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Interview: Bob Kennedy

by Kevin Beck

   

Indiana University graduate Bob Kennedy, the most heralded distance runner in America over the past 15 years, will make his marathon debut at next month's ING New York City Marathon 2004. Kennedy is the U.S. record holder in the 3,000 meters (7:30.84) and the 5,000 meters (12:58.21) and in the latter event is responsible for 14 of the 15 sub-13:10 performances ever recorded by Americans. As a collegian, Kennedy collected four individual NCAA titles and an astonishing 20 individual Big Ten Conference titles.

Kennedy, originally of Westerville, Ohio, has the unique distinction of winning the Kinney (now Foot Locker) High School Cross Country Championship and the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championship in consecutive years (1987 and 1988). Kennedy represented the US in the 5,000 meters in both the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and the 1996 Games in Atlanta, finishing 12th and sixth, respectively. He is a four-time national champion at the distance.

Kennedy, now 34, had an auspicious start in 2004. This spring, he set a personal record in an event he has run sparingly, the 10,000 meters (27:37.45), a performance that followed on the heels of his 12K win at the USA Cross Country Championships (Kennedy was also the U.S. champion on the turf in 1992). But poised to make his third Olympic team, Kennedy was felled by an achilles injury and stepped off the track nine laps into the Olympic Trials 10,000.

His achilles healed, Kennedy — who in recent years has overcome other similarly ill-timed injuries and health problems (bruised vertebra he sustained in May 2000 helped pre-empt his chances at making the Sydney Olympics squad; anemia and hypothyroidism hampered him in 2001) — is training for his maiden 26.2-mile voyage a mile above sea level in Boulder, Colorado, under the guidance of Dieter Hogan.

Kennedy is co-owner of The Running Company, a running store in Broad Ripple, Indiana (an Indianapolis suburb). He and his wife Melina, the deputy mayor of Indianapolis, are expecting twins in February. MensRacing.com caught up with Bob with two weeks before he and approximately 35,000 others planned to toe the line on Staten Island.

MensRacing.com: First of all, were you able to get back into regular training soon after the Olympic Trials?
Bob Kennedy:
I took two weeks off after the Trials. I was able to begin crosstraining in the second week and resumed full training after three weeks.

MR: A recent article in the Denver Post noted that you've never done an extended stint at altitude. I had thought, however, that you'd trained in Kenya in the mid-1990s, but maybe I'm confusing Africa with Australia.
BK:
For some reason, most people think that I trained in Kenya. I think there was an article years ago that incorrectly said this. In the '90s, I trained with the Kenyans extensively but never in Kenya or at altitude. In Melbourne, Palo Alto, and London mostly. I spent a few weeks in Albuquerque in February 2003 then did three stints in Boulder this year.

MR: In spite of your achievements this year, the Post article made references to your best days being behind you, with passages such as 'Nearing the end of his career...' '[When] in his prime...' and so on. Does hearing this sort of thing provide extra incentive — a boost obviously not applicable six or eight years ago?
BK:
The reality is that I'm 34 years old and I am nearer the end than the beginning, but I still have the competitiveness and tenacity in training and racing that I've always had. I have found that physically, with some slight adjustments, I can do the same things that I used to do. One of my strengths has been my ability to recover quickly after intense workouts and races, and I find that I still have that strength available to me now. I'm hoping that is a big bonus in preparation for the marathon.

MR: You've been rumored to be eyeing the marathon for some time. What finally made you commit?
BK:
In an ideal world, I would have run my first marathon in 2002. Injuries and illness prevented that from happening. This was the first time that I was able to get into the type of condition that allowed me to train properly for the marathon.

MR: Have you been training mostly alone or with others? If you train with others but not daily, do you join them for specific workouts or for maintenance runs or long runs?
BK:
I'm training with Dieter Hogen and a group of African (mostly Kenyan) athletes. We all share the same agent, Tom Ratcliffe, in basically the same agency that [the late] Kim McDonald developed. We do all the intense efforts together and some of the recovery running together. Sometimes each of us just feels like running easy on our own.

MR: Boulder is filthy with knowledgeable runners and their ilk. Have you been able to train in relative peace?
BK:
Boulder does have a ton of great runners living and training here. To be honest, though, I really haven't seen anyone out training. I tend to hibernate, in a sense, when I go into preparation like this and that's been easy to do here.

MR: Alberto Salazar is reputed to have said that the basic difference between 10K training and the marathon is the weekly long run. Other coaches harp on the importance of threshold work, particularly long tempos. What's significantly different about your own prep for the ING New York City Marathon, as opposed to that for a 5K, 10K or cross country race?
BK:
I'm going to try to answer this, but remember, I have not run a marathon yet, so I think I have an idea but that may change once I experience the race.

I believe that you have to train very specifically for the event you are focusing on. Training for 5,000m should involve a lot of work at that speed and faster, which extends beyond 800m intervals. For the marathon, I'm not doing much work at 5,000m speed, some work at 10,000m speed, a ton of work at long tempos, and longer long runs faster than what I would do them when I was training for the track. I think it's important to understand which physiological systems are most important for the event you're preparing for and to work those systems the most. That doesn't mean you ignore the other systems, but the emphasis changes.

MR: Now that you're at altitude, I imagine you're scaling down the paces of your faster sessions correspondingly. If so, has this demanded a significant mental adjustment as well?
BK:
I have always had a great feel for the proper effort. That hasn't changed at altitude. The pace has slowed depending on the altitude, but the effort has stayed the same.

MR: In laying out the specifics of your marathon buildup, how did you and Dieter personalize things? That is, how was the plan tailored to take into account your particular strengths, quirks, what have you?
BK:
The only personalization in the program is the pace. Each of us has to find the pace that is correct for us during a specific workout. Dieter does a great job of explaining how the effort should be in each workout and I feel that I have executed those efforts well in training.

MR: In large measure, your higher-profile competitions have featured you as the sole American in a sea of Africans. It looks like it could be a different story in New York.
BK:
It's great that there is going to be an awesome American field in the marathon this year. Meb [Keflezighi] is obviously the big draw with his well-deserved Olympic silver medal. I hope we see good performances across the board [for the Americans] on November 7. For me, as always, it won't be about me against the Africans or me against the other Americans, but about me performing at the highest level that I can. I have always approached all competitions that way, and when I can perform at that level, it usually is a positive experience for me.

MR: While the marathon is riddled with runners in their middle 30s, cross country is widely considered a young man's game. Yet you won a second XC title this year, 12 years after your first. What motivated you to go after this distinction this winter?
BK:
Cross country is a great fit into a training cycle. It was also great that it was in my hometown of Indianapolis this year.

MR: There are few competitive scenarios you've never faced. One of them is the late-race grind of the marathon — the insidious transformation of 5:00 pace from something that feels like a solid training run to a speed athletes cling to with grim determination, even desperation. What are you doing to replicate this, mentally and physically, in your training?
BK:
I think Dieter Hogen is the best marathon coach out there now. I guarantee that his training program addresses this! After all, the marathon is essentially about the distance. Certainly, the race situation will be new, but I am confident in the way we have prepared.

MR: For the time being, you've obviously got your own competitive endeavors. At the same time you've spent a good many years at the top of the heap and have a rare wealth of experiences domestic and international. Your co-ownership of The Running Company aside, have you thought about opportunities in the sport once the curtain closes on your athletic career?
BK:
Running has taught me so many things through both positive and negative experiences. I look forward to helping others have great life experiences through running. This can be done through interactions with customers at The Running Company and continued involvement with young runners.

I don't know how yet, but I would like to be involved in advising young athletes coming out of college and transitioning into professional athletics. There is so much going on at this time and I feel like many of the athletes in this situation are under-informed on many issues. The areas that I think these athletes need help in are choosing an agent (and what they should expect from their agents), choosing a coaching and training situation that best fits their goals, and the business side of being a professional athlete (self-employment, budgeting, taxes, investing for retirement, etc.). It can be hard for 21- or 22-year-old athletes to switch from a situation in college where everything is dictated for them to a situation where they are now in control. It's up to the athletes to dictate their situations and surround themselves with agents, coaches, sponsors and others that are going to help them achieve their goals and not be involved for self-gain.

(Interview conducted 10/23/2004, and posted 10/27/2004.)

 
Bob Kennedy trains in Boulder, Colorado, in 2004.
(Photo: Sean Hartnett)
Kennedy competes in the 10,000m at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials.
(Photo: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
     
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