The 1996 Olympian and U.S. 45-49 half-marathon record holder is still beating women half her age–handily.
Interview by: Mario Fraioli
This past Sunday, 49-year-old Linda Somers Smith of Arroyo Grande, California finished second to 2008 U.S. Olympic Marathoner Blake Russell at the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose Half Marathon, running 1:13:31 and shattering Colleen De Reuck pending 45-49 age-group record by almost three minutes. Somers Smith, who also holds a 45-49 age-group record in the 5K (16:14) and a pending mark for 10 miles (57:07), represented the United States at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where she placed 31st in 2:36:58. Earlier this year, she qualified for a record seventh Olympic Trials Marathon with a 2:36:33, sixth-place finish at the Los Angeles Marathon in March.
Somers Smith, who works full-time as a practicing attorney in her own law firm, will run the ING New York City Marathon on November 7. We caught up with her just a few days after her record-breaking day in San Jose.
First of all, congratulations on your second-place finish and American age-group record at the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose Half Marathon this past weekend. Were you surprised at all by your performance or was it about what you expected?
It was a little faster than I expected. I thought I’d run around 1:15, so about a minute-and-a-half faster. But I mean, I knew I was in good shape. I ran a 10K the week before and ran faster there than I thought I was in shape to run, but you just never know when you’re doubling the distance.
Did you have Colleen De Reuck’s age-group mark (1:16:30) in the back of your mind at any point of the race?
I had no idea what it even was, and it wasn’t motivating me at all.
You’ve now qualified for seven Olympic Trials. What does that accomplishment mean to you?
Just that I’ve been running a heck of a long time! I qualified for the Trials in March–I ran the LA Marathon–but when I did it, the whole reason I ran the LA Marathon was because I wanted to qualify. Nobody’s qualified seven times before so I wanted to break that record.
In LA, you ran 2:36:33, easily qualifying you for the 2012 Trials. Was that about the time you were expecting to run?
Yeah, it was. I thought, though, that the course was going to be faster. It’s essentially a downhill course but it did not feel down hill because the first 8 miles were really up and down. The course, I shouldn’t say it was hard, but it was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. I thought I could run between 2:36 and 2:40 but I usually think I’m going to run faster than I do, so it’s always nice to run what you think you’re going to do or faster.
With your performance at San Jose being a pleasant surprise of sorts, does that give you the confidence that you can possibly run another marathon faster than you did earlier this year?
I’m actually going to run New York in about a month, and the only reason I’m running New York is because I’ve never run it. I’ve run marathons all over the world but never New York, so I wanted to do it while I was still fit and can still run. I figure my time is limited at this point, so I’d shoot for it this year, which is one of the reasons I ran the half—because it fit in well with my training. I don’t know what the course is going to be like, but I would like to run 2:35. I want to run faster than 2:36.
Rumor is that you’re going to be running the Dodge Rock ‘n’ Roll Los Angeles Half Marathon later this month.
Yeah, I plan to. I’m not going to make a final decision till next week. I have to see how my training goes this week and how I recover.
How have you been feeling in these few days since San Jose?
Oh, good! I felt great after the race, I did a workout yesterday (Wednesday) and felt fine. It’s just that when you’re older, it sneaks up on you.
As a master’s runner who has been racing at a high level for a long time, what’s the biggest change you’ve had to make in your current training compared to what you were doing when you were younger?
I can’t do near as many miles. I just can’t. I can actually train pretty hard but I just can’t do over 70 miles per week. And most of the time I’m now around 50 (mile per week), where before my low miles would have been 70. But now my average is about 50 and I’ll only go up to 70 in a three-week training cycle before a marathon. None of the world-class marathoners are going to get away with doing 70 miles a week but I got away with it for LA and it seemed to work.
Do you think that’s a result of having put so much mileage in the bank over the course of your career?
Yeah, I do. I don’t know that I needed to do as many miles as I did before. I think when your body lets you do stuff you tend to do too much, but as you get older and know you can’t do too much, you just train a lot smarter. I still don’t always train smart.
What advice would you give to other runners looking to stay competitive past 40?
I would really emphasize cross-training, because you just cannot train year-round at a high level in running. I mean, I don’t think you can. And this past summer I actually didn’t do any races. I trained for a triathlon and for three months straight all I did was bike and swim, and run about 40 miles a week. That gets you really fit, but you’re not beating up your body. But it’s not just getting on a stationary bike and cycling or just splashing around in the pool. If you’re going to cross-train you have to make an effort to do it seriously just like you would do running, and I think that’s really helped me. I grew up swimming, so I’ve always been able to train really hard in the pool and when I get on a bike I train like a biker would train—obviously not as fast, but pretty seriously. So I think that’s what you have to do when you get older.
Right now, being focused on racing half marathons and marathons, are you still incorporating any cross-training into your routine?
I’ve kept up the biking because I got in really good shape just going right off the bike into running, so like doing a 35-mile hard bike ride and just getting off and doing a 10-mile tempo run, or a 6-mile tempo run. You fatigue your legs on the bike and then it’s like doing a 15-mile tempo run, but it’s only 6 miles or only 10, so you’re not hurting your joints as much. So I’m still biking, but right now it’s only once a week—just a bike-to-run instead of a long tempo run.
You have a U.S. age-group record at 5K (16:14), and pending records at 10 miles (57:07) and half marathon. Any plans on going after Colleen De Reuck’s marathon mark of 2:30:51?
There’s no way. I could have the best day possible and I still can’t break that record.
You’ve been going after it at a high level for a long time now. Do you think you’ll take a step back anytime soon?
I think I’m going to have to. I think I’m on borrowed time and I’m just thankful that I can still do it. I think I’ll get through the next Trials but I don’t see myself really continuing to run competitively through my 50s.
Over the course of your competitive career—seven-time Olympic Trials qualifier, two-time national marathon champion, Olympian and multiple age-group records—what’s the one accomplishment you’re most proud of?
I think making the Olympic team, and again, that’s just because so many people try and want to do it but not that many people do, so when you set a goal to do that and then you do it, it’s a pretty big accomplishment. I had two years where I ran full-time, and I set all my PRs during that time, so it definitely helps not to work. I’d go crazy now though if I didn’t work. I wouldn’t be able to run as much, or twice a day or anything.
Speaking of work, you’re now an attorney, and I’ve got to imagine your schedule can get pretty demanding. How do you fit in the training necessary to continue competing at a high level?
Well, for one, I just treat running as an appointment, so I block off the time on my calendar. If it’s early in the morning at 6:30 and I meet people, or if I go at lunch, I just set that time aside. I just treat it like it’s a client coming in, so that way it’s almost like it’s scheduled. And I do have my own firm, so I don’t have to answer to anybody except my employees, so I can’t really just take off, but I do tend to work really late in the evening to make up for the time I’m gone during the day.