Like Frost and Thoreau and generations of resilient New Englanders, world cross-country champion Lynn Jennings draws inspiration from the land. She and her husband, Dave Hill, reside on the western edge of New Hampshire's Great Bay, where the Atlantic Ocean crooks a salty finger into the mainland. Their house is a post-and-beam saltbox set on 5½ wooded acres, and at night their neighbors are coyotes and foxes, raccoons and fisher-cats. Twenty-one inches of snow fell during the recent blizzard, but if that sounds like an insurmountable training obstacle, you don't know Jennings.
"It's been brutal," she admits. "Not just the snow, but the wind and cold as well." But then she adds, "It's been a terrific challenge."
Jennings hopes the elements have toughened her for the next challenge, the world cross-country championships on Sunday in Amorebieta, Spain. Olympic champions will tell you that the event is the most competitive footrace in the world, drawing marathoners and milers, road runners and cross-country specialists. Jennings, 32, has won the race for the last three years. But this week she faces formidable competition. Expected to run in the 3.7-mile race are Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia and Elana Meyer of South Africa, the gold and silver medalists, respectively, from the 1992 Olympic 10,000 meters, in which Jennings finished third. Throw in world 10,000-meter champ Liz McColgan of Scotland and, says Jennings, "this year's field could be the best ever."
In the past a group of elite runners might have intimidated Jennings. Against such competition she had shown an uncanny knack for finishing sixth. Her 10,000 in Barcelona changed that trend. Granted, Tulu and Meyer got away from her in mid-race, but she kept her cool, finishing in 31:19.89, a U.S. record. Jennings says that earning an Olympic medal on the track—the first by a U.S. woman in a distance race since Joan Benoit's gold in the 1984 marathon—made her feel "like a complete athlete."
To explain her improvement, Jennings quickly points to Hill. In the past she often wrestled with her own roiling emotions, her defiantly prickly haircut seemingly symbolic of the sometimes-prickly personality beneath it. But she began to change when she started a relationship with Hill, a UPS delivery man who regularly brought her packages of shoes sent by Nike. Deliverer and deliveree were married on Sept. 15, 1991.
"Somehow," she says, musing on the changes that marriage brings, "it's almost like you're multiplied. All the best parts of you are bigger and better."
She was especially fortunate to have Hill along when she traveled to Durham, England, in December for what would have been her first cross-country showdown with Tulu and Meyer. Three days before the race, Jennings began to suffer excruciating pain in her abdomen. After a night doubled up in agony, she was persuaded by Hill to go to a hospital, where doctors told her that exploratory surgery could not wait. They operated that day, and when Jennings awoke she was told that her appendix—it had been perforated and probably would have soon burst—had been removed. "Good thing Dave was there," Jennings says. "I'd have tried to be a tough Yankee."
The wimp! She let four whole days pass before tiptoeing past her sleeping husband and out onto the cobbled streets of Durham for a 25-minute run.
To prepare for Sunday's race. Jennings has watched videotapes of her best performances and has visualized what will happen in this one. "I see myself powering over hills and away from the others," she says. "I look strong and fast and powerful."
She must forgive her rivals if they don't relish that powerful vision. They've seen it too many times before.