On the grounds of the University of New Hampshire, outside Durham, a dirt road winds through a yellow wood. The road is soft and springy. "It forces you to use different muscle groups," says Lynn Jennings as she confidently picks her way over roots and ruts at a pace of six minutes a mile. "It preserves your legs."
Jennings plans to endure. She is 30 and has been a serious runner for most of her life. For a time, the road was broad and well-marked, and Jennings had no trouble following it. When she was 17 and the top high school runner in the country, Jennings told a friend that she would be the best distance runner in the world by the time she was 30. The remark was curious, containing as it did the rival virtues of ambition and patience. Yet earlier this year a string of races proved her right:
•On Jan. 7 at the Dartmouth Relays in Hanover, N.H., Jennings ran 5,000 meters in 15:22.64, a world indoor record.
•On Feb. 23, she won the TAC indoor 3,000 in 8:40.45, a U.S. record that was all the more impressive for coming on the cramped board track of New York's Madison Square Garden.
•March began with a U.S. record of 31:06 for a road 10K in Orlando, Fla., and ended with a convincing win at the World Cross-Country Championships in Aix-les-Bains, France, the first victory at that meet by an American woman in 15 years.
But between her early display of extraordinary promise and its recent fulfillment, Jennings lost her way. "I was at odds with my true self," she says of that confusing time. "The real me was lost. I was trying on all these different little personalities. I was afraid that a big part of me had died, the running part of me."
On Saturday, Nov. 24, Jennings will go to a starting line in New York City's Van Cortlandt Park to try to win her fourth straight national cross-country title. Though track remains her first priority-she finished sixth at 10,000 meters in both the 1987 World Championships and the '88 Olympics—cross-country is her passion. "It's so pure," she says. "I'm sort of a nature geek. I embrace the weather changes. They are what makes me endure as an athlete. You lean into the wind; you get wet and dirty and cold, and experience the whole spectrum of sensations."
Torrential rains, gusting winds and ankle-deep mud are strange wellsprings of pleasure and motivation, but for Jennings they are inspirational. "I follow my own drummer," she says. Her conversation is sprinkled with admiring allusions to such Yankee individualists as Emerson, Thoreau and Benoit. "As a kid I never had packs of girlfriends," she says. "I always preferred to do things on my own."
Like most complicated people, Jennings yearns for simpler ways. She wrote her undergraduate thesis at Princeton on the Shakers. "I like the simple way they did things," she says. "They lived for the purity of things. I try to do that too—to live as clean and pure a life as is possible in 1990, not to be overwhelmed by things."
She laughs. "How hypocritical can I be? I just bought a new sports car, a polluter, a thing."
This particular thing is a silver Mazda Miata with a license plate that reads A KICK. With a six-figure income from running and consulting work for Nike, Jennings can afford to buy a lot of other things, yet she stubbornly refuses. She lives with Tim Hayner and their three cats, Dundee, Stirling and Castine, in a 150-year-old Cape on a side street of tiny Newmarket, N.H. She puts up jams, she bakes pies, she knits, she turns her backyard into the neighborhood playground. Once or twice a week she drives down to Boston to run intervals with her coach, John Babington.
Jennings is fiercely, almost eccentrically self-reliant. Whenever she requires the three staples of her existence—beer, ice cream and The Boston Globe—she will either bike or walk to Marelli's Fruit and Real Estate on Main Street. "I don't use my car unless I really have to," she says.
When she is strapping on her psychic armor before a race, Jennings is a fearsome presence. "People know not to get too close to Lynn when it's nearing race time," says Babington. "She radiates some of her less social characteristics when a race is near."
Jennings's game face has been known to annoy her friends as well as her rivals. It dismays those who know her other side. She confesses, "When I'm about to be interviewed, Tim always says, 'Let them see you're a sweetie, that you're soft.' "
More often than not, Hayner's plea falls on deaf ears. A recent interview in the Globe caught her at her fierce, uncompromising worst, sounding like a robotic, Nietzschean superrunner.
"I have the killer instinct," she was quoted as saying. "I embrace a sense of superiority. I will not allow someone to be better than me. I will myself to be the best. I look my competitors in the eye and think: '...you!' " At this point in the interview, Jennings put her thumb on the table in front of her, print down, and twisted it viciously, as if relishing the thought of squishing every ounce of life out of one of her hapless rivals.
But she also points out that her ferocity is a tool, to be picked up when competition demands it and put aside when it doesn't. Jennings chafes at the narrow range of emotions our society allows women to show. She feels no need to be soft or "feminine," no need to please. "The 'be nice' thing," she says. "It's a burden women ought not to have." She goes on to say, in words so measured that you know she wants to get this right, once and for all: "I'm a woman. I'm a classy woman. I'm a nice woman. I'm a sweet woman. But when I'm running a race, there's more to me than sweet, nice woman. There's that whole athletic side of me being expressed. It was even harder when I had my hair cut really short."
Ah, yes. That haircut. In 1987 Jennings appeared in a Nike ad with her hair so short it looked as if a porcupine had taken up residence atop her head. "People were questioning my sexuality," she says.
But Jennings's ferocity went beyond her haircut. She also had a chip on her shoulder. "I was self-coached at the time," she says. "I was very angry, defensive about my running. I had to be, because there was nobody to help me share the burden of what I was trying to do. I feel as if I've mellowed incredibly in the last two years."
Hayner and Babington have helped a great deal in the mellowing process. Jennings met Hayner in 1988 when she returned from the Seoul Olympics to discover that the horse chestnut in her yard had blight. She contacted a local tree service, and Hayner came calling. They still debate the outcome of their second date, a 20-minute mud-wrestling contest in the middle of a swampy soccer field.
After an estrangement of nearly a decade, Jennings got back in touch with Babington early last year when she could no longer stand the strain of coaching herself. Theirs has been a long and, at times, fiery relationship. "Lynn has always been a strong-willed individual," says Babington. "But she and I have learned to work so well that we never insist on something we know the other won't want." Babington knows to make allowances. "If one is exceptional," he says, "one is different. Not just a cut above, but a cut apart."
Jennings is both. She grew up in Harvard, Mass., 50 miles west of Boston, and attended the public high school, the Bromfield School, there. Bromfield did not have a girls' cross-country team, so Jennings ran on the boys' team. As a freshman she came in last in every race.
The following spring, however, she finished second in the high school mile at the girls' state meet and caught Babington's eye. Babington is a Boston lawyer, but his first love has always been running. He recruited Jennings for the team he coached, the Liberty Athletic Club, a women's track club that draws its members from all over New England and that won national junior cross-country team titles five times between 1976 and 1981. That summer, 1975, says Jennings, "I fell in love with the process of running. I just liked going out there and doing it every day." She cut her best for the mile to 5:01.4, beating, among others, a Bowdoin freshman named Joan Benoit at an open meet in Boston.
As a sophomore Jennings was the top runner on the Bromfield boys' cross-country team. By the end of the year, Jennings, only 15, had qualified for the 1976 Olympic trials. She is still at or near the top of many alltime high school lists, but what was most impressive was her range.
As a high school senior Jennings won the Boston Bonne Bell 10K, in 34:31. Then she won the national junior cross-country title, by a margin of 12 seconds. In February 1978 she ran 4:18.9 for 1,500 meters indoors, a time that no other high school runner has come within five seconds of. She finished third in the AAU indoor mile, in 4:39.0.
Then, flying in the face of common sense and Babington's advice, she decided to run the Boston Marathon. At 17, Jennings was too young to enter officially, so she started without a number. Running "at what seemed no more than a hard training effort," she crossed the finish line as the third woman, less than two minutes behind winner Gayle Barron, who ran 2:44:52. This is the world's greatest marathon? Jennings thought disdainfully.
The marathon soon got its revenge. Leg pains turned out to be symptoms of a torn meniscus, and she had to have arthroscopic surgery on her left knee.
"I'm hard on myself," she says. "I think, You're fine; keep plugging; keep charging through those walls. But you can't fool your body. You can't fool your head. I tend to push myself until I can't go anymore, and then I crash. That has been my pattern in the past."
"Lynn is seemingly capable of moving to higher motivational heights than any other athlete," says Babington, who refused to coach her after she ignored his advice on the marathon. "But those highs are counterbalanced by her lows. Maybe, psychologically, she has to rest up in order to be that highly motivated in the future."
In 1978, Jennings showed up as a freshman at Princeton about 12 pounds over her running weight of 110 (she's 5'5"). She also felt totally out of place. "I was really a backward little person," she says. "I had spent my high school years trying to be a great runner, which didn't really mix with growing up as a teenager. I came to college almost like a 14-year-old, socially. I remember my first cross-country party. I sat on the couch reading Runner's World and drinking a glass of milk because drinking beer and socializing with men and women were completely over my head. Poor Peter [Farrell, the Princeton coach]. He got the blue-chip recruit of the country, and she was a mess."
Jennings showed flashes of brilliance in college—she finished ninth in the national collegiate cross-country championships as a freshman—but she never approached the level that her early successes had predicted for her. Midway through her junior year, Jennings withdrew from school. She moved back home to Massachusetts and worked as a janitor in an office. She also started to run again. She returned to Princeton after a year; in the spring of her senior year she finished third in the NCAA 3,000.
After graduation, Jennings got in touch with Babington and made a halfhearted attempt to make the 1984 Olympic team in the 3,000. She qualified for the trials but finished last in her heat by 45 seconds. What was almost worse was being introduced as "former national junior champion" Lynn Jennings. "Definitely the nadir of my career," she says. "There I was at 24, still being remembered for past glories. I felt like I hadn't moved on in life."
The turning point came one fall day in 1984, when Jennings bent over to pick up a newspaper and discovered she needed all the stretch her elastic waistband could offer. She pulled on some old running shoes and dragged herself out on the road. "I didn't want to end up 30 and wondering if I could've been a great runner," she says.
There is no wondering anymore. Her cross-country victories in the 1987, '88 and '89 TAC championships, capped by last spring's world championship, have put to rest any doubts she, or anyone else, had. And Jennings is still finding challenges. She looks forward to running a marathon, the event she hopes she'll compete in at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. "I'm convinced that the first woman to break 2:20 hasn't run a marathon yet," she says, admitting with a sly smile that she doesn't consider that she has officially run one yet.
Why not think big? These are heady times for women's distance running in the U.S. It is not unlikely that when Track & Field News issues its women's world rankings in February, Jennings will be first in the world at 5,000 and PattiSue Plumer of Covina, Calif., first at 3,000. Jennings also mentions recent college graduates Meredith Rainey and Vicki Huber, and Wisconsin senior Suzy Favor as runners to watch. Though still a game-faced loner, Jennings now appreciates the camaraderie of her sport. "What's fascinating," she says, "is that strong friendships exist amid the most cutthroat competitive relationships." But when she steps to the starting line, it will be winning, not friendship, that remains her goal.