Perhaps no local road racer has improved more over the last three years than Jennifer Houck. Her first year after graduating from the College of St. Scholastica, she placed 18th in the Minnesota Runner of the Year rankings. Then two years later, in 2009, the 25-year-old claimed top honors in the rankings. Houck appears to have carried her fitness into 2010 as well. At the Aramco Houston Half Marathon in January, she PRd in 1:15:53. Next up for the Duluth resident is a trip to Jacksonville, FL next weekend for the Gate River 15K. Below she talks about her transition from college runner to road racer, her goals for the new year, and explains how she applies information on lactic acid into her training. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Kryduba.)
First off, congrats on your 2009 season. You were able to win Runner of the Year honors, set numerous PRs, and earn a MEADP grant along the way. Were you happy with your season? Were there any goals that you didn’t achieve?
Thank you! Yes, I was very happy with the last season. Every race went as good as I could have hoped, with the exception of the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon. I PRed in every distance I ran last year, but the half marathon. I think the only bad day for running in Duluth last year happened to be June 20th, but thankfully I was able to get the half marathon PR out of the way early in the 2010 season. The MEADP grant was definitely a highlight. The support of the grant will help me to pursue my 2010 running goals. I am extremely thankful for all those helping me pursue my goals. I feel very lucky to have so many great people supporting and believing in me.
2010 has started off great too, with a sub-1:16 at Houston. Were you surprised by those results at all?
I knew I was fit going into Houston, but I didn’t know how I would race in January and definitely wasn’t expecting to run a sub 1:16 half marathon, my previous best was a 1:19:21. The last few years I have focused on base building during the winter months. This winter I did more structured/focused training. Chad Salmela (my coach) felt that our training was indicating that I would run near 1:17. Race day everything fell into place (including me onto my face during my warm-up). Chad and I are very happy to be where we are at this early in the year with my fitness.
I’m always curious when Minnesotans run so well in the middle of winter. What has your training been like this winter to help you achieve those early season results?
Face masks, warm clothes, hand warmers, headlamps, and frostbite! Coming out of the Twin Cities Marathon I had a month of easy, unstructured running, but did not detrain like I have done in previous years. Over the last 4 years I have gradually been building mileage and intensity, and finally felt that after Twin Cities I did not need a break as I have in years past. I was doing a lot of base training, but focused additional weeks on threshold and max VO2 development leading up to Houston.
What goals do you have for the rest of the year?
My ultimate goal is to continue to improve. I haven’t yet seen a plateau in my fitness since focusing on my training with Chad after my collegiate running career, and am interested to see how fast I can go! My focus for this year is to achieve the Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying standard in either the marathon (sub 2:46) or half marathon (sub 1:15). My next attempt will be at the Boston Marathon, followed by the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, and finishing the racing year with the Chicago Marathon. I will probably run a couple short tune-up races, but won’t be racing as much this year as I did in 2009 allowing me to complete more marathon specific training runs.
Okay, let’s back up a bit. When and how did you get involved with running?
I first started running in the 7th grade in the spring running track and field. The following year I went out for the cross-country running team because my older sister (she was the first female runner at our school) was on the team. I continued with both track and field and cross-country through my senior year. In track I was a mid-distance runner and primarily ran the 800, 4x800, and 4x400. I didn’t run much outside of track/cross- country running as I played basketball in the winter. In the summers I would occasionally run 2 miles to a lake near our house, but 4 miles was the farthest I would go. I never qualified for a state meet in high school. I have great memories of high school running.
What was your career like at St. Scholastica?
I actually ran my first year at St. Cloud State University, but transferred after deciding on a major. At St. Scholastica, I raced 3 years of cross-country, and 3.5 years of track. I finished my cross-country collegiate career with an 18:53 5km PR at regionals, which was a 30 second improvement for me. I was the women’s assistant coach the following fall after Steve Pfingsten, the head coach, approached me and asked if I’d be interested in helping out. I was excited to help out with the team as I still had many friends competing. Additionally, it kept me motivated to train as I still had an outdoor track season of eligibility left.
While acting as an assistant coach, I met my current coach, Chad Salmela, who was newly hired as the head Nordic skiing, assistant cross-country and assistant track coach at St. Scholastica. He told me I should use my last semester of eligibility for outdoor track as he saw potential in me. I’m glad he did as I qualified provisionally for both the 5k (17:35) and 10k (36:21), and ended up competing in the 10k at the DIII NCAA Track and Field Championships. The times that I ran were minutes faster than I ever thought I’d ever be capable of running.
Since graduating, you’ve moved up the Runner of the Year rankings each of the last three years, going from 18th to 3rd to 1st. What do you attribute your improvement to?
I attribute my improvement to consistence and patience with my training. We have been gradually increasing my mileage and intensity the last few years. I trust and believe in the training that I am doing. I cycle my training and I have at least one day off every week, sometimes two depending on the focus for the week. I never have a training week identical to the previous. I think the cycling of my training and incorporation of rest days has helped keep me healthy, dedicated and motivated to the sport. The training I am completing has allowed me to push myself to a higher level of fitness each year without breaking down or burning out.
I tend to think that making the transition from college runner to road racer is a lot harder than people think. It seems like there are a lot of great collegiate runners that never make that transition. What advice would you give to people that may be in that situation?
Early collegiately I wasn’t planning on making that transition. After my final track season I decided to make the transition, as I wanted to continue to improve. When I started road racing I had a hard time finding races to focus on, as I didn’t know what races were out there. In college all my races were lined up, having the responsibility to select races to train for was overwhelming. There are so many out there! My advice is to determine what your racing goals are for the year and look for races to meet those goals. Surround yourself with individuals who can help you make the transition positive.
You still live in Duluth where there are a lot of great runners. Are you able to train with any one else?
I do train with other Duluthians as much as I can. Duluth has a wonderful running community and I am very happy to be a part of it! I am usually able to find a running partner at least once a week, especially for a long run on the weekend. A quick shout out to those who I’ve been able to train with: Brent Smith, Andy Prevost, Greg Hexum, Katie & Jess Koski, James Mullenix, David Hyponnen, Alex Tuttle, Chris Rubesch, Joe Stromsness, and Jason Kask. Apologies to those I’m forgetting!
How would you describe your training philosophy?
Train smart, take days off and don’t train statically. I don’t worry about mileage. I have a different focus each week with my training. One week I may run 120 miles and the next I may only run 50-60, depending on the training focus. I actually don’t train by miles either, I train by hours/time spent training. This definitely saves time on calculating running distances!
For my threshold/race pace workouts I take lactates. Taking lactates allows me to adjust workouts as needed and helps structure training for future runs. Lactate testing is a foreign concept for many people, but I believe that it adds a scientific element that really helps me dial in my training zones. As humans increase intensity and go into oxygen deficit, lactic acid is produced as a by-product of anaerobic metabolism. Thus, allowing me to get a glimpse into how aerobic or anaerobic my current pace is.
In order to find my training zones a lactate profice must be taken. To do this, I run 4 minutes on a treadmill, starting slower than an easy training pace. After earch 4 minute interval a small blood sample is taken and placed in a LactatePro Analyzer, which measure lactic acid levels. Each subsequent interval pace is increased by 1 mile per hour and then 0.5 mile per hour as I near thresold pace. I continue running intervals until I can't finish the next one. Throughout the test my heart rate, lactic acid, pace and perceived effort is logged and then converted into a graph. The graph can then be used to calculate my basic endurance, developmental endurance, anaerobic threshold, and race pace heart rate ranges.
At any time during a workout I can take my lactate level and adjust my intensity bast on the results. Since my heart rate is graphed along side the lactate levels, I also use my heart rate to gauge what zone I am in. The use of a heart rate monitor has also helped me from running my easy runs too hard, something I know I used to do. And above all else, I make sure to have fun with the sport.
What are your PRs?
5 miles: 28:30
10 miles: 57:52
What do you consider your strengths? Weaknesses?
I am a strong uphill runner, but a weak downhill runner. I also know that I am able to finish races stronger when I start conservatively. Starting conservatively is something that I’ve had to and continue to work on every race. I’m starting to get better at it, my biggest PRs have come in races were I’ve ran negative splits.
What is your fondest running memory?
My fondest running memories are my provisional qualifying races in the 5k and 10k and running at the NCAA Championships. Each of the qualifying races were significant PRs, and I started to realize that my specific and focused training was allowing me to compete at a new level.
I also really enjoyed our “parade” runs in high school for cross-country. The day before a meet, the team would run down the main street and back. Nobody but us knew we were “parading”!
If you could run with any Minnesotan, past or present, who would it be?
Two people that I really enjoy training with from the Northland are Brent Smith and Andy Prevost. I met Andy first as he was the assistant cross-country coach my first year of running at St. Scholastica. I met Brent Smith the following year after I started dating his son, Reid. Brent and Andy have been running partners for a number of years now. I was “accepted” into their running group a few years ago starting out finishing the “JV” workouts (not quite making the full varsity distance). My long runs first started with these two. I can always count on them for an entertaining long run (and I hope that if Brent takes a day off every once in a while he’ll stay healthy enough to run with me for many more years)! They have been and continue to be important running mentors to me.
Finally, what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started running?
That it was okay in high school to be content with running 1 or 2 miles and calling it day. I think running short and easy for many years in high school has been a factor in preserving my love for running. Running for me has always been enjoyable. It was never forced on me and there were never any expectations pushed on me. My intense training did not start until I was emotionally and physically mature enough to handle it. My high school coach also told me something that I fully believe in, “remember no matter how good you become as a runner, you will always be a better person.”