Interview With Lauren Fleshman
By Becky Orfinger

Lauren Fleshman finishes third at the 2001 NCAA Cross Country Championships.
Fleshman on her way to the 2002 NCAA Indoor 3,000m title.
Fleshman wins her second-straight NCAA 5,000m title at the 2002 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
Photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners

Lauren Fleshman's career as an elite runner has progressed unbelievably well. As a senior at Canyon High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., she finished second at the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships (to current teammate Erin Sullivan) and ran nation-leading times the following spring in the 800, 1,500 and 3,200 meters. Fleshman entered Stanford University in 1999 as part of a stellar recruiting class that included Sullivan and Oregon star Mariel Ettinger. Instead of being overshadowed, Fleshman stepped into the limelight right away, placing fifth in her first appearance at the NCAA Cross Country Championship and finishing as the top American at the Junior World Cross Country Championships in Portugal. In her inaugural college track season, Fleshman set an American Junior record and a Stanford freshman record in the 5,000 meters, anchored Stanford's winning Distance Medley Relay at the NCAA Indoor Championships and competed in the 2000 Olympic Trials, as well as achieving All-America honors in the 1,500 meters.

Since her freshman year, Fleshman has continued to raise the bar higher and excel in both cross country and track. She has achieved All-America honors in every single season she has competed in and is expected to be a top contender for the individual NCAA cross country title this year. As senior captain of a Stanford team that will challenge for the team title in November, Fleshman has a lot on her plate. But despite her past success and determination to close out her senior cross country and track seasons with even bigger and better achievements, she remains humble and grounded. We caught up with her during a rare week in the cross country season where the team was not headed to a meet. You've only competed in two races so far, but we're only a little more than a month away from the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Ind. How are things going at this point in the season? [Ed. Note: This interview was conducted before NCAA Pre-Nationals.]
Lauren Fleshman: Things are going really well. I'm training harder than I've ever trained in my life, so that's pretty exciting. I'm trying to take it up another level in my training so that I can step up in my racing, whether it is this year, next year or whenever it happens. I'm trying to do what is necessary now to help me achieve my goals later.

FW: What are some of the differences in your training this year?
My mileage and [workout] intensity have gone up, my weight lifting program is on track, my sleeping and eating habits are improving and I'm learning better time management skills. I'm just trying to practice the things it takes to be able to focus on doing things really well when you want to. I'm also trying to make every day count more than I have in the past.

FW: Do you think it's just taken you three years of college to get to this point where you're ready to totally focus?
I think that just growing up has helped bring everything together for me and make things happen. I feel like I've always been pretty young in my attitudes compared to my peers; mature in some ways but really young in others, especially my attitude toward running. I used to want to just take off to the beach for the weekend or go do things that aren't exactly the smartest ideas to do when you are training really hard. I'd also get sick a lot, but I didn't care as much as I should have.

FW: So are you finding that you are still able to maintain that balance of running and training well but still enjoying yourself and doing the things you want to do?
I definitely still try to maintain that balance now, I'm just smarter about it. I've learned how I can still have fun but not get sick three times a quarter and not have nervous breakdowns because I haven't done my homework for two weeks at a time (laughs). For me to say I'm being way more structured and organized means that I am probably just the average, somewhat organized person. But I think these are the necessary steps for me to take if I'm going to get better at my sport. The amount of mileage and the level of intensity at which I'm training require me to pay a little closer attention to making good athletic decisions consistently. Its exciting to put a little more of myself into my sport each year.

FW: Have you been running high mileage since this past summer?
Yeah, slightly higher than I've done in the past. I did a few weeks at 90 [miles per week] which follows along my long term progression goals. It's been really fun, though. That's my favorite part of training: the volume. I just love going out for two runs each day and getting to see so many things, explore new trails and cover so much ground.

I felt like I was doing a lot of things this summer that were out of my comfort zone in my training -- taking some chances, really putting myself out there, which is what you have to be willing to do to improve. The [2004 Summer] Olympics are only a year and a half away -- that's not long at all. I'd like to at least have a shot at that, so there are certain things that I have to start doing now.

FW: Do you have people to train with at that high level when you're home from Stanford during the summers?
I ran with the boys from my high school team this summer -- they are hard workers and were second in the nation last year. They've got some really talented guys and some of them were getting ready to go off to college at Cal Poly, so I got to train with them a lot, as well as a few kids that are on the brink of major improvements. They really challenged me and embraced me as an honorary temporary teammate... We joked around a lot and I would threaten to make fun of them if I beat them in a workout. Then I came back here and we had our team camp at Mammoth and that was really fun. Sara [Bei] and Alicia [Craig] had been running a lot of miles, too, so they made really compatible training partners. That's usually how our workouts are, too -- the three of us work together.

FW: If the three of you had been doing similar training at the start of the season, why did you run the shorter race at the Stanford Invitational while Alicia and Sara ran the 6k?
I've never done the 4k before, and we wanted to win both races so we spread out our team a bit and make two even teams. That's just how things worked out, and I think my coach wanted to give me a bit of a break in terms of racing and let me try something new. I loved it, it was a really good time. It felt so short, though -- I wanted it to last longer and it made me really appreciate the 6k. Although I felt particularly good at the end of the race at Notre Dame, and that could have been because it was only a 5k!

FW: How did that race at the Notre Dame Invitational go for you and your teammates? At least from the results, it seemed that you, Sara and Alicia were really working together.
The course was all torn up from all the rain earlier that day, but the weather for our race was beautiful. The mud was super intense, though -- people were slipping all over the place. I loved it. Actually, we were kind of hoping it would rain for that race so we could get psyched up for some weird conditions that we might encounter later. One of our goals this year as a team is to get out of our comfort zones more and be tougher.

FW: Do you set these goals during pre-season camp?
Yeah, that's a lot of what we do; set goals and figure out where each of us is coming from. One thing we talked about was what kind of legacy we wanted to leave on the team -- how each of us wanted to be remembered. We're really trying to work on living with integrity and instead of just talking about it, acting with integrity on a daily basis.

A lot of people will set goals of being consistent, versatile, accountable... My three adjectives to describe the way I wanted to be remembered were: a dreamer, a doer and an inspirer. Those are the things my teammates remind me of on a daily basis. We try to remind each other of our goals especially when school starts getting more intense and we all have midterms, it helps us refocus and remember what we are all here to do.

FW: Speaking of school being intense, do everyone's class schedules allow you to practice as a complete team most days?
The athletes make practice a priority, and then we design our busy schedules around that. We meet as a team almost every day in the afternoon but one day a week we practice really early in the morning to make it easier for us when we travel to east coast meets. We try to do as much together as possible. Coach Dena Evans motivates us to do that and holds us accountable to putting each other first when school gets more demanding.

FW: How do you manage to get all your work done when you are traveling so much for meets?
I try to read the whole time I am on the plane, key word being "try" (laughs). I have to take a lot of [credits] every quarter in order to graduate on time because I figured that I would be here five years and redshirt one year, but I've been so lucky to be healthy that I won't need that extra year.

FW: How did you manage to stay virtually injury-free throughout college so far?
I think it's a balance issue. I think part of is the fact that I'm pretty lucky to have a durable body, as far as genes go -- I thank my parents for that. I take a day off when I need it, I cross train when I feel like running just sounds like a horrible idea -- basically, I will do whatever my instincts tell me to do. I am really good at listening to my body. I also feel like I'm a very healthy eater, as far as getting enough calories.

I think a huge, huge part of success in college is not getting caught up in the immediacy of everything and thinking, 'I have to be ready this season,' or 'I need to make a big improvement right now,' instead of looking more long-term. This sport is a multi-year event. I want to be good at what I do for a long time. Winning NCAAs is cool, but that's not even my biggest goal. If I think about the future -- Olympics, World Championships, being one of the best runners in the world that I can be -- then winning NCAAs or at least being a top competitor on a yearly basis is one of the steps on the way to getting there, but not the end all.

That long-term look takes the pressure off of me from season to season. I'm able to take a more relaxed approach to my eating, my self-image and other things. I don't have to stress out about things like being a couple of pounds heavier than I ideally could be for my sport.

FW: That's a really healthy outlook. Unfortunately, it's probably not the norm in our sport.
No its not. Well, I don't know. Its tough to define a norm. It's easy to get distracted by a few exceptions here and there and project that image onto the entire sport. The past few years, I've seen many people struggle with eating disorders and raced many people whose bodies change drastically, causing fluctuations in their performances. But, in general, I think that its easy to project a few people's problems on the sport as a whole, and as a result focus on the negative. I think that this can make the problems worse. If people go around saying that eating disorders are the norm, than that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I catch myself thinking things like that all the time because it is frustrating to watch people make unwise choices that can have long-lasting consequences on their health. Its especially frustrating when I fear that a message is being sent that you have to be extremely thin to win. But when I really think about it, there are plenty of healthy women in the NCAA that are running really well and there always have been. Since I've been in college, the healthiest looking, fit athletes are the ones that most often have consistent success. We all need to make an effort to focus on that and project that positive image on incoming freshman so they can stay healthy. We need to capitalize on all the positive role models that we have. As you look beyond the NCAAs to the professional running scene, runners are weeded out and the strongest bodies survive. This is not to say that pros never have eating problems, but I have read and heard over and over again from these women the importance of being healthy.

My biggest idols during college -- I don't know these people, so this based on what I know of them -- would be Carrie Tollefson and Amy Yoder-Begley. Post-collegiately I look up to Paula Radcliffe and Amy Rudolph. Amy seems fiesty in her athleticism and I want to be that way. I like to watch her compete.

I'm not going to say that I never struggle with those demons and the voice in your head telling you to change something about yourself that isn't perfect. But I know that it's not changing those things about yourself that is important, it's learning to recognize that voice in your head and shut it up. I think college is valuable at teaching people that, but it takes different people different amounts of time to learn.

FW: Do you think the Stanford coaching staff is pretty good about recognizing when people do have body image issues and getting them back on track?
Our coaching staff is phenomenal in terms of interacting with the athletes on those topics. The one thing [Vin Lananna] emphasizes so much is [the importance of] athleticism in our sports. If you have an athletic outlook, then you are going to eat enough and take care of your body -- that would be the athletic choice to make. Being injured is not an athletic choice -- you have to do everything you can do to stay healthy. He just talks about nutrition as one of the many spokes on the wheel of athletics. Sure, you need to think about what you eat, but you need to think about it as much as getting enough sleep. You're not going to get nine hours of sleep every night, but you do the best you can. Dena Evans is a valuable source in understanding insecurities and dealing with issues of personal growth and self-confidence.

FW: Who are some of the other members of the coaching staff besides head coach Vin Lananna?
Dena Evans is a former Stanford athlete who ran a 4:16 1,500 while she was there and she's also a really phenomenal soccer player. She's on all the top-ten lists for both sports, it's amazing. She just had a baby and brings the baby to practice, it's great. I think a really unique thing about our program is that it's so much like a family... Dena with her baby, a lot of relaxed time at practice to talk and catch up... It's really nice. We always chitchat for 20 minutes, 25 minutes -- sometimes 45 minutes -- before we actually start our run. It's is so much fun. I thought that it would be really intense here, but it is actually pretty relaxed.

FW: On a geographically relevant but otherwise totally different topic: being from California and going to school at Stanford, are you able to get a lot of family support at your meets?
Well, where I'm from in California is actually about a six-hour drive from Stanford. I think my family has actually seen me in more races outside of California than they've seen me race [at Stanford.] They came to the Stanford Invitational my freshman year and try to come to one or two meets each year -- it's expensive and my dad isn't able to take that much time off from work. They are busy people -- they cheer from afar, and I always feel like they are there for me.

Actually, my dad has this thing he does -- he calls it 'the mantra' -- he likes to know exactly what time I'm racing and then he will sit there and think about me the whole time I am running. He gives me positive energy.

And my mom is funny about running. She is totally supportive, but she serves as the voice of reason. She is the one telling me, 'Just don't run today honey,' if I am stressed out or have a lot of homework. She likes to see me succeed in running, but I don't think she would care one bit if I gave it up tomorrow and took up painting or something.

My younger sister could care less about my running. She is more interested in borrowing my car! (laughs). She goes to UC Santa Cruz so we talk a lot and she keeps it real for me by probing me about all the non-running related stuff in my life. I am lucky to have her.

FW: When you first started running, did you ever imagine that you'd be in the position you are now as a senior in college: a multi-time All-American, captain of a top-ranked distance program and a top contender for the national cross country title?
Honestly, I'd have to say that it had crossed my mind. I feel like I've always been different in that my dad raised me to be super tough. I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys, and my dad used to tell me that I could beat the boys at anything I wanted to. That philosophy shaped my approach to everything I did when I was younger and made me question a lot of stuff... I'd always ask my mom questions like, 'Why can't I be president?' or 'Why can't I go to the Olympics?' and I think a lot of that stayed with me.

I've lost a little bit of that, in terms of naïveté, but I still have enough confidence to know that you can get anything you want if you are willing to work for it.

FW: How did you get into running in high school in the first place?
I was a softball convert. I played softball for eight years and then switched to cross country in ninth grade. I sort of discovered that I might be good at it the way a lot of people do, in P.E. class. I would always try to race the boys when we did the mile, and my teacher suggested that I try running. We had this little junior high track meet and I got second in the mile to this girl who had run in the Junior Olympics or something. I didn't run that fast -- probably a 5:50 mile or so -- but it was a PR by a minute for me that day, so I was excited about it. I met the high school coach later on and got really excited about joining the team. The more I heard from the girls about ski trips and beach trips and altitude training camp, I knew I picked the right sport.

I fell in love with the team right away. We had a really good team that won State my freshman year.

FW: Do you still keep in touch with your high school coach?
Yeah, he's a great guy, kind of like a third parent for me. We're really close and I'm very close to his family.

FW: Did he help you with your college choice, or did you know that you wanted to go to Stanford all along?
If it hadn't have been for him, I probably wouldn't have applied to very many places. I was just totally oblivious to the whole process. He would say, 'Lauren, you really need to write letters to these schools,' and Stanford was one of them he mentioned because I hadn't heard from them yet. He had me write them a letter and then they called me. I'm glad he encouraged me -- I'm not sure where I would have ended up if he didn't.

I went on all five official recruiting trips that I could take -- I went to Arizona, Northern Arizona, Colorado and UCLA in addition to Stanford. Stanford just really stood out for me. It was the last trip I went on and all of a sudden I just knew that it was the place for me. It was a much better fit all around than anywhere else.

FW: When you started at Stanford, did you know how successful some of the girls on the team, like Sally Glynn and Julia Stamps, had been on both the high school and college scene?
Well, I knew of Julia since we were both from California, but no, I had no idea who Sally Glynn was. She was so fast in high school, I should have known who she was! I learned quickly though! She was our captain and got me headed in the right direction.

I think it's a fairly new phenomenon that high school runners know so much about college running and where they want to go to school. I was so surprised when Sara and Alicia came on the team and already knew so much about which college teams were good and everything. I think that's really cool -- I didn't even know who to look up to as a role model when I was a freshman in college.

FW: Maybe that was a good thing in that you weren't intimidated -- you didn't seem to have a problem stepping right into the varsity line-up as a freshman.
Yeah, I had a pretty easy transition. I think part of the reason was the fact that I had a really awesome support group at home, just keeping on me and making sure that everything was all right. My high school coach was also a part of it -- he didn't make things difficult for me during the transition, which is something I think a lot of high school coaches can do if you come from a strong high school program.

Sometimes, athletes start doing different training than they did in high school, and the high school coach will point out the differences. I think it can be really destructive when a high school coach gets too involved. My high school coach didn't get involved in the nitty-gritty details of my training -- he just tried to give me emotional support.

I also made a lot of friends really quickly. I loved the team instantly, so that made it easy, too. Erin [Sullivan] and I both transitioned really well -- the leadership on the team was always really good.

FW: And now you've come full circle in terms of leadership, because you're the captain this year. What kinds of things do you do to motivate everyone?
I try to lead by example, most of the time, and keep things fun and lighthearted -- not let people get too, too serious. In our team training camp, we tried to do a lot of fun things like go on hikes, joke around, watch movies and just make sure we keep a balanced perspective on everything. On the more serious side, I try to convey to the team the importance of what we stand for, and the legacy that was built for us by so many women along the way. I try to lead by example in such a way that will encourage others to lead in a similar way when I am gone so that the team can remain an NCAA power for years to come.

FW: Does the fact that the team is ranked so highly and so much is expected of you guys make it difficult to keep things fun and maintain that perspective?
Well, it's a little easier this year because we're not the favorite. Last year, we were ranked number one when we didn't think we should have been, and the same thing happened the year before that. We felt like [the ranking committee] gave us a little too much credit based on purely talent, instead of performance. So this year, I think it's to our advantage that we're not ranked first -- we shouldn't be. We have amazing talent, but we need to put it all together week by week.

FW: Speaking of talent, how has this year's freshman class done so far for the team?
One of our freshman, Julie Allen, deferred a year and will be starting school next fall and we can't wait to have her. We have several others who have been doing well. So far, Yfa Kretzmyer and Kristin Cohoon have led their class in the races, but Rachel Urbina and Christine Concho are showing a lot of promise and have brought a great level of excitement to practice. They are all learning the ropes and figuring out what this whole Stanford thing is all about, and they seem excited to be on the team. Our biggest impact runners this year are older. We have a senior-based team with a lot of good leadership, and a lot of experience with runners that have been to a lot of NCAAs, so that should benefit us. I think we are really going to blossom when it counts.

FW: Which is a bigger goal for you: getting an individual NCAA cross country win this year or achieving a team win?
All I can control is what I do individually, so on a day-to-day basis, I try to do what it takes to make sure I score as few points as possible at the NCAA's, most ideally, one point. You have to do your own part, as an individual, in order to best help your team. But 'doing your own part' extends far beyond points scored. Everything every person does affects everyone else on the team, for better or for worse. I try to make the vast majority of things I do on a day-to-day basis benefit the group in some way, whether it be in leadership or attitude or support or performance. If everyone does that, our team will win no matter what happens at the NCAAs.

FW: In terms of overall team strategy, do you think that the kind of close pack running that you, Alicia and Sara did at Notre Dame is going to be the key to winning Nationals?
That would be great. But we have to run against some more tough schools to see how far that strategy is going to take us. Who knows, maybe we will be able to take that all the way to NCAAs -- we'll have to wait and see. I don't know for sure how our fitness compares to other teams in the country, but I would guess we are in pretty good shape, especially from what we've done in workouts. We have a secret weapon in Malindi Elmore. She is not far off the three of us and has made huge improvements this year. What she brings to the team on a daily basis is a vital part of what we are trying to accomplish this year: getting a little better every day, being humble, and running with integrity and excitement.

FW: How does it feel to be one of the individual favorites in most of your races?
I feel like I've been kind of underrated in a lot of races. I've never felt like the girl that's everyone [on the Internet] thinks is the clear favorite. Other people get that label -- I'm stereotyped as the 'consistent contender.' I don't mind that at all -- that's how I approach races, anyway, so that works great for me. I never consider myself a favorite, because you never know who's coming out of nowhere, in any given year -- especially in cross country.

FW: Looking forward to next year, do you intend to pursue a professional running career?
Yes. I mean, if I get the opportunity, I'd love to take advantage of it. As long as I have enough money so that I can eat and have somewhere to sleep, I'd love to give it a shot after college. The specifics are still up in the air, and I am excited about figuring them all out this summer.

FW: Will you continue training in Palo Alto?
I think that will be something I try, at least for a year. You can't beat Palo Alto for training. The weather is great, the Farm Team is right there on the Stanford Track working with Coach Gagliano, the people are motivated and the community is excited about the sport. Eventually, I would like to try something entirely different like run with Team USA or start my own group! Who knows? Its a great time to be a track athlete in the USA, and things will only get better. The U.S. Women are ripping it up in the distances as evidenced by last year's World Cross Country team, and I can't wait to be a part of it.

FW: What distance do you think will ultimately become your specialty?
I'd love to always keep the 5,000 as my main event, but I still want to be able to go up and down between the 1,500 and the 10,000. I've never done a 10,000 for real -- I tried one once but I didn't finish it. I would also like to get an 800 in at 2:04 or better some time this century. My goals for the 5k are to get down to the [World Championship] standard and run near 15:00. I would like to run a 4:10 1,500 too.

FW: Most of your experience in big U.S. meets like USATF Nationals has been in the 5,000, right?
Yeah, I ran the Olympic Trials after freshman year and got my butt kicked, then ran USATF Nationals sophomore year and got my butt kicked, and then this year I did a little better (9th).

FW: How was that, running the Trials as only a freshman?
It was a really difficult experience for me, actually. My whole freshman year was full of surprises as far as how well I did. I had no idea I was going to be in the top five in the NCAAs in cross country... I had no idea I would get four All-American [awards] in my first year -- that was ridiculous. That was nowhere in the plan, and it changed everything. My training cycle changed, the amount of rest I took was different -- everything. And then, when I decided to run the Olympic Trials, I had to train six more weeks after NCAAs, so that was hard. I was pretty tired and ready to go home after the NCAAs.

And my high school coach's son Justin had a relapse of leukemia during the winter of my freshman year, went into remission in the spring and then got really sick again during the summer. That was a big problem for me -- I didn't know what to do; whether I should go home or stay. I was getting mixed messages from different people in my life. My heart was telling me I should go home, because he was like my little brother, and I was having a really hard time with that. When he passed away right before the Olympic Trials, my heart broke and I really had to think about the choices I made. I went home, revamped everything, thought about life more, thought about what's important to me...that's really helped me get through college and helped me to stay consistent, in running and life in general. It also made me appreciate the people around me more because there are no guarantees, and nothing should be taken for granted: no experience, no choice, no gift, and especially not the people you love.

Becky Orfinger is a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer and runner.
(Interview posted 11/12/02)

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