and my enthusiasm toward training is always high. I donít know if itís a sense of community or something slightly different in my training, but Iím loving what I doóand itís hard work!

FW: At cross country nationals, will you run both the 8K and the 4K again this year?
LF: Iíll sign up for both because Iím not sure yet, but would prefer to just run the 4K.

FW: You mentioned at least as far back as 2002 as having "long-term progression goals." Do these relate primarily to how you plan to structure your training over time, or what you objectively hope to accomplish as a competitor?
LF: My long-term progression goals as a competitor are straightforwardóget faster, compete for a podium spot. In terms of training, Iím not looking at training harder every year, but at training smarter. The older I get, the better I can understand the language my body is speaking to me, which will help me cut down on injuries and stay healthier overall.

If I listen and make wise choices, my training should take me where I want to be competitively. Sometimes this might mean more mileage or more 1,000-meter reps, for example, or sometimes it might mean less. Itís always evolving.

FW: Thanks to a confluence of factors, you were the only representative in the womenís 5,000 at the 2003 Worlds in Paris. Did that feel strange?
LF: Yeah, it was strangeóalmost as if being a distance runner at the World Championships wasnít the cool thing to do. Iíve sometimes had the same feeling in cross countryóthe sense of a certain indifference because of what we as American distance runners are up against. Sure, itís no fun going and getting your butt kicked, but you have to. Look at Deena: she had a few stinkers, then figured some things out and wound up with an Olympic medal. Just getting out there and laying everything on the line will give us a better chance of eventual success; it shortens the learning curve.

FW: You have some very definite ideas regarding how youíd like to combine your education and experience and become involved on the psychosocial side of womenís athletics. Could you expand on those?
LF: I do want to become involved there, and Iím trying to figure out the best way to make an impact on the sport right now. I think that, for the time being, the best way is to continue leading by example and improving my performances.

Iíve been documenting my ideas and thoughts on this for a while. One thing I have in mind for post-collegiate runners is to make the information Iíve gained as an athlete more widely available in order to help broaden the talent base thatís out there. People shouldnít have to learn the same ten lessons their predecessors did the hard way or try to reinvent the wheel.

Then thereís my wanting to reach out to kids. This might be in the area of trying to help with childhood obesity. Iíve thought about working on a campaign for ď5K a dayĒ for combating obesity. Whether you walk or run it, 5K is a good, sustainable distance, and since itís my specialty, I would be passionate about helping promote it. Ultimately Iíd like to have a Web site I can use to broadcast passion and ideas specifically to children and young adults, as well as work on empowering women in sports. I just need to connect with the right people who can help with these things, and it needs to not interfere with my training and racing.

FW: You once noted that you wanted to be remembered as having been three things: a dreamer, a doer and an inspirer. I think youíve taken care of the first two, and although youíve surely inspired other runners by example already, how specifically do you plan to go about making this part of your legacy?
LF: Every type of person can contribute to the sport they love. For some, itís coaching. For others, itís by serving as athlete host families or through fundraising. We need to find ways to allow everyone to contribute his or her strength, and to improve networking within running, so that the givers can be connected to those with needs.

If I could inspire people to do one thing, it would be to take their contribution to their sport one step further than they do now. I would like to leave this sport better than it was when I found it. Our sport needs improvement, and if others take the same attitude, it could go a long way. I think that would be inspirational.

Editor's Note: Lauren Fleshman ended up solely running the 4K at the 2006 USA XC Championships. She finished in 2nd place with a time of 12:37, five seconds shy of Carrie Tollefson's first place finish.

Interview Conducted on February 9, 2006 Posted on February 15, 2006

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