Injury experiences have helped former Stanford standout renew her love for running.
Interview by: Mario Fraioli
The last race Lauren Fleshman ran was the Heaven Can Wait 5K on June 6th in Bend, Oregon, where she ran 16:32 to win the road race outright over a field of 1,069 runners. The next race she’ll run is the 5,000 meter final on June 25 at the U.S. Track & Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, where she’ll do battle with 20 or so other women for bragging rights as the best in the land. For the former national champion in the event, next weekend’s championships are just part of the rebuilding process after missing most of last year recovering from surgery on the navicular bone in her left foot.
Competitor.com caught up with Fleshman a little over a week before her first national championship since the 2008 Olympic Trials and got her thoughts on her season so far and mindset heading into the race, as well as how her injury experiences have changed her outlook as an athlete.
Competitor.com: The U.S. Track & Field Championships are a little over a week away and you’re slated to run the 5K – your first major track championship since the Olympic Trials in 2008. What’s your mindset heading into the meet next weekend?
Lauren Fleshman: Well I’ve just been kind of been rapidly progressing the last six weeks after what felt like a pretty long holding pattern of being stuck in mediocrity. I’m excited, I feel like I don’t really know what’s possible, but I don’t feel bounded or discouraged in any way, either. I’m healthy, I’m positive, and I’m ready to get out there and see what I can do. I wouldn’t say I’m in the best shape of my life or anything, but I have really turned things around and am starting to get into those workouts that I recognized from my “being in really good shape” days. It would feel good to be back there again.
Let’s talk about your season so far. You opened up with win in 15:42 (5K) at the Oregon Relays, and a few weeks later ran a 4:12 or so in a low-key 1,500. How did it feel to get back on the track and mix it up again?
Well, it’s been kind of a wake-up call to be honest. Just the way you remember racing and what it’s actually like – after enough time has gone by you just need to get out there and get some new calluses to the pain and just experience it again for yourself. I felt like my eyes were bugging out of my head in that first 5K, like “Woah, I used to do this all the time? This is hard!” And that’s only after two years off – I can’t even imagine what it’s like after a longer time! So you know, it was just getting things under control after that race and not letting myself get discouraged and saying, “OK, yeah, this is almost 50 seconds slower than I’ve run before.” I need to be happy with my progress, happy with where I’m at and really just try to take one step at a time. That was what my first race was all about.
My second race, the 1,500, was just an exhibition race during the high school state championship. That race was pretty tough competition, actually. There were some top-ranked 1,500 runners in it and I finished that race and instantly wanted to race it again. I just felt like I made all sorts of tactical errors and I didn’t have enough confidence to go with the leaders when they broke away and I finished just feeling like I had a lot of energy left in the tank. For me, that was a wakeup call that I need to get my confidence in order as best I can before nationals so I can just give myself a chance to run to my ability. I think there’s a big mental aspect of sport where you can kind of count yourself out and not believe that you can hang. And since I’ve had so much time off, that’s going to be the biggest final hurdle, just believing in myself again. It’s like 20 percent fitness and 80% mental at this point of the game for me.
So this year as a whole, is it just a stepping stone for you on the way to the next Olympic Trials?
Absolutely. This is the off year for everyone. People are doing all kinds of crazy events they don’t usually do; you never know what you’re gonna get during the off-year. For me, I’ve just been intentionally holding myself back from getting sharpened so I can develop a huge base over the course of a year and a half. That’s my number one priority is just staying healthy and becoming as strong as possible so I can handle not just the Olympic year – it’s kind of like a three-year push because you have World Championships, then Olympics and then World Championships. That’s where all the titles are won, all your money is won; I mean, that’s how you make your living, and then you rest in the fourth year and that’s what this year is, the rest year. You’re still training and racing, but it’s a mental break. You’re not as hard on yourself this year and you give yourself some wiggle room. It’s all about being healthy. That’s the focus of the entire year.
You mentioned people doing stuff in off years they wouldn’t normally do. In your case, last year you ran the X-Terra Half Marathon Trail Championships, a different discipline and longer distance then we’re used to seeing you race. How was that experience?
It started out as something just to do – just something fun, to mix it up a little bit with different types of competitors. I love trails. I mean, that’s what made me fall in love with running was mountains and hills and rivers and all sorts of stuff like that. It’s not all about this running around an oval thing; I just happen to be good at that. But what it did, in the end, what started out as something fun ended up opening my eyes to something I want to do in the next few years. I’ll definitely try to squeeze in little race opportunities here and there through the next three or four years on trails and then I can see myself honestly doing even ultras down the road. It’s just something that gets me really excited. It’s just an extreme challenge and there’s just part of me that’s always been an extreme athlete that feels confined a bit by running 400-meter loops around a track.