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Interview: Lilli Kleinmann

Lilli Kleinmann (left) runs with teammate Amy (Yoder) Begley and Erica Palmer at the 1999 NCAA XC Championships.
(Photo courtesy of Appalachian State T&F)

Lilli Kleinmann, a junior at the University of Arkansas, is one of the top collegiate runners in the country. Originally hailing from Germany, Kleinmann starred as a high schooler in Germany before coming to the U.S. for college. She started out at Boston University but transfered to Arkansas in 1999 as a sophomore. The third-place finisher at last year's NCAA Cross Country meet, Kleinmann is undefeated this season and is one of the favorites heading into November's NCAA Championships. We read that you started running when you were five years old. Could you tell us about your development as a runner in Germany -- how did you come up through the ranks, were you a part of a club/school team?

Lilli Kleinmann: Yes, I started running at five. The system in Germany is totally different from the one here in the U.S. We don’t have any high school teams. Besides the P.E. classes, sport and school are completely separate and have nothing to do with each other. If someone wants to run track, play soccer, … the person has to go to a club to train and compete. Sport comes from everybody’s own initiative.

After I joined the local T&F club I did anything from sprinting to throwing and hurdling. In fact, we never ran longer than 100m. At age 11 I was the best ball thrower in the state with 53.50m. Since my dad is the head of a running club that meets on the weekends, he took me there to run at a young age in addition to the T&F practice. I used to do the heptathlon and mostly competed in three events at each meet: the long jump, javelin, and 800m.

I started concentrating on just running in 1992 after my first “breakthrough” when I won my first state championships in the 2000m (U 14). After that, success after success followed. I was 2nd at the German B-Junior Championships the very next year and ran for Germany for the first time in 1994 at a U18 meet against Finland in Helsinki. I won a medal in every single German Junior Championship since 1993 and competed in several international championships. I competed as a junior until 1997, and afterwards, I went to the U.S. in 1998 where I could establish myself in the top right away (I won NCAA XC Northeast Regionals in '98 and ran 9:16/16:06 for 3000/5000 before getting sick at nationals indoor 1999) , but I haven’t been fortunate enough to win a NCAA title yet...

FW: Did you ever do any other sports? What inspired you to take up running?

LK: In fact, I didn’t start running voluntarily. My dad, who is a runner himself and an author of several books on sports medicine and running, used to be afraid that I didn’t get enough exercise because I always loved to watch TV and did that quite a bit. So my dad didn’t allow me to watch TV unless I ran a lap around the block. Since I didn’t want to miss anything on TV, I ran one lap around the block (which was a 1/2 mile long) during the commercial break as fast as I could. I never got back to the TV too late… Besides running, I also played soccer (and all kinds of other sports) for many years. I used to play every day for hours with the boys, and sometimes I was hardly able to ride my bike back home because I was so exhausted. I was a passionate soccer fan and went to every other “Bundesliga” game fully equipped with drum, flag, hat, scarf, and uniform of my favorite soccer club.

FW: We know that you were an extremely accomplished runner in high school. Could you tell us about some of those accomplishments? What were your best times?

LK: I went to high school until the age of 19 (in Germany we attend high school for 13 years). My best times in 1997 were: 800m: 2:12.05, 1500m: 4:25.43, 3000m: 9:28.11, 5000m: 16:40.35, 15k: 53:19, Marathon: 2:59:15. (I ran that just for fun.) Some of my accomplishments were: 4th place at the European Junior XC Championships in 1997, European Junior XC Champion with the German National Team, 6th at the European Junior Champs in the 3000m (1997), 39th at the World Junior XC Championships in 1997, six-time German Junior Champion, five-time runner-up at German Juniors, a couple of state records, about 25 state titles, a member of several German U18 and U20 national teams. I also won my age group at the 1996 New York City Marathon which I ran just for fun and without any preparation to experience the great ambience and do a sightseeing tour through all five boroughs of my favorite city.

FW: What are your all-time PRs?

LK: 800m: 2:09.93 (indoors 2000), 1500m: 4:21.87 (2000), 3000m: 9:11.21 (indoors 2000), 5000m: 15:58.12 (1999), 10,000m = 33:20.05 (2000), Half Marathon = 1:15:23 (1999), Marathon = 2:59:15 (1996)

FW: What made you decide to go to college in the U.S.? How did you end up at Boston University and what sparked the transfer to Arkansas?

LK: In 1996 the coach of Boston University (Bruce Lehane) started recruiting me after he saw some German results on the internet. After that, three more schools (Arkansas, Tulane, and Michigan State) showed interest in me as well. I knew quite a few German runners who went to the U.S. to run in the NCAA before. Since I love traveling and seeing different corners of the world, I wanted to go and run/study in the U.S. after high school, too. Bruce Lehane did a very good job in recruiting me. Although he knew that I wouldn't be able to come to Boston prior to the fall of 1998, he still kept writing and calling me over the entire two years. Lance Harter (my coach at Arkansas now) didn't do a too of a good job in recruiting me. So I thought they didn't really want me and I eventually went to Boston University. I definitely enjoyed my year at BU and I do not regret that I made the decision to go there for my freshman year. The coach is very good and I also got along with my teammates very well. The problem was that I didn't have any training partners and it also gets pretty cold in Boston in the winter. After I met the Arkansas team at meets and hung out with them, I saw that they are great people and decided to transfer there. In fact, a good friend of mine from Germany was on the team back then.

FW: What's it like going to school at Arkansas? Was there some level of culture shock when you first got there?

LK: There is only one word to describe how it is like going to school at Arkansas and being a Ladyback: AWESOME!!! Every single member of the track and XC team is great. We get along with each other extremely well. We are a very cohesive group of unique personalities. We have a whole lot of fun together, but we also know what we have to accomplish in order to be in the top in the nation. It is so awesome to be on the same team with great runners like Amy Begley (formerly Yoder), Tracy Robertson, and (until recently) Jessica Dailey. We push each other to new, not-yet-explored limits in practice. Course records are falling all the time during steady-states, mile repeats and whatever else.

It makes a big difference if you have people of "same or even bigger value" to run with. For example, when I was training completely by myself in Germany during the summer, I was always very unmotivated and struggling to run the times aimed at. I never came even close to our workout times here at Arkansas, although I was in decent shape in Germany. Without a coach and teammates to support you, it is just very hard to survive as an individual fighter. However, it is not all about the front runners. It is just as important for the other runners to be taken seriously, be motivated, and included in the team concept. They can help the front runners to improve as much as the front runners can help them to improve and step it up.

Additionally, we have awesome coaches here at Arkansas with Lance Harter and Mike Garrisson. I have had quite a few coaches so far, but Lance is by far the best. His workouts are very creative and he is also open to any suggestions of mine concerning training. He and Mike are the perfect coaching duo. It is not just the coaches and teammates at Arkansas who make Arkansas "THE" place to go for college running, sprinting, jumping, and all other events in Track and Field. The entire women's athletic department is extremely supportive. Whatever we need, it is all taken care of right away. The facilities (our gorgeous trails, indoor/outdoor tracks, pool, weight-lifting room, ...) are just the icing on the cake. It is really an honor to be part of this great athletic program!!! The culture shock after getting to Arkansas from Germany was not too big because had a "stopover" in Boston. Since New England is pretty similar to Europe, it served as a great transition and prevented a major culture shock.

FW: We read an article that said you are businesslike and driven. Amy Yoder credited you last season with upping the intensity on the Arkansas team. Would you agree with that and where does that intensity come from?

LK: You are correct to characterize me as "businesslike and driven." As I said above, we have all been breaking course records and personal records during our workouts since I got here last fall. I think I brought a "fresh wind into the team." My teammates were quite surprised when they saw my attitude towards running and how I train, and I think I woke some people up... Our great season as a team and for everybody as an individual was only a results of many factors. My contribution to the team was only one of those many factors. It think my intensity mostly comes from the fact that I know quite a few runners at the world class level. I have been in training camps with them and so I know how they train and how much it takes to run at that level. What we are doing here at the NCAA level, in distance running, is less intense compared to world class runners. An individual always needs to put everything in the right perspective. For example, what is a 15:40 5,000m in international competition?

FW: What is a typical training week like for you? (Mileage, speedwork, any cross training?)

LK: My mileage varies a lot. It has been at 69.375 miles/week on average this year. We normally do three workouts a week and a long run on Sunday. I crosstrain no more than once a week unless I have injury problems (which is the case right now).

FW: What are your goals for this year?

LK: For XC, I would like to stay unbeaten during the entire season. I know that that’s is going to be very hard to do, since there are some many good runners in the U.S. At least, I am going to try, and I know that it is a realistic goal. For Indoor and Outdoor, I would like to win an individual and team title in each season. Our track team is so amazing this year that we will be ready to do some great things. In the summer, I would like to run well under 15:35 in the 5000m and make the German team for the World Championships in Edmonton.

FW: How frequently do you get to go back to Germany? Do you think you'll go back after graduation?

LK: I went to Germany for the entire summer to compete and also for Christmas, which I regretted. The weather is just way too bad over there. I couldn’t stand it for more than two weeks last year, so I went straight to Portugal for training camp with the German national team instead of freezing to death in wet Germany. I am very spoiled by the American climate… Right now, I don’t know what I am going to do after school. I might go back to Germany but I might also stay in the U.S.(which I wouldn’t mind at all). It is for sure that I will stay here for at least four more years to get my master’s degree in addition to the bachelor’s. I could very well imagine accepting a contract in the U.S. and run professionally provided that running continues to go as planned.

FW: Who do you look up to in the sport?

LK: I don’t have an idol or anything like that anymore. I used to be a fan of Uta Pippig and Dieter Baumann, but not anymore. With all these (mostly unrevealed) drug scandals you cannot trust anyone anymore… However, I still have a lot of respect for the world class athletes. Regardless whether they are on drugs or not, it takes a lot of sacrifices, physical and mental strength to be up there

FW: And finally, what do you like to do in your free time?

LK: My favorite thing to do is to "fry" in the sun on the beach of the Canary Islands (Spain). Otherwise, I like being lazy doing nothing, watching TV, and sleeping in. I also like traveling, learning foreign languages (right now I am familiar with 5 languages), and playing around with the computer.

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