Monday, June 6, 2011

The Epitome of a Versatile Distance Runner

Here's an excellent profile of Jen Rhines, who is well positioned to make her 4th USA Olympic team in 2012.

Rhines: A Runner of Range

Aimee Berg,
May 26, 2011

While the world gravitates towards specialization, Jen Rhines refuses to be boxed in.

Rhines competed in three different distances at the past three Olympics, and instead of running farther and farther each time, she continues to race up and down the spectrum.

In her Olympic debut, in Sydney, the blonde Villanova graduate competed at 10,000 meters. In Athens, she quadrupled the distance and placed 34th in the marathon (behind training partner Deena Kastor who captured the bronze). In Beijing, at age 34, Rhines dropped down to 5000 meters, which requires much faster leg speed, and placed 14th despite having torn plantar fascia tissue under her left foot.

“I’ve enjoyed going back and forth,” she said. “It’s exciting to go back to the track and run faster.”

Already this year, Rhines won US titles at 15 kilometers and the half marathon.

Not even Rhines’ coach/husband can say which is her best event.

“I don’t know if I could pinpoint one over another,” said Terrence Mahon, who married Rhines in 1998 and is the head coach of the renowned Mammoth Track Club in California, a group that includes Kastor, 2004 Olympic silver medalist Meb Keflezighi, and, until recently, 2008 Olympian Ryan Hall.

This summer, Rhines is targeting the 10,000 meters for the world championships in Daegu, South Korea. She also plans to make the 25-lap race her event for the 2012 London Games.

In between, Rhines will also run her eighth career marathon – in New York City in November – after a five-year hiatus from the 26.2-mile distance.

“I really want to be in the top three,” she told shortly after announcing her entry, and even though the marathon may seem like a diversion, it’s not.

“When I look back,” Rhines said, “my strength from marathon training was part of my success in 5K.”

“It is not easy to be so broad in an athletic career,” Kastor said of Rhines’ versatility. “It would be like 400-meter world record holder Michael Johnson being able to race the best in the world at 100 meters up to 800 meters. Jen makes it look easy.”

And Rhines has more to accomplish.

At worlds in August, she wants to place in the top-six. (Her best finish at worlds so far was a seventh place in the 5000 meters, in Osaka, Japan, in 2007.)

She would also like to break 31 minutes in a 10,000-meter race.

To that end, she and Mahon have been making subtle adjustments to her mechanics.

“I’ll be 37 this year, and I’ve been running the same way since I was 14,” Rhines said, explaining, “I don’t push through the ground enough.”

“We’re trying to make her a more elastic runner,” Mahon said. “If you put more force through the ground, you create elastic recoil and get energy recoil.”

To do that, he said, “She’s starting to use more of her long muscles – using the ankle, knee, and hip in harmony to get more elastic movement. Previously, she ran more from the hip. She tended to get her foot off the ground before getting hip extension.”

“The body doesn’t like to change,” Rhines said, so she thinks of the adjustments as “re-teaching your body that it can do it better.”

Her mental game, however, has always been solid.

“She’s very good under pressure,” Mahon said. “She’s super even-keeled and consistent. Her whole life has been like that. She doesn’t get too excited or too depressed.”

Rhines also enjoys the heat of competition and the energy of the crowd.

“She’s a gamer,” Mahon said. “She’s happiest when she’s on the big stage. Training alone where it’s quiet, in the mountains, is the toughest part of her running.”

For all of Rhines’ longevity and diversified talent, it’s hard to imagine that 18 years ago, she wasn’t certain that running would be her ultimate profession.

Rhines had just left her parents and younger sister in suburban Syracuse, New York, to run for Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Villanova was legendary for shaping track stars such as Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O’Sullivan, and Marty Liquori.

Sonia O’Sullivan also ran for the Wildcats. O’Sullivan was a world champion at 5000 meters who would eventually represent Ireland at four Olympics. Their college careers didn’t overlap, but O’Sullivan was on campus when Rhines was being recruited.

“I didn’t know where I’d fit,” Rhines said. “I went in thinking I’d graduate and get a job. I didn’t know what my potential was.”

Her freshman year, she under-performed. “I was a typical college kid,” Rhines said. “I put on weight, partied.”

So she was surprised to receive a letter from O’Sullivan that included a training program to follow in the summer between her freshman and sophomore years.

“I was inspired by that,” Rhines said, especially because “I didn’t know her very well.”

The training plan worked.

Rhines began to accumulate NCAA titles on the track, indoors, and in cross-country – while pursuing a degree in civil engineering.

“Jen obviously took the advice on board and trained hard,” O’Sullivan said recently in an email from her second home in Australia. “She returned to Villanova her sophomore year a different athlete.”

Rhines graduated in 1996 after winning her third consecutive 5000-meter NCAA championship, and decided to turn professional.

It wasn’t until 11 years and two Olympics later, however, that Rhines really hit her stride.

Following a breakthrough in 2006, in which she ran 5000 meters in less than 15 minutes to become the third-fastest American woman ever to run that distance, Rhines returned to the track in 2007 and set personal bests in 1500m, 3000m, and 10,000m.

She achieved one of those PRs with a blazing kick that Kastor thinks is one of Rhines’ best races to date: at the 2007 Herculis meet in Monaco, Rhines beat teammate Shalane Flanagan and finished second in the 3000 meters behind Mariem Selsouli of Morocco.

Kastor has always been highly aware of Rhines’ kick. When they began training together, in 2001, she said, “My first impression with Jen was that I never wanted to be shoulder to shoulder with her in a race with 200 meters to go. Her legs can move. Fast.”

Looking back, Rhines’ seven marathons were an integral part of her success at shorter distances.

Five months before her first sub-15 minute 5000 meter race in Brussels, Belgium, Rhines placed fourth at the 2006 Rome marathon with a personal best of 2 hours, 29 minutes, 32 seconds. And just before the track season in which she set personal bests across three distances, she placed seventh at the 2006 Tokyo fall marathon.

In Tokyo, Rhines also had an epiphany that would shape the immediate future of her career.

That winter, she wrote in her blog: “I hate the marathon….I don’t thrive off of running alone in a race and grinding out the pace mile after mile. I lose the sense of competition in the marathon that I feel when I am competing on the track or on the roads at shorter distances. Tokyo was not all bad. The race did serve a purpose in that it has helped me come to the realization that I love the track.”

Rhines hasn’t run a marathon in the five years since Tokyo, but – with a renewed passion for running laps– she lowered her 5000-meter PR even further (to 14:54.29) in 2008, just before the Beijing Games.

After tearing the plantar fascia in her foot in Beijing, long tempo runs were problematic and Rhines never thought she’d run another marathon.

Now fully recovered, and officially on the New York City Marathon start list, Mahon said, “the reason we’ve come back to the marathon now is that we’ve fine-tuned her training to be good in that and not kill off her speed.”

Which explains why she will be alternating her track and marathon training as she approaches her fourth and likely final Olympics.

The combination, Rhines has learned, “is what sets me up to do best at all distances.”

In retrospect, Rhines’ resistance to follow the conventional wisdom in distance running has been gratifying.

“I don’t know if I’d do anything different because everyone has their own learning curve,” she said. “It works out in the end. You learn when you’re ready.”

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