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Interview: Kim Fitchen

Kim Fitchen, right, with Carol Montgomery alongside, runs to a 32:14.64 10,000m personal best at the 2001 Mt. Sac Relays.
( Photo)

By Peter Gambaccini

Going into the USATF Championships in Eugene, the fastest U.S. woman's 10,000-meter time of 2001 belongs to Kim Fitchen of the Nike Farm Team, who ran 32:14.64 at the Mt. Sac Relays on April 20, placing second behind Kathy Butler of Great Britain. Fitchen, 32, has been a serious runner for less than five years. The former high school cheerleader and Little League softball player won the USATF Fall Cross Country Championship in Boston last November, defeating Carrie Tollefson by 13 seconds with a 20:04 for 6k. Fitchen's 33rd place finish in the 2000 World Cross Country Championships in Portugal helped the U.S. win a team bronze medal. The 5'' 9-1/2" University of California-Santa Barbara graduate was ninth in the 10,000 at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials. On June 3, she ran a personal best 9:04.95 for 3,000 meters (taking tenth place) at the Oregon Track Classic.

How do you feel about your chances for the 10,000 at the USATF Championships?
I plan on taking top three. I'm confident this will happen, as is my coach (Vin Lananna). I have the leading time going into the race for this year. And I ran it in a rainy race, and I ran the second half alone, because Kathy Butler took it out in 15:38 for the first 5k, which is way too fast. I didn't want to go out that fast. And in the pack I was in, the other girls started to slow down a bit, so I had to go ahead. From that point on, I was by myself. Kathy Butler was slowly coming back to me, but she was too far ahead.

You look at the results and you see that she ran 31:59 and it looks like "okay, I should have run with that." And I have no doubt I can run fast. But in the race I was in, it was difficult because of the weather and the way the race went. It was just pouring down in the second half.

But you did manage a PR by about two seconds.
Yeah, but in the 3k at Portland I PRed by seven seconds, so my coach thinks I can go a lot better in the ten. I ran 9:04; last year I ran 9:11 before the Olympic Trials.

And that's okay, a 9:04 for 3,000, for someone whose aspirations are in the 10,000.
Exactly. I followed my coach's race plan and it went perfectly. I was coming off high mileage as well, and he wasn't expecting to run any faster than that, if even that fast. But you know, it (the USATF 10,000) comes down to one day. Fitness-wise, I should be able to take top three. But it's all one day and how you feel on that day, and many factors can come into play.

Do you have any numbers in mind?
Timewise? It's not a time race. I'm going to Europe this summer to race, so if I don't get the time at nationals, I'll definitely get it if I'm in the right race. I have no doubt I can run under 32:00. It would be great to have it all happen at once, and in the last few years, it (the USATF final) has gone under 32:00, but I'm not going to make it like "oh my God, I have to go under 77.0 every lap."

So you'll see what other people do?
Well, I just want to race. I do really well in cross country and distance races where I just kind of go out and race and don't worry so much about time. I actually wanted to break 32:00 at Mt. Sac, but my coach said "don't even think about time, because it's so early, and if you run like 31:50 right now, it would scare me." He thinks I'm very capable of that, but he didn't want to have this huge pressure on me and have it take everything out of me too early. Because people who run 31:50, they don't run so well a few months later, you know? Not to say that that always happens, but that's really fast, and you put your body through a lot.

Have you raced in Europe on the track before?
I never have, and I'm so excited. I've raced in Portugal for cross country, but that was it. We're going to take 12 of the people from the Farm Team over. We're going to be based in Switzerland. We're going to race Hechtel (Belgium) -- we're racing all over -- France, Germany, Austria. It's about an hour flight from where a lot of racing opportunities are available. They're basically B-level meets. It's going to be a great developmental thing. I don't know how much I will race. I'll definitely do a 5k. I'll do a 10k if I need it, and I'll do some threes. It's July 8, right after Can Ams, to July 23. I'm really excited.

How long have you been working with Vin Lananna?
Since September.

And you're obviously happy about the arrangement?
Yes. Things have been going very well. I didn't ever want (former Farm Team coach) Jeff Johnson to leave, but he had to, he retired, and I think that I fell into very good hands.

Who are you training with?
I have a girl that I'm training with right now from Ireland, Una English. She's more of a 5k runner, but we do our solid workouts and our high volume workouts together. And then, the other workout, she'll do a 1,500-meter workout and I'll do another high volume workout.

Is there a big difference between Vin's workouts and Jeff's?
There's a little bit more of an intensity. It's not any big secret. Running's been around for a long time, and you have the standard workout like five or six times a mile, and eight or ten times 1000 and 12 to 16 times 400. But the difference is Vin works us a little tiny bit faster when it's appropriate. And I work out much more frequently than I did with Jeff. After Mt. Sac, I came back that week and ran 100 miles. I had three (track) workouts and two long runs within seven days after my 10k. Once again, he didn't want me to get injured or to have gone to the well.

Now that Vin is done with NCAAs, instead of meeting three times a week, we're meeting every afternoon. Going into the USATF meet, we have a massage center and I take ice baths, and there are stretching facilities. It's pretty much an intense two weeks, but we are tapering our mileage.

You won the USATF Fall Cross Country, but at the Winter Nationals in Vancouver, WA, things didn't go quite as well.
No, I had a miscarriage that week. Most of the runners know. Nike knows, my coaches know, and my family knows, my friends. My boyfriend and I are still together. It was an accident. I don't want to say I wasn't fit or had an injury. I don't want to lie about it. I'm planning on getting engaged this summer.

Is he a running guy?
No, actually. I love it. He doesn't compete, and he's never competed in running. He loves sports, but he gives me great balance. He tells me "no matter how you do or what you do, I love you." On one hand, I think it would be wonderful to date someone who runs and travel with someone with runs, but not if you had a bad day or a bad race or a bad practice. He's an engineer, he computer programs, and he says "I don't know that I'd want to date another engineer." It's kind of nice having someone who does something different -- for me, anyway.

You must have been disappointed to not go to the Worlds in Belgium, since you'd helped the U.S. win a team bronze the year before.
As much as I would have liked to help the team, even if I had a great race, it was kind of an off day (for the Americans). People were way back.

It (the miscarriage) was a big surprise to me. I get my periods regularly. All of the sudden, I had kind of an off race indoors, I had an off 5k, and it was WAY off actually, in Fayetteville in January. I had no idea what was going on. My coach thought I was in 15:30 shape, and I ran 16:19. The next month, I started feeling it to (the point) where I was running horribly in workouts. Sometimes on my training runs, I run with my boyfriend. One time I had to stop after a mile because I had horrible stomach cramps. That's when I went to the doctor and found out.

It was two weeks before nationals, and so I pulled out of the race. I told Nike, and they were so great. First of all, it took me so long to get a Nike contract, but I have one now. I think so highly of them. I just said "I can't run right now." They got an alternate for me for Winter Nationals (though she did end up running the 8k, finishing 18th). They got to me and said "if you need anything, let us know. We hope everything's okay. Let us know when you're going to be running again." It wasn't like "we can't continue your contract or anything." They were so supportive. Then, the weekend before Winter Nationals, I had a miscarriage. I think it was mostly because I didn't know I was pregnant for two months. I was doing 110 miles a week. It was a very emotional time. It took me a little while to come back. But I have come back. On the other hand, I haven't missed very much, and I think I'll be fresher in the long run. But it was a very difficult time and I don't want to ever have to go through anything like that again.

Nike's given you a full-time contract for two years, correct?
Yeah. They pay me a salary and give me gear. And time bonuses. Every time I PR, I get these big bonuses (laughs)!

Earlier, you'd expressed concern about being outkicked in races. What things are you doing to try and prevent that from happening?
Twice a week, after training runs, we do fast strides. He (Lananna) has them pinpointed. Three weeks down the road he'll want us to be faster by .4 seconds. It's very precise. I've never even focused on anything less than a second. I've never thought about tenths of a second. Maybe if I missed a standard by point-something seconds, then I would know it. I've become a lot faster. I didn't expect to PR by seven seconds in the 3k. The thing I like about Vin is you don't really realize the fitness you're in, but he senses what you're capable of running. But you may be tired. Then when you start seeing it happen right before a big Nationals, it's really exciting. Because you're like "okay, I believe you now." For instance, last year, at Prefontaine, Jason Lunn ran 4:01. Well, he ran 4:01 at Portland as well, and he didn't know what happened. We had been training so hard. He had a lousy race, but last year he almost made the Olympic time with the same schedule. Vin seems to get results when it counts. Some of his athletes have races when they're tired, but it doesn't matter, because he thinks of those races as not important compared to the big picture. That's something that as an athlete, it's hard to realize. Because you always think "oh gosh, I'm only as good as my last race," and then you kind of go into a hole if you have a bad race. It's really difficult, because you judge yourself so much, but you have to believe in yourself and what your coach thinks. I haven't had too many off races, and there's usually an excuse why I would have one, but sometimes you just have to realize the big picture.

You've mentioned that your friends think of you as a kind of joker. But isn't it all business when the gun goes off?
Oh definitely. I think I'm a very fierce competitor. I think that's why I'm good at cross country. Mentally, I'm really tough. And I don't know that anyone has done quite the amount of miles with the intensity that
I've done this year. Vin's kept me off the roads and he's really focused me on nationals. For me, the 10k is this year... I'm not trying to win money on the roads. I'm very content with taking top three at nationals and going to the Worlds and the Goodwill Games. I won't graduate from the 10k until I stop PRing by a minute every year. I still have a lot of work to do in the 10k.

Is it accurate to say you didn't become really serious about running until about 1997?
Actually, I joined the Farm Team in 1995, but I had a stress fracture of each femur and a tibial stress fracture, so I didn't run consistently until 1997. I dabbled in the sport in high school and college, but I was cheerleading, and I was in a sorority. I had to work in college; I wasn't on any kind of scholarship or anything. I was pre-med. Running wasn't a really big deal for me until I joined the Farm Team. It was always something that I liked, and it was good for exercise, but it wasn't something that I saw a future for myself in.

Why did that change? What made running more important?
A lot of it is because of the Farm Team. People were training for the Olympics -- Jeff Atkinson, PattiSue Plumer. Jeff Johnson, one of the co-founders of Nike, was my coach. It was a very exciting positive
atmosphere. I had perceived talent even though I was considered "The Project." Once I started having my improvement curve, I had this whole momentum. It's interesting, because Una had told me "you don't know how good you have it here." Training at Stanford with the Farm Team -- I don't think there's any other place that I would want to be, not just in the U.S. but anywhere. A lot of people training for nationals have made Stanford their base. The whole atmosphere here has kind of carted me along in the sport.

Obviously the people make it special, but what else is so great about the place?
The people are great. People come here and don't leave; the team's getting very big. We definitely want more women, but we don't want to recruit. We want people that are gonna come here and get serious. Most of the people that are already that fast are in situations where they're married or have a house. It's difficult to get people to come here. But people still are. For women, it's not happening quite as fast.

The weather here is perfect here year-round for running. In February, it may rain two weeks of the month, and in the summer we may get a few 100-degree days. But there's no humidity. We're 50 miles from the coast. There are trails all over. We can use Stanford's facilities -- the pool, the weight room. There's a massage place at a nonprofit organization; for the Farm Team, if you run fast enough, you get it for free.

Did you actually just call and invite yourself onto the Farm Team?
Yeah. I was moving up here (the Bay Area) for a job. I was in pharmaceutical sales for five years after college and I had a job with Dupont. I didn't want to go to med. school immediately. First of all, I already had student loans that I've paid off since. I wasn't sure that's what I wanted to do. I was actually more interested in marine biology, but I was advised to go straight biology or pre-med because then I could go get a graduate degree. And I called Mark Nenow at Nike. And I didn't know he was the American Record holder in the 10k. That's how pathetic my knowledge of running was. I said "I'm Kim Fitchen and I saw your article in Runner's World." It was one of the News Wires, it said Jeff Johnson, one of the founders of Nike, was starting the Farm Team, it's in Palo Alto. That was part of my medical sales territory. I was really persistent with him (Nenow). He gave me Jeff's phone number. Jeff said "come on out." People who don't run fast don't get shoes, they don't get travel money, but they get a workout. That's basically where I started. I didn't break 34:30 until I quit my career entirely. They wouldn't let me go to a race, so I quit. Then I had odds and end jobs; I worked at running stores. 1999 was the first year I ever went to nationals.

It was brave of you to quit, with no guarantees.
It was, but I thought "I'm never going to have a chance like this again. I'm either gonna do it or it's not gonna happen." After 2000, I figured if I'm not making at least something from the sport, I'm going back to work at least part-time. Luckily, things worked out well.

Once previously, we were comparing running more to artistic performance than to sport - saying that putting together a workout regimen is like putting together the pieces of choreography. Do you think in those terms?
Definitely. Running is such a pure sport. There's really nothing else like it in sports. There's no judgment on what color uniform you're wearing, how you look, what form you have. Thank goodness. It's you against the clock. The way you express yourself is to run as hard and as gutsy as you can. In athletics, there isn't much like that. In art or in music, they play their heart and soul out. It's so free; there aren't a lot of variables. When you cross the line (in running), you know how you did. I've always liked that. How you perform is how you do. It's not like writing an essay. It's all against the clock.

The U.S. Marathon Championships are in New York City in November. Have officials contacted you about running there?
Yes they did. And I won't decide on that until after Goodwill Games. If I'm feeling great, I may pop in and get a qualifier (for the 2004 Olympic Trials). But I'm not thinking about that right now. I'm not thinking much more beyond what I have to do beyond the next two or three weeks. But the marathon will happen before 2004.

After the Goodwill Games, you'd have six or seven weeks to get ready for the marathon.
Right, but Vin doesn't even want me planning a camping trip after nationals. My boyfriend and I want to drive home along the coast after Eugene. Vin's the type who doesn't want anything in your mind (scheduled) after your race might affect you. My plans are contingent on how I do at nationals.

Your e-mail address is a variation on the nickname Bitchin' Fitchen. What's the story behind that?
This is how pathetic I am about computers. I had never even switched (to) the Internet until 1999. And I was back at Jeff Johnson's house in New Hampshire with a group of Farm Teamers. They were going to Dartmouth to check their e-mail. They thought it was so bizarre I didn't have an account, so they set one up for me. Gary Stoltz and Suzy Jones said "Why don't you choose Bitchin' Fitchen?" I said no. I was embarrassed actually. So we said "how about something a little less conspicuous," so we did Bitchin' Fitchen without the vowels. Vin calls me Bitchin' Fitchen. Every time I come to the track, he says "How you doing, Bitchin' Fitchen?"

And he means it well.
Well, I hope so! He's my coach.

So life is good, right? You've got a contract, and you're contender at nationals.
It is good. In fact, you have to remember that. My life was a total rollercoaster. I think everyone's is. I know mine has really high ups and really high downs. It was difficult after Olympic Trials because I was hurt and had a breakup and basically couldn't run for a month. Then everything started going great. I definitely had another down time in February, but I bounced back. That's the thing. Even with what I went through, in the big scheme of life, it's nothing. I mean, I don't have cancer, I'm not crippled. Sometimes in athletics we think "oh my gosh, my life's over." But the more stuff you go through in life, you realize it's nothing. You have to pull out of it. But right now, life is good. I'll take it.

Peter Gambaccini is a New York-based freelance writer. He is a frequent contributor to New York Runner, Runner's World, MetroSports, The Village Voice, and other periodicals.


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