- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 26, 2006

Very few dominant athletes ever slipped so quietly into retirement as the incomparable Lynn Jennings.

Two months after she finished a painful and disappointing 12th in the 1999 Boston Marathon, Jennings competed in her last race. Few in the running community even knew it was her last race.

Aside from a 2004 interview with the Boston Globe, the woman who appeared in nearly every running publication since she qualified for the 1976 Olympic trials as a 15-year-old suddenly disappeared from the scene.

Today she is making her first public appearance in a running event in nearly seven years, coaxed to New York City to be a special guest at the third annual More Marathon in Central Park. This marathon, hosted by the New York Road Runners and More magazine, is the world’s first marathon for women age 40 and over, attracting some 4,000 participants to today’s marathon and half-marathon races.

“Many of us women who will be running on Sunday truly benefited from the pioneers of the sport before us. Grete Waitz, Kathrine Switzer, Joan Benoit Samuelson. And Lynn Jennings,” said Mary Wittenberg, president of New York Road Runners, in introducing Jennings before a teleconference with a handful of sportswriters last week.

“I am really happy to be coming into New York,” said Jennings, a life-long New Englander who moved to Portland, Ore., some five years ago. “I don’t believe I am a pioneer in the sport.”

Maybe, maybe not. But Jennings was the most versatile and most decorated American distance runner ever. No woman can compare with her success on the track, on the roads, and on the cross country trails.

A list of her credentials would easily fill this entire page, so here are the highlights: On the track, Jennings represented the United States in three Olympics, taking sixth in 1988 in the 10,000 meters, earning the bronze medal at the same distance in 1992 and ending up ninth in the 1996 Olympic 5,000 meters. She also won two medals at the IAAF World Indoor Championships at 3,000 meters — bronze in 1993 and silver in 1995.

On the roads, Jennings still is the U.S. record holder for 10 kilometers (31:06 in 1990), winning seven U.S. 10K titles and eight U.S. 5K titles. And on the trails, she took gold three consecutive times (1990-1992) in eight appearances at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, widely regarded as the world’s most competitive running event. She also won an unprecedented nine U.S. cross country 8K titles between 1985 and 1996.

Jennings said she has no regrets about leaving her competitive running life in the past.

“I’m not dying to get out there in the running community,” she said. “I lived so long in the running community. I have a different life now that doesn’t mean being defined as a runner. I rarely get recognized (even in her neighborhood) and I love that.”

She emphasized she achieved everything she set out to accomplish as a runner, although she certainly came up short of her own expectations at Boston in 1999. Jennings had dropped out shortly before the race the previous year because she felt she was not sufficiently prepared, then came into the 1999 race with great confidence and tremendous pressure from the running community.

And why not? As a 17-year-old, she had unofficially entered the marathon and ran 2:46, which would have placed her third overall. But in 1999, at 39, she could only muster a 2:38:37. As she painfully stepped down from the podium after the awards ceremony, it wasn’t hard to see that moving up to the marathon distance would not give her new life.

“I knew I was not going to get better in the marathon,” she said this week. “My running career was winding down. I had had a relationship with Nike, so I was spending time in Portland. I planned to move out there. I’ve lived out there now for five years. And I’m enjoying life — hiking, more traveling, taking days off when I want to. I like the freedom to live life like a normal person.”

Retired from racing, but not from running, she said. The 45-year-old Jennings still maintains 65 miles a week, mostly in quiet Forest Park near her home. Will she ever race again?

“No,” she says adamantly. “I was a running animal since 18.”

But now, “I am not so ambitious with my professional goals as I was with my running career,” she said. “Nothing that rivals my running.

“I am fit. I look about the same as I did as an elite athlete without the gray hairs. I have no desire to be the best and the fastest.”

Today, she is content to be on the sideline watching others try to be the best and the fastest.

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