Interview with Jeanne Hennessy
By Peter Gambaccini

Jeanne Hennessy competes at the 2002 New York Mini 10K.
(Both photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
Hennessy competes in the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Women's Marathon.

Jeanne Hennessy grew up in Mahopac, New York, as the third of nine children. She was an all-New England basketball prep school star at Choate Rosemary Hall and started as goalie for four years on the Villanova University soccer team before turning to running, where her success was almost immediate. Now a guidance counselor at New Egypt Elementary School in New Egypt, New Jersey ("right near Great Adventure"), Hennessy will be back in New York City on June 12 to run the Circle of Friends New York Mini 10K. This summer, her road race plans include the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, the Quad-City Times Bix 7 in Iowa, and the Falmouth Road Race in Massachusetts.

The 5' 10" Hennessy made her mark in running with a 2:49:50 in Boston in 2001, and improved that fall to 2:39:58 in New York, where she was 15th overall and fourth among Americans. She won a USA 25K title in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2002 in 1:26:57. And that October, she improved to a 2:35:53 at the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon, good for tenth place. Along the way, she acquired a masters degree in counseling from Fordham University.

Problems — which she describes below — have beset Hennessy in the past couple of years, and she was just 58th at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2:48:55. She finished third in the USA 25K this May after being the leading American for much of the race. Hennessy appears to have gotten a handle on some recent health issues, and is thrilled about coming back to New York to race on June 12. "I consider myself a New Yorker," she affirms. "Always, always, always." You've run the New York Mini twice (including a 34:01 in 2002). Do you tend to like all-women races?
Jeanne Hennessy:
I like them because they're more visibility for women's running. But in terms of racing, for me, it's kind of difficult. I tend to get lost a bit. I'm by myself a lot, which isn't good. In a lot of races, I depend on some of the men to pull me through. In women's races, that's hard to do, because the women tend to separate very quickly. It's not easier to draft off women, either, when I'm bigger than most of the men in races.

FW: What are your thoughts on the Mini being an All-American race this year?
I think it's very good, but in the same respect, I think that in order for us to improve as runners internationally, we need to compete internationally. A lot of people are excited about the fact that there's only prize money for Americans, but if you're in the sport for the true reason of the sport, then you should be willing to compete against the best in the world. It's a good thing in some respects, and in others, I don't like it.

FW: The Mini's title sponsor, Circle of Friends, has the goal of helping people quit smoking. Does this have personal significance for you? Were you a smoker at some point?
I was never a "smoker," but I did experiment socially with smoking when I was in college. Young people should know that even elite athletes experiment and make mistakes. That was a mistake that I made in my younger years. It was pretty much just in college, when I would go out socially. It wasn't really significant. I'm asthmatic, so it was a bad choice overall. Fortunately, all my friends in college and pretty much all through my life have been athletes. We all trained very hard. I've been involved in a lot of different sports. I've always been surrounded by people who work very hard in the sport but also liked to enjoy themselves and relax at times. I did have friends who did smoke, but it was never an addictive thing.

FW: You were third American in the USA 25K in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this spring, but you were leading the Americans for awhile, weren't you?
I was leading for about 10 miles. I was running very conservatively, coming off the [Olympic Trials] marathon. I was having stomach problems coming up to the marathon and after that. And this time of year, March, April, and May, I have a great deal of difficulty with asthma and my allergies. So I was running pretty conservatively and felt pretty good. About 10 miles in, we turned the corner and the wind was gusting quite a bit, which blew a lot of something in the air. And I was having pretty severe asthma. Unfortunately, no matter what I do, I can't run any faster at any significant pace with that. So I was very, very disappointed. I was not running fast by any means. I kind of just had to survive. Once I have an asthma attack — and I don't carry an inhaler anymore — it's hard to recover from it.

FW: Has this problem occurred before in races?
It has. It happened last year at the 25K also. Like I said, that time of year is just not a good time for me. I've had a lot of difficulty with my training since the marathon because of my asthma and the allergies — to pollen, grass, weeds. Pretty much everything. It's something I've had my whole life.

FW: Has it ever been suggested that you go to someplace like New Mexico at that time of year?
I work full-time, so I can't do that.

FW: Were you pretty far ahead at the 25K when the troubles started?
For awhile, yeah. I was feeling very comfortable. I was running okay pace, and I was very confident in feeling that I could win the [American] race and maybe even catch some of the Russians, because I physically felt very good. Then the asthma hit and I said, 'Oh gosh, here we go again.'

FW: Seeing a USA Championship slip away like that must be disappointing.
Yeah. But I'm kind of getting used to disappointments in this sport. I do have a lot of positive thinking to get past these disappointments. I'm a big fan of Greg Meyer and the race directors for the 25K and I really enjoy the whole atmosphere and the course itself. I think I had all the capabilities of running a great race, but this is completely out of my control.

FW: We hear you've had stomach trouble as well. Have you figured out what that is about?
I've undergone a series of tests over the past month of so, and it seems as though when I work out or exercise very hard, I don't get enough blood flow to my stomach and it causes this bad cramping in my stomach. I'm taking this medication that kind of helps me out.

FW: The Olympic Marathon Trials didn't go too well for you. Was there any reason you can pinpoint for that besides the health issues we've discussed?
What happened was I went to a doctor with the stomach trouble I was having in March. He put me on a bunch of different medications. Unfortunately, they dehydrated me quite a bit. I was pretty much desperate with the time crunch [before the Trials]. I just took the medication hoping it would work and the diagnosis was true. Within 10K, I was already shaking and dehydrated and kind of dizzy and fading in and out. I don't really remember much of the race. I stopped quite a bit. It was very, very ugly and kind of scary.

FW: You missed the ING New York City Marathon last fall, didn't you?
I had a stress fracture of my fibula. I missed six weeks, from mid-October. I had it since late August but I didn't have it diagnosed till two months later. I somewhat retired in June. I decided I was tired of illness and injury and being unhappy, so I took a bit of a break in that time. I got a full-time job, moved to New Jersey, and started working, and then I realized that I really did love the sport and I missed it terribly. Right when I started gearing up again, I got the stress fracture, and then I had tendinitis in my knee, and then I had bronchitis over Christmas, and then I had a fall on the ice in January on the knee that had tendinitis. It's been a very rocky road for the last year or so. I continued to train but I kept having significant setbacks.

FW: What setbacks had you had before your retirement in June that discouraged you?
In April [2003], at the USA Marathon Championships, I actually dropped out at mile 21. I was in third at the time. I tore up my calf muscle in the race, and I was hopping. I was forced to pull out because I really couldn't walk. I kept trying to come back and get things right but nothing seemed to be working. My body was just kind of depleted all over. I was feeling frustrated and not seeing much progress... This must be the most negative interview ever.

FW: No, the most negative interview ever was one with a former Foot Locker Cross Country champion who'd finished a college career that wasn't all that great. He was living in his parents' house. He didn't have a job and he didn't know what to do with his running. He was playing in a band and his songs were all about failure and defeat and misery and pain. You haven't gotten near that yet.
Good! Well, I'm very happy regardless of everything that's happened to me [laughs].

FW: You seem to somehow manage to remain upbeat.
My job is as a school counselor. I have a masters degree in counseling, so I kind of know how to positive self-talk, and I've done a lot of that to myself. Now I am working with a sports psychologist and a bunch of people at the Women's Sports Foundation. They're helping me in staying positive and realizing that every athlete goes through ups and downs. Mine just all happened within a three-year span, because I started the sport late. I've only met with the psychologist a couple of times. I hope to see her more in the summer when I have free time. With everything that's happened over the last couple of years, my confidence has diminished. Right now, that's kind of my main focus, to get that confidence back, to realize I do have the capability of achieving the goals I want to achieve.

FW: In a profile in New York Runner, you said one of the reasons you liked the sport was 'I'm responsible for myself. I have control over almost everything.' To listen to the last couple of years, that sense of control is lost.
Yeah, for a control freak, it's not very good [laughs]. I guess it's a good life lesson that I don't have control where I thought I did. I have no control over the things that have been happening to me, and I thought that I could push through, push through, and that hard work hard be the key to everything, but I've learned that the sport is a lot about timing, it's a lot about patience, and that I don't have control. I don't have all the answers. I've learned a lot. I went into the sport very naive, and I achieved success so rapidly, and I didn't really take the time to look back and appreciate what I was achieving. All the hard times that other people had throughout their careers, I'm having now, all at once.

FW: Can you remember the first day that you thought about running, 'Hey, this is hard?'
The race I thought 'this was hard' in was the Mini the very first year I ran it. I ran 35-plus minutes, and I was like 'Wow, this sport's hard.' When I went out to California [in the fall of 2002] and trained with Team USA and saw what these women were doing and saw how much it really took to be at the top level, I realized how very tough this sport is. I had thought that every time I stepped on the line, I'd set a PR, and every time I trained, I'd get better. I didn't realize there's a lot more that goes into it.

FW: It must be daunting to see a Team USA runner like Deena Kastor who works hard and has a plan and continues to surge forward, but there has to be an inspirational aspect to that as well.
Oh, absolutely. She's probably one of my top three biggest role models. I absolutely adore Deena, and not only is she an incredible athlete but she's also an incredible person. Everything about her is inspiring. There's not one thing that is not inspiring about Deena. I'm so fortunate to have the opportunity not only to train with her but to befriend her.

FW: How are you adjusting to leaving Mahopac, New York, and being in New Egypt, New Jersey?
Well, I live in Manasquan, right on the shore. I live 20 blocks off the water. I commute 35 minutes to work.

FW: You have a lot of flat areas to run there.
Yeah, and when I get home to New York, I have the hills, so I have a good combination.

FW: When does your running fit in?
5:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. I do double workouts four to five times a week. Training for the marathon, it was six. My miles are down now. And I'm being coached by Darren De Reuck. I run my hard workouts and long runs with local [male] triathletes.

FW: Who was your coach before De Reuck?
Coach [Joe] Vigil, Deena's coach, was my coach. Last year, when I thought I would retire, I called and told him I really didn't think the running was for me. I didn't want to take a spot when some other person could have that opportunity. I also knew I wouldn't be going out to California [again], because I got really homesick. Darren started coaching me right after the Trials. I've known Darren for years. He and Colleen are good friends of mine. I knew that option was there, because he'd always said if I needed any help to contact him.

FW: What ideas did he have to help you improve despite your setbacks?
I've always been a high mileage person. Immediately, he dropped my mileage in half. He said I tend to overtrain and I don't take enough rest opportunities. My focus has always been on mileage rather than intensity. My focus now is on building up that speed and taking the miles out of my legs. Right now, I'm running 80 to 90. Initially, I was running 70, but I was running up to 130, 140 before the Trials.

FW: We heard about one of your recent workouts, 7 x 800 and 4 x 200. Is that a lot different than what you were doing before?
Yeah. I hadn't been on the track for a long time. I did do it with Coach Vigil prior to going out to California, but I hadn't done it constantly for a long time. That feels good, to get my legs underneath me and really challenge myself on the track.

FW: In one earlier interview, you said everyone in your family worked hard and tried to excel at everything. Does Darren talk to you about modifying that extreme perfectionism?
Yeah. Definitely. Darren and Bobby [Gordon, her agent] both tell me I need to be patient with the process. I can't just expect things to just happen overnight. It's funny that you mentioned the fact that if I wasn't good at something, I may give it up, because that's kind of where I think I was at last year. But then I realized I'm not a quitter. I took a different frame of mind than I had a couple of years ago.

FW: You were a soccer player in college. Again and again and again, it turns out some elite runner has come from a soccer background. When someone tells you there's this huge soccer-to-running pipeline, does that make sense to you because of what you saw in the game and the kind of people who played it?
Yeah, it does make sense to me. It's definitely an endurance sport where you know you have to change speeds and surge. The kind of people drawn to soccer are the same as drawn to running, the typical Type A personality, very competitive. Soccer not only takes speed and running, but it also takes skill and patience, and it takes a bright person. What I've found in the running world is that most of the people I've met are very bright people. They're very ambitious outside of the sport. They're intelligent and dynamic people, and I feel a lot of soccer players are the same way. Soccer is a very strategic sport. It's almost like a game of chess. A soccer player really has to think a lot while they're playing, which is a little bit different from some other sports.

FW: In past years we've thought of you at races like the Mini as the young upstart in there...
Not anymore!

FW: Now there are the O'Neill twins, Kate and Laura. Who are coming to the Mini. They're even younger. You're 26, right? You can't be feeling like an old lady already, can you?
Oh yeah, I do [pauses]. Actually, I don't. In the Olympic Trials, the average age was about 34. I was by far one of the youngest in the race, so that kind of put it in perspective. The O'Neill twins are having a fantastic year out of college. Yes, they're young. But there are still a lot of 30-year-old women setting the standard. Colleen is 40 and setting the standard. I always keep that in the back of my mind. I also keep in the back of my mind that I've only been running for three or four years. Meanwhile, these women have been running since they were 12 years old. Even though I am getting older, my experience in running is very limited. So that kind of makes me think I'm a little bit young.

FW: You're living in New Jersey now, but coming back to New York to race…
It's always a treat. I love New York. It's my home. I'll never say I'm from New Jersey. I still have my New York plates and my New York license. I almost choked when they announced me as from New Jersey at the last couple of races I've been running.

FW: Despite what happened to you, are things now coming around? At the Mini and beyond, do you think you can start getting some good races in?
I'm so excited about running again. I feel like I've been given a second chance to start over. I think that I've still got a lot of potential. It's there. It's just a matter of me getting my head on straight, tapping into that potential. I'm looking forward to a lot of things. Every time I see the commercials for the Olympics, I get choked up. So 2008, here I come! [Laughs.]

(Interview conducted May 26, 2004, and posted June 1, 2004.)

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