Interview with Turena Johnson Lane
by Kevin Beck

Turena Johnson Lane runs at the 2004 New Haven Road Race.
(Both photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
Johnson Lane finishes 20th at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.

On October 3, Turena Johnson Lane qualified for her first U.S. World Championship team by placing sixth overall and second among Americans at the Twin Cities Marathon in her home state of Minnesota; her performance earned her a spot in the 2005 IAAF World Championship Marathon in Helsinki. Her 2:37:39 — a personal best by 2 minutes, 35 seconds — was the climax of a buildup that saw Johnson Lane claim her first road US title in September, when she won the NewAlliance New Haven (Connecticut) Road Race 20K in 1:08:49 after finishing fifth there in 2003.

Twin Cities was Johnson Lane's third career marathon. In the 2003 running of the Twin Cities Marathon, she placed sixth in 2:40:14, qualifying her for the Olympic Trials, and at the Olympic Trials Marathon itself in St. Louis in April, she shook off a winter pockmarked by injuries to finish 20th in 2:40:58.

Johnson Lane, who has run 16:25 for 5K and 33:50 for 10K, placed eighth at the 2003 Garry Bjorklund Half-Marathon in a personal-best 1:13:59 and followed that up by finishing ninth in there in 2004; in both years, the event served as the USA Half-Marathon Championship. She has represented the US on three international Ekiden (marathon relay) teams as well. She is a 1997 graduate of Luther College, where she won five Division III NCAA national titles and was a nine-time All-American.

October has been a whirlwind month for Johnson Lane. In addition to cultivating a sterling effort at Twin Cities, she was named an AARC/RRCA Roads Scholar and undertook a move from Statesboro, Georgia — where she and her husband Todd had coached at the college level for seven years — to Muncie, Indiana, where Todd accepted a position as assistant women's track coach at Ball State University. pinned the effusive but self-effacing 28-year-old down for long enough to collect her thoughts on her rise to prominence over the past several years. Congratulations on your Twin Cities finish.
Turena Johnson Lane:
Thank you. I feel like I ran this one how I should have run the first one. I am finally starting to get the marathon figured out, if that is ever possible. I think there is something to be learned from each race, but even more so in the marathon. There is just such a huge learning curve within the first three marathons, and sometimes lessons come rather painfully.

FW: In terms of your Twin Cities goals, were you hoping primarily to make the 2005 US World Championship team or — operating on the idea that you can't dictate what others do — were you looking first and foremost at a certain time?
Going in, I knew the top two Americans who ran under 2:40 would qualify for the World Team, so that was definitely my goal. I know I can't control how other people run, so I just wanted to stick to my game plan and see what happened. I knew if I was patient for the first half I would have a good shot at dipping under 2:40.

FW: Was your training for Twin Cities similar to that for your previous two marathons or have you refined your formula as you've progressed?
As I mentioned, I think there's a big learning curve — especially within those first three marathons — and I've been doing a progressively better job at being patient for a longer period of time within each race. The marathon is such a different animal than any other running event; it's beauty and beast all within the same race.

This was only my third marathon, and there is still a lot for me to learn about the event, which is exciting to me. My training volume was higher this year; I have always been a pretty low-mileage runner and just wanted to be smart about my progression. The important thing about the marathon is getting to the starting line healthy. If you can survive the training, the race is the reward. That is what you work so hard for — to be as well-prepared as you possibly can when you finally get the opportunity to race.

Before Twin Cities last year, my highest weekly mileage was 84. This year I had a couple weeks of 101 and 103, with nothing below 80. That is the highest I've ever been, but I felt really good doing it.

After Twin Cities last year, I ended up having some knee problems and didn't run at all for about six weeks between mid-November and January. I did quite a bit of cross training, but it just doesn't feel the same. So when it was time to start my marathon buildup for the Olympic Trials, I felt like I was basically starting from nothing. My coach and I wanted to be conservative. My 20th-place finish at the Trials came off of 50 to 55 miles a week.

FW: Congratulations also on being selected as a 2004 Roads Scholar. Add recently moving to the mix and you could be forgiven for feeling unsettled, albeit not in a bad way.
Thank you. I am just thrilled to be selected as a Roads Scholar. The RRCA and AARC have put together a great program for post-collegiate runners aspiring to continue their running careers and I can't thank them enough. It's the little things that make a big difference, and this grant will help with that. As I am without a sponsor, their support will be very helpful in terms of equipment and helping with travel to races. I am grateful.

You mentioned moving. My husband (and coach) Todd Lane and I spent the last seven years coaching at Georgia Southern University, but he recently took an assistant track coaching position at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. It was hard to leave our teams at Georgia Southern — and of course the weather — but we are excited about the program at Ball State.

FW: You've put together some great races in your home state. Do you miss being part of Team USA Minnesota?
I love Minnesota. It is where I grew up and I'm always able to visit with lots of friends and family. I do miss being a part of Team USA Minnesota. I was only there for one year (2001-2002), but it was such a great experience. I think it is wonderful that there are training groups throughout the US I think it only makes it easier for people to stay in the sport and continue to have the support necessary to reach the next level.

The group itself is awesome. Who wouldn't want to train with some of America's best distance runners? At the time I went, with people like Carrie Tollefson and Katie McGregor, it didn't get any better than that. And it still doesn't. They continue to attract high caliber runners (Jenelle Deatherage, Sara Wells, Dana Coons, Kristen Nicolini). They are great athletes, but also just very nice people. And of course it goes without saying that at the center of this circle of athletes is their coach, Dennis Barker. I have nothing but great things to say about Dennis.

When I went to Team USA MN, I was looking at it as a one-year experience. I basically left everything — husband, dogs, job — to train with them. It was a decision my husband and I didn't make lightly, but when there is a purpose, a reason, behind a major decision, it makes it much easier to understand. I wanted to find out how good I could be, and if this is what I needed to do — what was going to help me get better — we were willing to do it. After I left, I didn't see my husband for over two months.

FW: With the move Indiana, will you be working or will you now be training full-time?
I don't officially move to Indiana until the beginning of November, when we can get into our house. I have a feeling I'll be busy for a while taking off the 1960s wallpaper and removing the orange shag carpet that is overtaking the house.

FW: What's it like having a spouse who doubles as a coach? This seems to be a fairly common arrangement.
It really works out well. He knows my strengths and weaknesses better than anyone. I feel so fortunate to have a spouse who understands what is necessary for me as an athlete and a coach who is doing what he needs to do to help me reach my potential. Any success that I've had isn't about what I have done; it has been, and is, certainly a team effort.

FW: In college, you were a five-time national champ and pulled off the 5K/10K double win as senior, but your times were 'only' 35:46 and 17:01. Were you confident all along of making the jump to the top level of American running?
I still don't feel like I'm at the top level of American distance running, but I do know that it has been one long progression to this point. Each year that I have been a runner, I have just continued to get better. There has never really been a big jump in terms of performance, just continuous improvement. When I was in high school or even college, I don't think that I ever thought that I would reach the level I have.

What has kept me focused all these years is just seeing how good I can be. Whether or not I reach a certain time isn't the end-all for me. I want to keep going and I won't find out I good I can be unless I keep trying. Each year, I have always felt that my best running days are ahead of me, and I'm not about to change my thinking any time soon.

Each year, I continue to set my goals, work hard, try to do the little things that make the difference, and hopefully put myself in an even better position for the following year. It is amazing the improvements that can be realized — especially after college — among people who continue to train. For the most part, if you look at who our Olympians are, for the distance events, anyway, you don't see collegians — you see the people who have [continued training].

FW: In a related vein, it seems that relatively few successful women distance runners continue competing seriously after college. Did you always plan to keep running after graduating?
Running is where my passion is and part of who I am. Even after my competitive days have passed, I will always be a runner. What has helped me is my support system: my husband, my high school and college coaches, and Dennis Barker with Team USA Minnesota have all been wonderfully supportive. Each level of running I've reached has just opened doors to the next.

I think these training groups are helpful in keeping runners, especially women, in the sport. But progress takes time. Think back to the pioneers of women running in this country; I doubt any of them dreamed there would come a time when women could make a living from running.

FW: You have the perspective of both an athlete and a coach. In your view, what could be done to improve the retention of post-collegiate women runners?
I think it comes back to two things. One is coaching philosophy. I have been blessed with great coaches and have taken to heart the lessons I've learned from each of them. Now, whenever I've brought student-athletes in for recruiting visits or even in conversations with my team, my philosophy has revolved around being a lifelong runner. I want them to love the sport even more after their experience with the team than they did previously. I still want them to enjoy running long after their college days are over. College doesn't have to be the end of their competitive experience if they don't want it to be.

The second part falls on the athlete. It is ultimately the inner desire and passion of a runner that drives her. As a coach, I can try to educate them in different areas, but I can't give them passion; that comes from within.

FW: You quadrupled (1,500m, 3,000m, 5,000m and 10,000m) at the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference meet as a senior. Assuming you have any recollection of this at all, what's your overriding memory from this extravagant burst? Shades of a future marathoner there?
Of course I remember this — it was too exhausting to forget! It was four races in a span of something like 18 hours. But the whole story actually started my junior year. Our outdoor conference track championship was at home in Decorah, Iowa, that year, and after two tough days, we ended up losing by one point. I ran the 3,000, the 5,000 and the 10,000 that year. Everyone who competed in college knows how intense those conference meets can be, and our team was so disappointed. I don't even remember who won — just that it wasn't us.

So the following year, I asked my coach if it would be okay if I did the 1,500 also. I felt bad because I knew it would take away a spot from a teammate, but if I had the ability to help our team, that's what needed to happen. The races went well, and with everyone's help we won the meet. Coach Betsy Emerson got thrown in the steeplechase pit and we all went home happy.

That is one of my most favorite running memories. No individual accomplishments, no matter how great, can supersede things you accomplish as part of a team. It's a feeling I'll never forget

FW: Getting back coaching, you originally moved to Statesboro mainly because your husband took a coaching position at Georgia Southern University. At the time you relocated, were you already slated to help coach the women's team?
I had always been a volunteer coach with Todd's programs, but it wasn't until last year that I was named the head cross country coach. With our move to Indiana, I probably won't be coaching.

FW: When did you first start running?
I started running when I was 9 years old, doing road races, et cetera. At that time, my dad had just started running and I would ask if I could tag along. He started me off on my own little program — three minutes every other day for a week, then five minutes. I still remember my first 20-minute run. My dad was supportive of my running as long as it was fun for me. He always said that no matter what kind of success was involved, if it wasn't fun for me, it was time to stop. After all this time, I'm still having fun.

FW: You've mentioned George Sheehan's writing in interviews. Any other primary sources of inspiration, past or present?
George Sheehan certainly was a talented writer, but I think I draw my greatest inspiration from the people I'm around every day — for example, when my athletes have a great workout or when a college teammate had a great meet. For me, it is inspiring to watch other people work hard and have success. It is great to look at the elites in the sport — I don't think you have to look past Meb [Keflezighi] or Deena [Kastor's] Olympic experience for that — but I am most inspired when I see people giving the most of themselves.

FW: Your New Haven races the past two years, along with your run at the USA Half-Marathon Championships in 2003, suggest that the 20K/half-marathon distance treats you especially well. Your growing marathon success notwithstanding, would you say it's your favorite distance at this point?
At this point, I'd have to agree! I've always thought my best events would be the longer races — I've just taken some time to get to that distance. I think I am a bit partial to the longer distances, but I would like to get back to some 10Ks this spring. I won't do another marathon until next August.

FW: Looking at your stats (i.e., your 5K and 10K times vs. 20K and half-marathon times) and your progression, along with your relative lack of experience with the marathon, you appear to be a 2:32 runner waiting to happen. Care to make public any secret goals you're harboring?
We'll just see what happens.

FW: What do you hope to look back on in 10 or 15 years?
I hope to have no regrets. To give the best of myself each day as I pursue my goals. To find out how good I can be. To appreciate all that I have been blessed with. Most of all, to still be a runner.

(Interview conducted October 13, 2004, and posted October 27, 2004.)

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