Back On Track: Exclusive Interview With Lauren Fleshman

Photo courtesy of PhotoRun.net.
Photo courtesy of PhotoRun.net.

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?

Photo courtesy of PhotoRun.net.
Photo courtesy of PhotoRun.net.

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.

Last weekend you ran — and won — a low-key 5K road race in Bend, Oregon, two weeks out from what’s going to be a not-so-low key 5K on the track at nationals in Des Moines. What did you take away from that race?

I took a lot away from it. It was exactly what I needed at the time. It’s not something you’ll probably see a lot of athletes in my event doing at this time of year but because I’m in a slightly different position than a lot of my competitors right now coming off a huge amount of time off, I kind of had to scale things back a bit after doing the 1,500 against good competition and do something that was a time trial effort on my part. I had a specific goal. I wanted to try and put myself in a situation where I’m running alone and it’s just all up to me and I just go out there and hit my marks and practice the mental toughness involved in a 15 to 16-minute race. That’s what that was, and I did everything I went there to do.

A huge part of me as a person and an athlete needs to be involved in the community. I have to feel connected to the sport as a whole now and then, otherwise being an elite track runner is really isolating. You start to lose perspective on what you’re doing. Just touching base with everyday runners, running for a cause, going to a town I love to go to and doing all my favorite runs up in the trails and up to the waterfall – that’s the kind of stuff that feeds my soul and I think that’s every bit as important as the training going into a championship.

Building off the last part of that answer, your website, asklaurenfleshman.com, is pretty unique. A lot of athletes have blogs, but your site is a place where readers can not only follow you, but also connect and interact with you. How and when did the idea for the website come to be?

Ever since I was in college I always felt there was this tendency in sport to become very focused on yourself and everything is always me, me, me, me, me. And that just never was fun for me; it drove me crazy. But when you’re in the sport as a professional you constantly feel pulled toward that. People say, “You’ve got to invest your whole life in this. You need to focus, focus, focus.” Very rarely are people telling you that you need to go out and maintain relationships with other people. You don’t hear that side of reason and balance.

Any time in my life I’ve gotten too far away from the running community I’ve felt unhappy and miserable in a way. The other part of it is I’m naturally a teacher. I’ve always been a teacher and I think because of that people tend to find me more approachable. People ask me questions and people have always come to me for advice, so when it came to making a website, I asked my husband’s opinion – he actually as a consulting business for sports marketing – and he helped me come up with a website idea and concept that would help me connect to the running community, which would then make me happier.

What’s been the most enjoyable part of your experience with the site?

Just helping other people. Your own individual performances come and go. You have injuries that take everything away from your own performance, but you can always reach out to other people. You can always help other people – no one can take that away, and it’s completely independent from whether you’re healthy or sick, or winning or losing. That’s always there, and so it was just such a natural fit. When my husband gave me the tools to set up the site and create the concept and help me identify the bits and pieces, it just really made this year more fun for me. I think it’s helped me run better in the end, too.

Let’s take a step back to 2008. You set your PR of 14:58 in the 5K, but suffered a stress fracture right before the Olympic trials, missed the team by one spot and then needed to have season-ending, possibly even career-ending, surgery on your foot. How did the highs and lows of that year change your perspective as an athlete?

The injury, originally, was sort of like experiencing a loss partly because of the timing right before the Olympic Trials. I raced injured and just came so close to making that team, and so all that kind of crumbled away. In this sport, the way it works is you just have this one big shot every four years and you just better hope you’re not injured or sick or having an off-day that day or else one could say it was all for nothing. That’s not really what it is, but that’s what it feels like at the time. So after that loss, I guess you could call it that, I couldn’t even take out my frustrations by going on a mountain run or something. I couldn’t do the one thing I love the most which is go out for a run. I was in a boot, I had crutches, I was even in a wheelchair for a while and I just had to kind of sit there and fester with my thoughts and my disappointment until I got over it. What I realized was that I was much more upset over the fact that I couldn’t run, period, than I was about missing the Olympics. The more time went by, the more I missed running and the less I cared about missing the Olympics. Because the injury was one of those types where you may or may not be able to return to running – the statistics aren’t great for navicular level 2 fractures – all my focus just became, “Man, all I want to do is be able to run. Even if all I could do is go for a 5-mile run, five days a week for the rest of my life I would be so happy. I don’t even care about this professional running thing, I don’t care about any of that stuff.”

I guess that’s what I learned more than anything is just how deep my love for running really runs, and all of the other stuff – all the competing, all the goal setting – that just compliments it. You can fail at trying to reach your biggest goal and you’ll still be OK. It’s still worth making goals, it’s still going out in trying. Nothing horrendous happened. I came up short at the most absolute worst moment to come up short as a track and field athlete, at the Olympic Trials by one spot. It’s the kind of crap they write movies about – it sucks, but it’s totally fine at the same time. I still have a great husband, and wonderful parents and family and friends. None of the really important stuff changed. I guess you just realize that none of that other stuff really matters. I just think I have a better perspective and a better balance. That loss is really what inspired me to do the website. I felt like I indentified more than ever with your average runner, and I looked up to runners all over this community. I’d be out on trails and see 60-year-old ladies running and I was like, “I wanna do that. That’s my goal.” When people ask me, “What’s your goal?” the answer is I want to be able to run the rest of my life more than anything. I’ve just really developed a deep respect for that. All these people have a wealth of knowledge and I felt it was just time to get a resource up where we can share that stuff with each other in a fun way. Runners are a community of communal knowledge, but most of the advice that’s out there today isn’t from people who are still currently in the sport. I saw the site as an opportunity to provide information that’s current, so I thought, “Why not just share that?”

In 2008 you moved to Eugene and reconnected with your college coach, Vin Lannana. In the last year or so, Mark Rowland has taken the day-to-day reigns of working with the Oregon Track Club athletes. How have those two men been instrumental in helping you get back to running a world-class level?

Vin’s always been great. He’s seen me through some really good and really bad times. He helped me get through my first stress fracture in the 2004 Olympic Trials. I’ll always have the deepest respect for Vin. He’s incredible. I’ve been transitioned over to working with Mark as far as coaches go for the last year but Vin has always made himself available to me as an advisor and just someone to run things by anytime I need him. And I’ve been lucky, I haven’t needed to lean on him too much but there have been a couple times when I needed to go by his place and have a chat. There’s still nobody that knows me as well as he does as an athlete, so I’m just really grateful.

Mark, as a coach, has been very patient and attentive. When he first came here I was not looking good. Every time I went out to do a workout, I’m surprised he didn’t kick me off the track. It was pretty pathetic compared to any kind of standard for a professional athlete, and that lasted for a good year. He just stood by me and always believed that I could come around. I think that the biggest single mistake that coaches make in situations like mine is that they push you too hard. They get kind of frustrated too, and really you just have to let things come around at their own pace and he knew that more than anybody. I believed him and just sort of let things fall into place.

Last question. The next Olympic Trials are two years away now, right there in your backyard of Eugene. Based on what you’ve gone through last two years, where would you like to see yourself two years from now?

My goals for 2012 are very modest. I’ve learned that all I can do is focus on what I can control. Every time an Olympic Trials has come up I’ve had this image in my head of, “When that comes around I’m gonna be in the best shape of my life and I wanna have done everything right and I really want to have things figured out by then and just be unstoppable.” Of course, that’s what you want to happen, but the reality is there’s a 99.9 percent chance that’s not going to be the situation I’m in on that day. Maybe I’m nursing some injury, I may have a cold, or I might just be the same athlete I am right now and that will just have to be good enough. I’m trying not develop any expectations for 2012 and instead just want to keep plugging away meet by meet and just try to develop habits that involve racing to the best of my ability on the day, getting the most out of whatever my body naturally has and if I can do those things the result will just happen and it will have to be OK with me.

I’ve learned you can’t reach for some superhuman powers the last minute – they don’t exist. I’m naturally very competitive so I never have to psyche myself up or force myself to summon some inner power. That’s always going to show up. I am a competitor. Sometimes it’s about toning that stuff down so I can just get to the line relaxed.[sig:MarioFraioli]

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