Interview: Deena Drossin

By Sam Grotewold

Deena Drossin competes at the 2001 Gate River Run.
Photo: Victah@Photo Run

Deena Drossin Links:
The official web site
Avocado Enchiladas Recipe

America’s top 10,000-meter and cross country runner for several seasons, Deena Drossin has established herself among the world’s best in the last year. After a disappointing performance in the 2000 Olympics due to a pre-race injury, she set an American Record in the half-marathon in her first attempt at the distance at last September’s Rock-N-Roll Half-Marathon in Virginia, defeating 2000 New York City Marathon winner Ludmila Petrova. Drossin then went on to make her marathon debut in New York City in November. Her seventh place finish in 2:26:58 put her fourth on the all-time U.S. list and was the fastest time by an American in more than 10 years. In early February, she won her sixth USA Cross Country title; and she stopped off in Jacksonville, Florida, to defend her USA 15K title in an American Record time before heading to Dublin to pick up the silver medal at the World Cross Country Championships, leading Team USA to second place. Two weeks later, she set a World Road Record for 5 kilometers, and in early May she shattered the 10-year-old American Record at 10,000 meters in Palo Alto, California.

We caught up with Drossin while she was in New York City promoting the JPMorgan Chase Corporate Challenge running and fitness series, a few weeks before she competes in her first New York Mini.

Before we talk about what you’ve done recently, let’s talk about the beginning. You didn’t necessarily start out as a runner. Can you talk a little bit about what made you pick up the sport?
I was pretty shy as a child and never wanted to play with the kids my age. I just wanted to weed the hill in our backyard or play in my playroom and I was pretty much into solitude at a very young age. My mom, being the socialite that she is, wanted me to be involved more with kids my age so she made me join the local track club in Agoura Hills [California] where I grew up. I loved it from the first day that I was out there. I remember having so much fun running around the local high school the first day I was out there and on the second day we went into the Santa Monica Mountains. It was so much fun to be a part of a group.

Do you still remember your Coach’s name?
Yes, it was my high school coach, Bill Duley, and a woman named Vickie Ayre. I saw her for the first time since she coached me at the Olympic Trials in Sacramento in 2000, so it was really special see her.

We often see runners who are successful at a very young age but never reach a comparable level of success as an adult. You’ve been successful on a national level since you were 14 years old. Do you think there’s a secret to having been able to compete at a high level for the last 15 years, and still see improvements like you’ve seen in the last year?
I think because I enjoy it and I’ve had the luck of great coaching throughout my entire career. My current coach, Joe Vigil, has instilled in me a passion for everything; I enjoy everything that I do, whether it’s cooking a meal at home or taking the dog for a walk in the mountains or getting on the track for a training session. I think it allows for a better lifestyle all the way around. If people enjoy what they’re doing it allows for better performances in other aspects of their lives. You’ll make a better meal, for example, or you’ll run a faster time when you’re doing it with a certain amount of joy and pride.

For the past several years, your strategy in the big international type races has been to go out with the leaders and try to hang on, and it’s usually worked out well for you. But now I would imagine that most people are looking to you to be one of the runners to key off of. Particularly in the big international races like World Cross, do you think much ahead in terms of setting a strategy or setting a plan for what’s going to happen, or is it more of a situation where you take it as it comes?
I think you have to go into everything with a bit of a plan. Of course in the past it’s been that I’ve tried to go out with people and hang on and this past year was the first time that I felt confident to be up there and comfortable with being in a leading position. I learned some things, I learned I need to prepare a little better. I was prepared to go out hard and try to hang on with people but I was not prepared to be one of the leaders in the race. I wasn’t prepared to push from the front. I need to have a little bit more confidence in myself that I deserve to be up in the front and that I can make moves without people being in front of me and without worrying about the people that are behind me. In Dublin I never put myself in a position to lead so that is something I’m going to have to change in the future.

What specifically are the steps you think you need to take?
To be in a lead position in a World Championships, whether on the track or in cross country you need to throw surges and make moves to try to break people and whittle that lead pack down. Being behind the race for first in my career I’ve been able to observe what those leaders do to run away with races, so that is something I need to continue to try to do.

You’ve attributed much of the success you’ve seen during the 2002 season to the strength you gained while training for your marathon debut in New York City last fall. Are you doing anything differently in training from some of the things you’ve done in the past?
I think the marathon training was probably the key element that has given me the strength this year, but also this year I’ve incorporated plyometrics and a weight routine that have made a tremendous difference in my form and my mechanics. I feel more powerful and more efficient. The final factor is that I’m starting to take more risks because I’m more confident in my abilities and I’ve been able to push past comfort levels.

You spoke a little about your new weight routine in a recent article in the New York Times; you mention that you’re currently lifting weights for two hours a day, three times a week. Can you talk about what the approach to things is in the weight room?
I was in the weight room right before the New York City Marathon last year just doing strength work, balancing out muscles that I might have to recruit during a long race like that. My strength coach, Zach Rutherford, at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, was a tremendous help in getting me strong for New York City. It wasn’t too taxing because of the mileage that I was running, but it proved beneficial. This January I told him that I wanted to work on my speed and my explosiveness because when I was in a race and someone made a move I had trouble reacting to that move. So the focus has been on neuromuscular facilitation, trying to get my reaction times down. I’m not squatting 200 pounds, by any means, but everything I’m doing in the weight room is fast. It’s a different mindset than I’m used to working in with the running, where I leisurely build into a faster pace.

I think many runners and coaches would argue that two hours a day is a little much. Why has your approach to things in the weight room changed recently?
I think in order to compete at a higher level you have to start doing things differently. You have to welcome change and welcome additions to the program. It was a risk to commit so much extra time on top of all the mileage, but I believe that people don’t over-train, they under-rest. I definitely take the time in between to stay off my feet and all of my hobbies are conducive to resting and relaxing—sitting on the couch and reading a good book or cooking a meal in the kitchen. Everything that I enjoy doing happens to be good for my running career. Running is my full-time job, so why not take an extra few hours a week to try to build strength? It’s about listening to your body and knowing what it needs.

You’ve mentioned cooking a few times. What do you like to cook?
Everything. Someone asked me earlier if I could pick one thing to cook, what would it be? And it was really hard for me to choose, but I finally decided on avocado enchiladas. It takes a while because I make everything from scratch, but they’re really delicious and I think my favorite thing to make. [Click here for avocado enchiladas recipe]

You’re in New York today because you’re a spokesperson for the JPMorgan Chase Corporate Challenge. Could you talk a little about your involvement with that series?
I first got involved with JPMorgan Chase after the New York City Marathon last year. I went to one of the post-race awards ceremonies that they were giving at the bank and I really had a nice time. They have a very warm, family-type atmosphere. They asked me to be a part of the Corporate Challenge and I embraced it right away. I love that they’re promoting health and fitness to the corporate world and that it’s become so popular that they now have to cap the fields at 15,000 participants. It’s great that after a long workday people can get together and be that excited about running 3.5 miles. I think it’s a fabulous event. I think that corporations see a direct parallel between a fitness routine or living a healthy lifestyle and performance and enthusiasm in the workplace.

You’ve talked some about your hobbies; you love to read, you love to cook, you’ve written some fiction and poetry. Do you find yourself with less time and energy to pursue those interests these days, with your schedule filling up with racing and traveling and appearances at events like the Corporate Challenge?
The only thing I’ve felt like I’ve sacrificed so far is opening up a café. But I know I have plenty of years ahead of me that I can do that later and that is something I hope to do very soon after I hang up my running shoes. And I invite the entire running community to the grand opening!

Where is the café going to be?
I’ve fallen in love with Mammoth Lakes [California], my new home, so it will be in that area. Maybe I can franchise them and open one up near the ocean. I love the beach.

Then you could come to New York and open one here. It could be like Starbucks—a ‘Drossin’s’ on every corner.

You’ve got a 10-day stretch coming up in July with three major races over in Europe. Do you have particular goals for those three races, and how do you see running a 1500 meters, a 3000 meters, and a 5000 meters as helping you move towards your 2002 goals?
The 5000 is my main focus for the summer. The 1500 in Ireland is just a tune-up to get my legs under me, something speedy to just shake the cobwebs out after traveling over there. The 3000 is an attempt to carry that pace for a little longer, and maybe ideally use that turnover in the 5000 in Stockholm a few days later.

Do you have predictions or goals for that 5000?
Under ideal conditions I would hope to run an American Record. But the reality is that I just want to beat my personal best [14:51.62], which is my primary goal every season. All of my personal bests have come at the DN Galan meeting in Stockholm, so I would like to break 14:50 and ideally break [Regina Jacobs’ American Record] 14:45.35.

Let’s say you get an ideal day and you run under 14:45. How do you see that as fitting into your goals for the rest of the 2002 season, and then in the years to come?
I think everything is a progression, so when you can keep seeing yourself improving it’s reassurance that you’re doing the right thing; that your training is going properly, that your lifestyle is going the right way. It’s when you stop improving that you have to step back and look at what you can change or what needs to be done. Once I break 14:50 I’m going to want to run faster than that, and once I run faster than that I’m going to want to run faster still. It’s a progression of races and never feeling satisfied, because there’s always time to shave off and there are always other races to run. The goals are continuous, and this sport is really special in that sense.

On Memorial Day you’ll be defending your individual title at the Bolder Boulder 10K race in Colorado. Do you know who will be running on the USA team with you this year?
Jen Rhines, who is one of my training partners, and Colleen De Reuck.

So the top three from your silver medal team at World Cross Country?
Yes, it’s a very exciting team. I have a tremendous amount of faith in both of those girls and they’re both on fire right now. I think we can do some great things in Boulder.

Less than two weeks after that, we’ll see you back here for the New York Mini. When you were a young runner in Southern California, were you aware of events like the New York Mini? Were you aware that there were women that were doing what you now do for a living?
No. A misconception that the general public has is that the Olympics are the only post-collegiate event for track and field athletes. The media does a great job of covering the Olympics, but there isn’t much coverage on things like the World Championships and other races. It will take time to teach people that there are really competitive competitions out there that aren’t the Olympics.

Like the New York Mini.
Yes, and the New York City Marathon had a tremendous field last year. London had a fantastic field earlier this year.

The New York Mini also traditionally has a very strong field, often as competitive as a World Championships or Olympic final. With those athletes that have come to the Mini and been successful, New York refers to them on a first name basis—people tell stories about Grete, Tegla, and Paula. Knowing what you know about your fitness and the competitiveness of the field this year, should we add ‘Deena’ to that list?
Oh, gosh. New York City was very generous last year for the marathon in adopting me and giving me encouragement during the race, and that was very special. I will definitely adopt the philosophy of taking risks that I’ve acquired over the last few months during the Mini. I don’t race often, but at the beginning of the year when I map out my season it’s all very strategic, and the New York Mini is going to be an important race for me. The field that is being put together is very scary. It will be an extremely competitive race as usual, and I’m definitely expecting myself to be a challenger and hoping for a victory.

After July you cut your racing way back as you gear up for the Chicago Marathon in October. In the last seven months we’ve seen women’s course records at Chicago, New York City, London, and Boston. The standards have been raised. Do you have predictions or goals for Chicago? Have you seen the Chicago course yet?
I haven’t been on the Chicago course yet. I’d like to run a personal best; I’m looking for 2:24. I’m extremely excited for the race. Seeing what has gone on in the last year in the marathon and half-marathon has been very exciting to me. Standards that were once thought untouchable are being knocked down nearly every week. I hope that it doesn’t discourage people; I hope it gives people hope. These records are there to be broken, and they can be broken.

Do you feel it puts more pressure on you?
I never feel like I have pressure, because that’s too negative. I feel like I have support. When people have high expectations of me coming into a race that I feel like people have faith in me. Pressure sounds a little too harsh; I try to make that a positive. If you can add another fan to your list because they think you’re going to break a record in the marathon I see it as adding another supporter, not as adding more pressure.

Sam Grotewold is the Web editor for New York Road Runners. If he could pick one thing to cook, it would be tempeh stir fry

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