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Interview: Shannon Smith

Shannon Smith on her way to a national title in the 3,000m.
( Photo)

Shannon Smith Links:
Boston College track bio
Humble Smith quietly takes national title
A Brief Chat with Shannon Smith

In winning the 3,000m at the 2001 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships, Shannon Smith became Boston College's first-ever female national champion, running a personal best time of 9:11.25. A fifth-year senior from Fairport, NY, Smith will attend law school next fall.
(Note: this interview took place 03-14-01, approximately one month before it was posted.)

FW: First of all, congratulations on your NCAA victory. How confident were you that you could win, heading into the race?

SS: Well, I hadn't run the 3,000 - well I ran it at Big East but it was after several races - so it wasn't really a [situation] where you run your fastest time. And before then I hadn't run it since the end of January, but my workouts had been going fairly well. I thought I was ready to run that time (9:11.25) and I thought that, with the field that was going to be there, it was going to take around 9:10 or so to win, because all the girls are really good. I don't know if I was super confident, but I knew that I could do it if I put everything together that day.

FW: Could you tell me a little about how the race played out? You were pretty close to the front the whole way, no?

SS: I ran the first mile jostling around in about 5th place. I just wanted to take it easy in the first mile and kind of not struggle in the pack and stuff. I just found myself a comfortable spot and hung out there for the first mile. After the first mile, Sara Gorton made a move up and I just went with her and I was in second.

FW: When did you pass Sara?

SS: I took the lead with 600 (meters) to go.

FW: When you made that move, did you know you had it?

SS: I thought if I kept kicking… My plan was to just make one decisive move to the lead and not let anyone pass me after that.

FW: Well it worked. I noticed that many of the competitors in the 3,000 had run other events earlier in the meet. You ran the 1,600m leg on the DMR the previous day, did that take anything out of you?

SS: No, I wasn't at all tired from it. We were actually seeded 3rd going in and I thought we had a really good shot to place in the top five at least. But [another runner] actually knocked the baton out of our first leg's hand. [The runner] was out in the second lane and she came down hard into the first lane and there were two girls there, one of them being Katie Ryan. The baton just got knocked out of her hand and not only did it just fall, but it kind of bounced and rolled backwards.

Our plan was to be in the top three after the first leg because our second and third were a little weak, then kind of keep in position around the top 5 or 6, and then I would try to move up. But we were a very distant 10th by the time I got the baton , so I moved us up into 9th but after that, 8th was still really far away.

It was kind of a depressing race (laughs) because we actually had much higher hopes. I actually didn't run very hard at all Friday night. Ann Marie Brooks definitely had a great double. I feel like I'm pretty strong this time of the season and I was fine at Big East but I'm sure she ran a really fast leg Friday night. [Editor's Note: She reportedly ran a 4:36] I'm not sure that I would have had it on Saturday had I run [hard] the night before -- you never know, hopefully I would have..

FW: Was it nice to have teammates in Arkansas to support you?

SS: It was great. We get along really well and they were so supportive. It's just cool because the whole weekend was fun. If you're by yourself you're bored and stuff… Really boredom was the toughest thing to deal with throughout the weekend (laughs).

FW: So what did you do to pass the time?

SS: Friday we didn't do much. I did work for a while and we watched a movie and just kind of hung out. We got up a little later that day, but then Saturday, neither Katie or I could sleep in, and it was just a long day. My dad was there so he took me out and we drove around and saw a little bit of the Arkansas countryside on Saturday afternoon. That was a good diversion for a couple of hours.

FW: We liked the llamas that you could buy between the airport and downtown Fayetteville.

SS: You could buy them? (Editor's Note: Perhaps regretting that she passed up the opportunity to bring a baby llama back to Boston with her…).

FW: Your team had a really good cross country season, finishing fourth at NCAAs - did you train with them during the season?

SS: Actually, I had a stress fracture in the fall.

FW: You're a fifth year senior so did you have any eligibility left?

SS: No, I didn't.

FW: So that was convenient. When were you diagnosed with the stress fracture?

SS: The end of September.

FW: And how much time did you have to take off?

SS: I was out for six weeks and I wasn't training hard until mid-November, I guess.

FW: So what did you do to stay in shape during your time off?

SS: (I was) in the pool.

FW: A lot of people seem to be able to maintain their fitness with pool running. What exactly did you do?

SS: I just did a lot of stuff. I just pool ran most days, occasionally I would [swim] laps in the morning or something but I pretty much did some sort of pick-ups or workout every day in the pool. It kind of makes the time go faster, so I'd rather do that than just jogging around. We have a deep water diving well so I'd just go in there. I did a lot of different workouts, sometimes I'd do ladders… Everything was just short intervals with really short rest - like 5 or 10 seconds rest. It's kind of the only way I can get my heart rate up, and I don't use an aqua jogger. I think you have to work everything a little tougher without it. With the aqua jogger I can't get my heart rate above 120.

FW: Did you have any company in the pool?

SS: Nope… I've had a lot of injuries so it's definitely something that I think I excel at (laughs) more than some other people. I can just go in there and do what I have to do. It's not fun, I'm always so excited when I can run again, but I've trained myself to zone out and get stuff done.

FW: Can you tell me about your progression once you were able to start running again?

SS: Yeah, the weekend after Thanksgiving, I'd been running for about a week and a half and had done one workout (laughs) and I ran in the [USATF Fall Cross Country Nationals], it was a 6k and I did okay… (she finished 21st in 21:15) It seemed like I was in fairly decent shape so I raced at Harvard the week after in the mile. We did a paced mile so I ran like 4:53 or something like that, and then we did three more miles outside on the outdoor track.

FW: So you did it as a workout?

SS: Yeah.

FW: What event(s) are you going to focus on this spring?

SS: I've been thinking about it and I really think the 5 is probably my best shot. I want to run the 15 because I did a 4:41 during indoor and I did it right after break, in mid-January, and I just know I can run a lot faster than that. But I just think I'm a better 5,000 runner. I'll probably have a lot of opportunities to do the 15 during the season, but I'm expecting that I'm going to be better at the 5 so I'll probably focus on that for nationals.

FW: No steeplechase?

SS: (Laughs) I heard Lilli Kleinmann's already started doing hurdle workouts… No, we thought about it but I just don't think I want to do that.

FW: It seems like runners either love the idea of the steeple or they hate it.

SS: Yeah. I think it's great they have it finally, although I miss the 3, I just love that race.

FW: Do you know what races you'll specifically target during outdoors?

SS: We're racing at Stanford at the end of [March] and so that's going to be a big thing. I think everyone's going to try to get national qualifying times there.

I'm actually not running right now. Did you notice how the track was really banked at Arkansas? Well, halfway through the 3,000, I'd seriously thought I'd broken my foot. It was really painful. I kind of just didn't think about it for the rest of the race… I haven't really been able to do anything since then. I couldn't warm down or anything. I think it's just a tendon strain and I've seen a lot of improvement on it just this week. I'm going to have a bone scan done on it Friday just to rule that out. I'm working out in the pool right now and I'm pretty sure I'll turn right around… I think we'll try to do a 4x1500 at Penn Relays…

FW: What are your plans beyond college? Are you definitely going to keep pursuing your running career?

SS: I'm actually going to law school.

FW: Wow. Any idea where you're going?

SS: I'm not sure yet. I've heard from 3 out of 9 that I applied to so far. I'm 3-for-3 so far but I haven't heard from the schools I really want to go to yet.

FW: So how much of a priority will running be?

SS: You know, I actually think it's going to be a really good situation. I applied to a couple schools in the D.C. area, one in Boston… I think they're all places where I could run. If it comes down to it, I'm going to make that a factor in my decision, to find a place where I would have people to run with…

At first I was kind of shying away from the idea but I have some friends in law school and they're like, "Sharon, if you want to do it, you can totally fit both in." Especially after the first year. The first year's tough but the second and third years [aren't usually as time consuming]. If I could really focus on my running that would bring me kind of to an Olympic year, which would at least be a goal to look at. Plus, it's different from the college running scene because from what I've heard, you can pick which weekends you're going to race so if I have finals, I'm not going to do races for those couple of weeks or something like that.

So yeah, it's definitely something I've got in my plans. I would like to continue to do it. And if it's not that much fun or if I feel like I'm not able to focus on my studies as I'd like to, there's no commitment really. Unless, of course, I was to get myself into a commitment situation. .

FW: And it seems like running might be a nice outlet to relieve some of the stress.

SS: Yeah, and I know I'll run every day anyway, so I might as well do it with a goal.

FW: I noticed that you're from Fairport, New York. Where exactly is that?

SS: It's outside of Rochester, New York.

FW: And what were some of your biggest high school running accomplishments?

SS: Well, for one thing, I played soccer through most of high school and I just ran cross country my senior year.

FW: Did you do track before that?

SS: Yeah, I did track. I started running track in 7th grade actually, on the modified team. I played basketball also, through my sophomore year, and then I started doing indoor track. Right around where I lived, I like dominated since my freshman year (laughing) but that's not really saying much because it's kind of a small pond. But I won the state meet in the 1,500m my senior year and I was third in the 800. I was All-American in the mile my senior year also.

FW: What were your best times?

SS: I ran 4:56 in the mile, 4:38 in the 1,500 and 2:15 in the 800.

FW: How did you do in that one cross country season your senior year?

SS: Well, I didn't lose any meets until states. At the regional final I think I made second team or something. I was 18th. So it wasn't amazing but it okay for my first time out, I guess.

FW: And what made you decide to go to Boston College?

SS: There were a lot of factors in it. I actually had a horrible time on my recruiting trip here (laughs). But I really liked [coach Randy Thomas]. I had a very controlling high school coach. He was a great coach and stuff but I kind of had outgrown the need for that kind of coaching, so I wanted someone that was more laid back and flexible. And I loved the school, it's a great school and a really good education, Boston was a cool place… I always loved cities and I just didn't want to be in small town suburban America anymore… And the team was doing well at the time and Angie Graham was there and stuff so I thought I could have a good future there.

FW: I noticed that you were near the top of the results your freshman year but there were other good (older) BC runners too. Did it help you out to have the role models?

SS: Yeah it was awesome. There were a lot of upperclassmen, actually, when I was first starting out. I've been the oldest one on the team for a couple of years now so it's kind of weird because our team's just been really young the last few years. My class dwindled to two by my senior year. But it was great - I had a lot of mentors my first two years here. They made it a ton of fun too, I really enjoyed the sport a lot.

FW: How long has Kathy Fleming been your coach?

SS: She always did workouts and stuff for us, but her involvement really stepped up my junior year.

FW: Does it help having someone with so much running success and experience as your coach?

SS: Yeah. She's great. She knows what she's doing, she's had so much success and stuff, so you never really question what Kathy says (laughs)… And she's just a great role model, she's definitely shown everyone on the team what it takes - what kind of training you need to have, she knows how to race, she knows the kind of lifestyle you need to have to be successful… she's a great teacher.

FW: What kind of mileage and training do you do for your track races?

SS: I have really low mileage actually, compared to most people. In the summer I was doing 50-60 and I kept that up until September when I got hurt. That's the problem - I've had so many stress fractures that I really don't get over 45 miles very often. In the end part of the season, we go really hard on the track and so it's not rare to have a 30-35 mile week most of the time. Probably for the last month and a half, we've just been doing 30-35 a week.

A couple coaches have asked my coach what a couple of us are doing and he tells them that and their jaws just drop. Everyone is different and I just definitely get injured when I do too much. The low mileage and like going hard on the track, it's just always worked for me. I've tried to do other things and it ends up backfiring and I don't even end up running.

It's a cool program, too, because I'm definitely not the only one who trains like that but there are a lot of high mileage girls on the team too, so we just all kind of do our own thing and it's flexible enough to allow us to do that.

FW: Do you do anything supplemental - lifting weights, stretching, cross training?

SS: I lift twice a week usually. I stretch every day and we cold whirlpool fairly often after running.

FW: Are you careful about what you eat?

SS: Yeah, I'm fairly careful. I'm a vegetarian so that helps out a little bit, but it also becomes kind of a challenge. I usually have a protein shake once a day, but I guess that's the only "weird" thing that I do.

FW: Do you have any problems getting enough iron?

SS: No, I've never had an iron problem. Though, I had two stress fractures in my femur within a year, my freshman and sophomore years (which is why I had so much eligibility left) - it turns out that I had low bone density because I didn't have enough estrogen. It was kind of a weird thing, I have no idea what brought it on. And I had a horrible junior year because they put you on the pill to supplement your estrogen, then I've been taking calcium supplements and vitamin D supplements since, but some people have luck - they try one pill and it's great for them. But I went through four. And they won't let you get off it even if they know that it's horrible for you because they say it's a 3-month adjustment period. My doctors made me stay on these horrible pills for three months. And so during my junior year - I didn't know what was going on at the time - my coaches kept saying it was the hormone therapy and stuff, but I just didn't want to admit that a drug was making me that messed up. It was just horrible. I just couldn't train as hard, I was always tired and it was all this weird stuff. I didn't break 10 minutes in the 3,000 all indoor season.

It was very frustrating but it was really rewarding to come back my senior year and have a pretty decent year. I knew the whole time that I could do well, I was training hard and stuff but I just got out on the track and couldn't race. That's been my only real problem. But it's definitely an issue, I think it's something that a lot of girls have a hard time with. It's something kind of scary because you only build bone until you're 25 or 30 so it wasn't something you could fool around with. You have to commit to staying on it, otherwise I would have been like "all right, I'm going to do this in a couple of years." I'm glad I stuck it out because now everything is totally fine.

FW: It really is a scary issue, I worry about a lot of women and where they'll be 20 or 30 years down the road.

SS: Yeah, once the doctors paint the picture of you bent over crippled and not being able to walk at 50, I was like "hey, yeah, lets do it!"

FW: So do you have any time to pursue any other interests outside of school and running?

SS: Not too much. I did a lot more in high school. I actually rode horses competitively and I played the violin in a couple of orchestras and stuff. I kind of had to give that all up. I played soccer most of the year during high school too. It's frustrating to have to give those things up but you kind of have to get yourself another level of focus in college. But I've been involved in a couple of things, I write for a newspaper on campus this year and I've been in a couple of clubs and I was pretty active in the student-athlete advisory board on campus. And through that we did some volunteering… And school is a pretty huge time demand.

FW: And you majored in geology?

SS: Yeah, I graduated with a geology and geophysics major last year and I intended to get a Ph.D. in that and I applied to schools and stuff and I got into Colorado and Duke and I went and visited and everything and that was what I was going to do this year. Then around April, I totally changed my mind (laughs). It's really enticing to study sciences because it's pretty fun, I really like science and you get to travel quite a bit while you're doing your study, and they pay for your school so you don't have any expenses… But I just didn't want the jobs that were waiting for me afterwards. And after I realized that, I was like "I don't want to get myself into this." So I decided to come back, and I started a Master's in political science this year, so that's what I'm doing… I don't intend to finish the Master's, I'm just going to go to law school.

FW: Where did the law school thing come from?

SS: Well, I've always had an interest in environmental issues and I kind of had an undergraduate focus in biogeochemistry which definitely has a lot to do with environmental issues. So on the science end, they're doing all this research and it's just frustrating to me to see all this research, in a lot of instances, go to waste or just get stuck in such controversy that nothing would ever really get done with the new technology and the new findings. So I really wanted to be on the policy end of it and try to implement some of the ideas… Hard, conclusive facts that they're finding in science are just getting ignored by policymakers because it's not what they want to hear. So I hope to get involved in environmental law and environmental policymaking.

FW: It sounds like you're very well-rounded - there's a lot more going on than just your running. Thanks for the interview and good luck with all of it!

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