Monday, August 09, 2010

Team USA Minnesota Tenth Anniversary Interview-Jason Lehmkuhle

Jason Lehmkuhle is aging gracefully as he hopes to keep his body together for one more Olympic cycle, one more marathon trials, and one more chance to improve on his fifth place finish at the 2008 Trials.

Down the Backstretch: Ten years ago the Team USA concept was just an idea waiting to happen. What were your thoughts when it started? Why did you get involved? What did you hope to get from the experiment?

Jason Lehmkuhle: When I applied to be part of Team USA Minnesota, post-collegiate training centers were a novelty, and not really something available to athletes who weren't already international class. I was an above average college runner, but not a national champion or perennial All-American.

Really, I didn't expect to be accepted, and I jumped at the opportunity when I found out they'd have me. At the time I was already committed to putting my life on hold while I gave post-collegiate running an honest go. I had quit a full-time job at ad agency and I was dedicating more of my time to training while working a couple of part-time jobs to pay the rent. It was a bit of a struggle, and I knew with a little more structure I could be doing a lot better.

DtB: Did you have any idea then that ten years later you would still be involved? Was there a plan or commitment you had in mind when you first signed up?

JL: Before moving to Minneapolis, I figured I'd give running a couple of years. At most, I thought I'd make it through one more Olympic cycle (2004). I just wanted to be able to look back when I was older without regret, knowing that I had given it a shot. I also didn't know if the training center model was sustainable. The running community in Minnesota has really gotten behind the Team USA concept, and somehow I've continued to make incremental improvements every year. It's really amazing that I'm here still training ten years later and talking about it.

You really can't understate the impact that Team USA MN and a couple of other training groups that got organized around 2000 have had on US distance running. Every year more and more of our good college runners are deciding to continue to pursue the sport, the domestic races are light years better that they were in the mid 1990's and we're infinitely more competitive internationally.

DtB: What has been the highlight or ighlights of those ten years?

JL: There's been a handful of races where I surprised even myself with what I was capable of. The most satisfying though was my fifth place finish at the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work and a several year struggle learning the marathon distance.

DtB: What have been the greatest challenges?

JL: I've always been injury prone, and I've continued to miss some training time throughout the years here. If it wasn't for the support of the group, I'm sure I would have "retired" a few times already.

DtB: What has surprised you or was unexpected about the project?

JL: Every couple of years one of our guys or girls make a big jump competitively and it catches you off guard. I remember doing a triple take when my college teammate and former 14:20 5K guy, Matt (Gabrielson), ran 28:44 and finished third in the US road 10K championship in 2002.

I sat in the stands with my mouth agape when Carrie (Tollefson) won the Olympic Trials 1500. When Josh (Moen) ran Abdi to the line in the TC 10 and when Antonio (Vega) won the US Half Champs this year, it was stunning. Races like these shouldn't surprise me at this point. There's 20 more examples like the ones I noted, and in almost every case I'd seen what they were capable of in training before it happened in a race.

Ultimately, the great performances are really a testament to group training. The success feeds on itself. When you see your training partners do something great, you know you can too.... but I still can't help saying "holy &*^$" every once in a while when someone breaks through.

DtB: What are your plans for the future?

JL: My competitive years of running are limited at this point. I know I have a few more very good marathons in my legs, and I want to make it through one more Olympic Trials cycle. Beyond 2012 though, the picture is less clear... I find myself too often saying, "I'm too old for this $#%@" after particularly hard workouts. There's just no room in the group for a mid-30-something guy who is constantly complaining about his achy back. Before I completely become that guy, I'll get out of the way so someone else has an opportunity.

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