The next great American runner talks about the first steps in her professional career.
Interview by: Matt Fitzgerald
At the tender age of 23 years, Jenny Barringer is already an Olympic veteran and an American record holder in the 3000m steeplechase (9:12.50). Among her other laurels are three NCAA titles earned while she was a student at the University of Colorado, a sub-four-minute performance at 1500 meters last year and a fifth-place finish in the 2009 World Championships 3000m steeplechase.
American running fans have high hopes for Barringer, and the pressure of those hopes got the best of her at the NCAA Cross Country Championships last November, a race she was expected to win easily but in which she suffered a dramatic collapse and finished 163rd. Having already graduated from CU at the time, Barringer soon thereafter hired agent Ray Flynn and a new coach, Julie Benson, and signed a contract with New Balance.
Last Saturday Barringer contested her first race as a professional and her first race since her cross country disaster, using an impressive finishing kick to win the 1500m at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational at Stanford University. She recently spoke to us about the importance of that race and about her transition from student-athlete to full-time professional.
Competitor.com: Congratulations on your victory last weekend. Were you as eager for your first professional race as one would suppose?
Jenny Barringer: I was excited to get there and put the spikes on and get on the track and remember what it felt like. It’s been a while since I’ve raced and especially a long while since I’ve raced on the track. So it was a big deal to get back out there and get back into it. But in the end, as soon as I got my spikes on and got out there, this is what I do and I was totally comfortable. All the excitement just built up to a fun race.
Was that race also important as a symbolic way to finally put last year’s NCAA cross country championships completely behind you?
The excitement I expressed at the end of my race was really a triumph over that. It was being able to be anxious and be nervous and keep it at a manageable level, which I wasn’t able to do and didn’t do last November. Just getting through the first race was a mental victory, for sure. I was very excited specifically for that reason to have such a successful and strong first race out.
You were under tremendous pressure at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. Undoubtedly you will face even greater pressure in future races. What did you learn from that experience that will help you handle pressure better as a professional?
I think there’s two things. First of all, every race is, at the fundamental level, just a race. I think I really lost sight of that in cross country. That’s what I learned: You can be fit, you can be prepared, you can be in really good shape, but that’s only one part of the overall battle. So I learned to just remind myself that at the end of the day it’s really getting out there and demonstrating your fitness. And that’s not so scary.
And then secondly, looking back has been a good exercise in recognizing some of the warning signs that I wasn’t willing to see going into the race. There were a lot of things I said and a lot of things I was thinking about that were not typical of me going into a race. I was counting down the days until it was over. I kept telling people I wasn’t excited for the race. I just couldn’t wait for it to be over. I think there was this level of anticipation that had gotten out of hand and I was unwilling to recognize that. So it’s good to be able to look back and be objective and be hard on myself in a way, and say, “Okay, if those things start creeping into my mind again we’ve got to pull the reigns in and put everything back into perspective.
Do you think it’s important to keep the fun in running, not only because fun is fun, but also because it helps you perform better?
It’s such a delicate balance, because you have to enjoy what you do, I believe, but I think the balance for me comes in that if I’m healthy and happy in what I’m doing every day, in general, then the joy in running just comes, because it’s something that I really like. That just comes naturally. It’s when there isn’t peace in my day-to-day life and there isn’t routine and there’s this turmoil in my training that leads up to a race, that’s when some of the joy of racing begins to evaporate.
But at the same time, I have bad days in training. I have snow days when I wake up and I’m dreading going out and running. I have workouts where I don’t feel well and I have a headache. You can think of any excuse in the book not to do it, but you have to get out there and fight for it. So, enjoying what I do is really important, but I have those days when it’s a grind, like everyone else.
Is your new lifestyle as a professional runner dramatically different from your previous lifestyle as a student-athlete?
The lifestyle is really different because I’m not running around like crazy doing ten different things every day. At first I thought I would have trouble calming down and taking advantage of the extra time and not filling it with other things. But I think I’ve done a good job of appreciating the amount of time I have to recover now and the amount of time I have to really focus on the details of my training and not just the miles and the really obvious stuff.
So my day-to-day life has changed dramatically because I’m not quite as busy rushing around to things, but the number of different angles at which I approach my training has exploded and I’m dedicating a lot more time to the details.
Is your training under Julie Benson quite different than your training under your college coach, Mark Wetmore?
I would be the first to say that it hasn’t changed dramatically. But at the margins, where a college student is very clearly constrained, I’m not. So when it comes to doing drills before and after a workout, I can dedicate an hour to that. When you’re a college student you can’t always dedicate an extra hour after you’ve done a run. So I’m doing a lot more drills, a lot more stretching. I’m in the weight room three days a week, which I was doing at CU, but again, as a college student, you get in the weight room, you’ve already done a long run, you’re just kind of rushing through it. Now I’m a lot more intentional about my time there.
I take naps for the first time ever, which is incredible. And again, you really can’t do that as a college student. So it’s really those marginal things that you’re more constrained by when you’re a full-time student versus who your coach is. Those are the areas that have really expanded and I think are making me a lot stronger.
What are you doing to keep your mind active?
I really love to read. I read a lot. And that’s another thing about being out of college that’s been really fun. When I was in college I was reading a lot of economics books and textbooks, and all of that stuff is really challenging and it’s good for the mind. For the first time I get to wake up in the morning and read whatever I want. So that’s been really nice. I’ve been reading a ton. I’ve also been dabbling in studying for the LSAT, because that’s a test I’d like to take eventually down the road, because I’d like to go to law school.
So that’s what I’ve been doing, and just staying engaged in my fiancée’s life and his work and what he’s doing.