All right, it's March and it's time for me to stop hibernating. We kick off the Spring with one of Team USA Minnesota's original athletes, Chris Lundstrom. Not only is the soon-to-be 33-year-old Minneapolis resident one of the best runners around, but he's also a terrific writer on our sport. You can often find his articles in such publications as Running Times and Twin Cities Sports, or online at Down the Backstretch. He also shares his insight in a journal for the New York Road Runners. Below, he talks about juggling his busy schedule, his plans for 2009 and how he'd like his running career to be remembered. (Photo courtesy of Alison Wade)
As one of the inaugural members of Team USA Minnesota, what has being a part of the team meant to you, personally and professionally?
It’s been a blast. To train with such a collection of outstanding runners and people has been quite an experience. Professionally, I know that without the team, I would not have had anywhere near the same opportunities to compete, nor the same amount of time to dedicate to training as I have had.
I’d argue that, from top to bottom, the team is as strong as it’s ever been – on both the men’s and women’s side. Would you agree with that?
I think we’re very strong. It’s hard to compare one group with another. We’ve had some very good athletes come and go. That said, this group has a great deal of potential. It’s exciting to see the development of some of the younger runners -- Emily Brown, Antonio Vega, and others. And on top of that, we have some veterans who are working to get back on top or to stay near the top.
In terms of team dynamics, I think it’s the best group we’ve had. We get a real synergistic effect from working out together. With the exception of Matt and Antonio, all of the men have been injured at some point over the last few months, but we’re coming back together now, hopefully in time for some good racing in 2009.
The team seems to have more of a marathon focus lately. Is that by design or is it just one of the cycles that the team goes through?
Last fall, it just made sense of most of the guys to run a marathon. Going forward, I imagine that the fall marathon will be a part of most of the team’s schedule. However, with the exception of Jason and myself, we are not a team of marathoners. Pretty much everyone else is focused primarily on the track this spring. I actually think it’s a very natural combination. Putting in a big base in the fall, culminating with a marathon, should enhance your aerobic fitness and ultimately lead to better track racing in the spring.
How has the distance running scene in the U.S. changed since you joined the team?
It’s been fun to see the rising tide of young runners taking the sport to the next level. There have always been some top-notch runners in the U.S. – the ‘90s had Todd Williams and Bob Kennedy, plus Kempainen, Steve Spence and others. But I think what has really changed is the depth that we’re seeing now. A time that used to place 10th in a national championship road race might be 25th or 30th now.
You’re part, professional runner, coach, teacher, and writer for like four different publications. How do you keep it all straight?
I don’t always. I have a big calendar where I try to write things down, and I usually schedule things when I’m sitting at my computer and I can look up at that calendar.
Running and coaching are my daily tasks, so they are done more or less by habit. I typically do my primary workout for the day first thing, before getting caught up in other stuff. Coaching is something that takes a lot of time, but I enjoy it so much that it’s hardly work. Teaching and writing, I guess I am more deadline-driven. If I have a lecture to give, I’m probably working on it the night before I do it. If I have an article due, I’m fitting that in wherever I can, hopefully before the deadline.
In addition to coaching running, you also coach cross country skiing. Is that something you competed in during high school? Have you competed or thought about competing lately?
No, Northfield High School didn’t have a Nordic ski team at that time. I did ski a little bit with my family when I was a young kid, just trudging through the snow. But I basically picked it up when I started coaching it. It was my first year as the head cross country coach at Como Park, and as the season was winding down, I heard that the Nordic ski coach was looking for an assistant. Some of my runners suggested that I do it. Somehow I ended up helping out even though I really didn’t know how to ski. By the next year I was the head coach. And I still really didn’t know how to ski. Strangely enough, based on team success I’m better at coaching girls skiing than anything else.
As far as my own participation, I have done a few ski races, but it’s more as recreation and cross-training. At a certain point, your body becomes so specialized at your primary sport that anything else feels awkward. I’m an okay skier now, but I certainly cannot compete at a high level. Maybe over the next few years I’ll start to do a little more skiing over the winter, giving my body a break from the pounding of running. But I think to really be competitive, you have to train for it year-round, including roller-skiing in the off season, and I don’t have any interest in doing that at this point.
What are your short-term goals for 2009?
I’m running the USA 15k championships (the Gate River Run in Jacksonville, FL) and the USA 25k championships (Fifth Third Bank River Bank Run in Grand Rapids, MI). I’d like place in the top 10 and/or run a PR at both of those races. In addition to that, I’m hoping to get out west for a track meet (maybe Mt. SAC) to take a crack at either a 5k or 10k PR.
And all of that leads up to Grandma’s Marathon. I’d like to run a good competitive marathon there. It’s a great course if the weather cooperates, but you can’t really count on that at any marathon. Really, I just want to come into Canal Park running strong and near the front. I’ve taken three previous attempts at Grandma’s. My debut in 2001 was 2:23, I dropped out in 2003 – the only marathon I’ve ever dropped out of, and in 2004 I ran my slowest marathon ever – 2:29. So I figure I’m due for a good one. I’ve had five years to lick my wounds, run the Bjorklund Half and now it’s time to go back and get it right.
Any long-term goals that you’d still like to accomplish?
I would like to clock a fast marathon at some point. I’ve run 2:17 at Twin Cities, and a bunch of times close to that on other courses, but I’ve never gone and run a fast race like Chicago or London. I usually focus on competing and placing well, but at some point, I’d like to nail down a time that I feel is about as good as I could do on an honest course. What would that be? At least 2:15, maybe 2:12 if training was great and everything came together perfectly. I don’t know.
Other than that, I’d also love to make a World Championship marathon team.
And I’d like to win a fairly major marathon. I won Napa Valley, but that’s not really a huge deal. There’s no prize money, though I did win my weight in wine – and it was really good wine, by the way. Other than that my 4th place at Twin Cities is my highest finish. I don’t expect to go and win Boston or New York, but I’d like to win a bigger marathon, something in that next tier down of great marathons…Twin Cities or something on par with that.
Beyond that, I’m sure that I will always find new challenges to tackle, whether it’s in competitive road running, or elsewhere.
When people look back on your running career in 20-30 years, what do you hope they see?
I’m not convinced that anyone will be looking back on my running career too long from now. If they do, I hope they see a guy who did a lot with the talent that he had, who worked hard and raced consistently over a period of many years.
What's your fondest running memory?
I really couldn’t choose one. I have great memories of running with so many great people over the years. The fondest memories are probably having laughs on easy runs with teammates and friends.
As far as moments that define my own career, the 2001 New York Marathon stands out. That was the USA marathon championships that year, and I was relatively unknown. Through a strong last 6 miles, I managed to jump up to 3rd place in the national championship race. That race really validated all the hard work I had done and made me feel, for the first time, like a national-class runner. I think it also brought some positive attention to Team USA Minnesota, and idea that there might be something to the concept of group training.
Also, running the Pan Am Games Marathon in Rio de Janeiro in 2007 was really special. I got to wear the USA singlet and stay in the athlete’s village and everything, so it was really a unique and memorable trip. My wife Taj came down to be with me. It was a great reward, and I was pleased with my 6th place finish.
What’s your favorite race, locally or nationally?
I’ll have to resort to a list here, in no particular order…
Grandma’s Marathon/Garry Bjorklund Half
Twin Cities Marathon
New York Marathon
Humboldt Half Marathon
Bay to Breakers 12k
Who were your role models growing up?
My brother Mike, Dominique Wilkins and Bob Kempainen.
My brother was three years older than me, and from an early age he pushed me to play sports with he and his friends. We were very competitive, and he was a lot stronger than me, so that forced me to learn the value of practicing skills, working hard, trying to find any type of advantage in a competitive situation. We had some epic one-on-one basketball games.
Dominique Wilkins – a.k.a. the Human Highlight Film – was the physical being that I hoped to grow into someday. It turned out that I couldn’t emulate his acrobatics, except maybe on an 8 foot hoop. So eventually, I began to focus more on running.
Kempainen was someone I really admired, and still admire. I remember watching him place second in the New York Marathon in 1993. I was a high school runner then, and it was the greatest thing I had ever seen. Then they interviewed him, and I can’t remember what he said, but he was of course extremely humble. Over time, I had a chance to meet him a couple of times, and also to interview him for an article. I’ve always been impressed with him.
If you could run with any Minnesotan, past or present, who would it be?
That’s a tough one. There are a lot of great characters. If I had a time machine, I’d run with Bjorklund and Beardsley at the 1981 Grandma’s Marathon. I’d hang on as long as I possibly could. I also wish I could have met Ron Daws. In reading his book, I felt a real kinship with him.
Part of why I love running local races, and that I sometimes will do them just for workouts, is that you get to see and run with all of these great characters who are still out there doing it.
Finally, what do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started running?
Nothing. I’m still learning along the way, and that’s the fun of it.