Interview with Jen Toomey
by Alison Wade

Jen Toomey runs away from Hazel Clark in the 800m at the 2004 USA Indoor Track & Field Championships...
(All photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
...and does the same to Suzy Favor Hamilton in the 1,500m the next day.
Toomey became the first athlete in meet history to win the 800/1,500m double.

After amassing a collection of second and third place finishes at USA Championships over the past three years, 2004 has been a year of firsts for Jen Toomey. She posted fast times at early season all-comers meets, then proved that she could also win races by blowing away a quality field at the adidas Boston Indoor Games. She suffered a loss in the 1,500m at the Millrose Games, finishing third (4:17.81) in a tactical race, but rebounded beautifully, finishing second in the 1,000m at the Norwich Union Grand Prix in Birmingham, England, and breaking Regina Jacobs' American record by more than a second, with a 2:34.19. One week later, the Salem, Massachusetts resident surpassed all expectations in front of her home crowd at the USA Indoor Track & Field Championships. Toomey won the 800m (2:00.02) as expected, but then came back the next day and ran away with the 1,500m title (a PR 4:09.82) as well, becoming the first athlete in meet history to complete the middle-distance double.

Toomey, now 32, showed promise on the track as a high school freshman, qualifying for the Connecticut state final in the 400m. She didn't enjoy competing, however, so she gave up competitive running until the late 90s, when she ran the Boston Marathon as part of a bet with a coworker. Toomey gradually got back into competitive running, and found her niche in the middle distances. The former Jen Lincoln met her husband, Mike Toomey, when she joined a local running club. The couple wed in 1998, and Mike made a deal with Jen that she could quit her job working for an internet company if she broke 2:02 in the 800. Toomey has been a full-time runner ever since.

We caught up with Toomey the day after she completed her indoor double, as she was waiting at Boston's Logan airport to catch a plane to Budapest, Hungary, to compete in the World Indoor Track & Field Championships. By the time the 1,500 rolled around [at the previous weekend's USA Indoor Track & Field Championships] the Boston fans seemed to expect you to win, because you'd become this hero to them. Did you expect yourself to win?
Jen Toomey:
No. I guess you always hope you can do it, but I'm very unproven in the 15, so my coach just wanted me to go in there for the race experience and not worry about the pressure of what the media was saying; just to go out there and run my own race, and not worry about all those external factors that were all of a sudden exploding around me.

FW: Someone standing behind me before the 1,500 said, 'Toomey better win.' I told her, 'She's not the favorite, you know. Don't put so much pressure on her!'
I actually had a little bit of a breakdown that morning, just because the whole event was so overwhelming to me. The past 10 days have just been this amazing ride, in a very good way, but I woke up that morning and I said to my husband, 'I don't know if I can do this again. I don't think I want to race, I just need a day off!' I was starting to get really upset, and he actually had to leave for a little bit, and I talked to my coach [Tom McDermott] in the meantime. My coach said, 'Listen, you have to go through this, and I'm not going to force you to do it, I think you should do it, but ultimately it's up to you.' He said, 'I'm going to the race. If you want to be there, then I'll see you there.' (laughs) 'If you do decide to go, there's no pressure on you, so don't worry about it. You're only [a 4:17 runner] going in, no one expects you to win. You have two Olympians in your race... You're probably expected to come in fourth or fifth, so just go out there and run.'

FW: So you're glad you decided to run?
Yeah! Now I am (laughs)... I was very emotional during the day. Probably until noon that day, I wasn't [planning on] running. Then, when I talked to my coach, I said, 'OK, I really need to do this for my own personal development, I need to get through it.' To be able to come back and do it was quite a feat for me... It was very much a psychological triumph.

FW: Right after the 1,500, it sounded like you might run the 15 at Worlds, but within a half hour, you had decided to run the 800. How did you make that decision?
I really went with my coach's recommendation. I was thinking the 1,500 because I wanted to try to run it, but his thinking was go and run the 8. The 8 will be more difficult than the 15, just because we're fighting for six slots [in the final], which is so tough. [He wanted me to] just try to make it as far as I can go and really test myself against the best in the world. He wanted me to experience that in the 8.

FW: What's your goal for the World Championships? What will make you happy?
I guess I would really like to make it to the final, that's my goal, to try to make it that far. If I make it to the semifinal, I want to try to run as hard as I can, kind of treat that as my final, and hopefully get one of those top-six spots.

FW: What has your life been like since you finished the 1,500 yesterday. When did you leave the track, and did you get any sleep last night?
Well I was pretty wound up last night, so it was tough. I had to do team processing, and then I ended up going home, since I live so close, and I spent some time with my parents and my husband. I ended up packing late at night. This morning, I got up, had a massage, ran, and now I'm [at the airport]. I didn't get too much sleep, maybe four or five hours. I'm looking forward to sleeping on the plane!

FW: This is your second trip to Europe in about 10 days. Are you tired?
No, I really don't mind traveling that much. I can sleep on the plane very easily. It takes me about a day to recover coming back, but going there, we have plenty of time before the race, so I feel fine traveling.

FW: Why did you choose to run that particular race [the 1,000m at the Norwich Union Grand Prix in Birmingham, England, on February 20], was that a planned American record attempt?
Well, in January, I knew I was really fit, the training was coming along so well. I saw that [Maria] Mutola was going for a World record in the 1,000, and I've always been told, 'Jen, you should really try the 1,000, it's probably the perfect distance for you.' I'm not quite comfortable in the 15, but it's just long enough where I can really keep that intensity of the 8. I saw that and I called my agent and said, 'Listen, you have to get me in the 1,000,' (laughs) and he got me in. I knew it was a little risky [racing abroad] the week before the national championships, but I felt that that was a really important race to really test myself against an international field. I definitely knew what the record was when I was going in, I had that in my mind (laughs).

FW: Is there any additional satisfaction in breaking a record that was set by someone who has since tested positive for a banned substance?
Well, yeah, I'm really glad the record is no longer with someone who has been known to cheat, because I don't do anything like that. Regina [Jacobs] has so many records under her name, and you kind of have to question all of them. This is one you don't have to question anymore.

FW: You're probably tired of telling the Jen Toomey story, so we'll try to just fill in the holes here. You ran as a freshman in high school, was that the only year you competed in track?
Yeah, I just ran as a freshman. I loved training, but — it just shows you how important a good coach is — my coach just pushed me the wrong way and I didn't enjoy it. I said, 'You know, I don't have to do this if I don't like it.' And I didn't (laughs). I was pretty decent, I made it to the state final in the 400 my freshman year in high school, I just hated the event, I didn't enjoy competing. I told [my coach], 'I'm not coming back for this next year, sorry.'

FW: So you focused on diving for the rest of high school?
Yeah. I dove because my sister was a diver — she is a little bit older than me and I had always looked up to her — I copied her and dove all through high school, and a little bit in college.

FW: Did you do any running at all between your freshman year of high school and when you got back into it post-collegiately?
I always ran a little bit, and my freshman year in college, someone asked me if I wanted to try out for the cross country team at Tufts. I tried it for maybe three or four weeks (laughs) and again, it was the racing I didn't enjoy. I'd get so nervous before the races, it really wasn't my thing, so I decided not to do that.

FW: It's hard to imagine that pre-race nerves were such a problem for you in the past, when you just won two U.S. titles in front of a home crowd. How have you managed to conquer the mental aspect of it?
Well I think I got to a point in my life where I really needed to address that fear. It became a challenge for me, I said, 'I can't constantly be running away from this. I have to take it on,' and I faced it head-on. I still get nervous, but I'm able to deal with it much, much better. I know that everything's going to be OK as soon as I get on the line, as soon as the gun goes off.

FW: Have you worked with a sports psychologist at all?
I did talk to someone a couple of years ago, and they taught me visualization, and how to mitigate those fears by thinking them out first and being in a relaxed state, so that really helped me a lot.

FW: So then you got back into running when you competed in the Boston Marathon?
Yeah, when I ran the marathon, it made me realize that I really did like running. I joined a running club after that, it was a very social thing for me, I met some of my closest friends at this running club, my husband, and I didn't know I was going to be a competitive runner at all. I'm a competitive person by nature, so I just kind of worked my way up in the group, and my husband really encouraged me to pursue track more than I probably would have otherwise.

FW: How fast did you run Boston?
It was something in the 4:00 range, nothing really special at all.

FW: So it sounds like a lot of this year's breakthrough, can be attributed to you getting a new coach?
Yeah, really my coach and my husband. But the new coach [Tom McDermott], he's just been really helping me bring my training to a new level, and helping me believe in myself.

FW: Tom McDermott was your husband's high school coach?

FW: What is his coaching background?
He doesn't really have a resume. He was an assistant coach for Lynn High School... He's just a very brilliant man. He's an engineer, and he's a student of the sport... He always has this group of runners around him, he's like a magnet. He just makes people excited to run... Mike hooked up with him because he was just coaching some other kids, and within 16 months, he ran the fastest mile in the state that year.

FW: Does he coach any other elite runners?
Nope, just me.

FW: And he hadn't coached anyone in a number of years?
No, he stopped coaching when he started having a family. He wanted to spend more time with them.

FW: So you brought him out of retirement?
I did (laughs). When my former coach [Bob Sevene] left for California, it put us in a real bind because this is such an important year, it's an Olympic year. We've basically put our lives on hold to pursue my running career, and it's so important to me. For years, Mike has been telling me about Tom, how he's just such a special person. He's brilliant at giving you workouts, but he also has that whole motivational aspect to him. I had been hearing this for years and years, so when my coach left, he was the first person I thought of. I said, 'I think Tom would be a good coach for me.' So I called him up and I asked him to coach me, and I had silence on the phone for about a minute (laughs). He was like, 'Well...yeah.' And he really took it on as a challenge, within a week, he had my whole season mapped out. He's an engineer, so he has a very logical mind, he needs to have a plan for everything.

FW: Did you ever consider moving out to California with [Bob Sevene]? The Boston area isn't exactly a training hotbed for elite middle distance runners.
For a fleeting moment, I thought about moving out there. My husband and I talked about how maybe I could go out there for a couple of months at a time and train with Sev, and I'd have the nice weather... But ultimately, I couldn't leave my husband. He's just so important to me, he's such a huge part of my life and my running, he's my training partner. When it came down to it, I couldn't pull the trigger. I could never leave.

FW: Do you train with Mike all the time?
In the past, we've occasionally done workouts together, Mike has offered to help me out. He works full time, so he doesn't have time to put in all the distance work and whatnot. But when Tom took me on, he talked to Mike and he said, 'Listen, Mike, you're an integral part of this team. You're one piece that's essential to make it all work. You're going to have to get in shape to help Jen get in shape.' Mike's been running the distance, he's been doing training runs with me, pushing me all the time, doing all my workouts with me. He's not a go-between for me and Tom, but he's able to give Tom feedback that I wouldn't necessarily be able to give. It's worked out great.

FW: Are Tom and Mike going to Worlds with you?
No. We're anticipating that Mike is going to have to take a lot of time off from work in the summer, so he's kind of saving it up now. Tom is [in the same situation], but we have an assistant coach who's helping us out as well, and he's going to be here.

FW: Looking ahead, are you planning to run both the 800 and 1,500 at the Olympic Trials?
Yeah, definitely.

FW: When you think of the Olympics, do you think 8 or 15?
Both. (Laughs) I know that's a pretty strange thing to say considering I'm really very unproven in the 15, but that's how we're training, we're training to try to do both. If I make the team in both, I'll do both in the Olympics.

FW: Do you think, long-term, that you'll try anything longer than the 1,500, or is that your limit?
No, we've talked about maybe next year... Since this is my first year with Tom, he said, 'Well I really don't have that much time to get you ready for the 3 or the 5, but maybe next year we'll do some work for that (laughs).' So we'll see. One step at a time, I guess.

(Interview conducted March 1, 2004, and posted March 4, 2004.)

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