Running Writing ©
No. 12    July 1998
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Part 1

Lisa Ondieki        
• by Brian Lenton •      

Brian has kindly allowed the publication of selected items from his books in Running Writing. The complete interview with Lisa is one of six to be found in his latest book Brian Lenton - Interviews. Lisa Ondieki will be published in the July and August issues of Running Writing. The other featured runners in Interviews are Ron Clarke, Derek Clayton, Ralph Doubell, Herb Elliott and Dave Power. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the book ($A18+postage - $22 total for Australian residents) write to: Brian Lenton Publications, P.O. Box 5, Duffy, ACT 2611, AUSTRALIA.

Select for Large Image

lisa ondieki
Lisa winning the Australian 15k Road Championships at Eastern Creek in June 1991 [27k]

liz mccolghan
Long-time rival Liz McColghan leading a track race in Canberra, December 1989 [26k]

dick telford
Coach Dick Telford making the presentation to Mary Silver for winning the 1990 ACT Academy of Sport Canberra Marathon [43k]

yobes ondieki & pat carroll
Yobes Ondieki leading Pat Carroll on the track at Sydney Athletic Field in January 1990 [21k]

Lisa Ondieki has been a world-class marathoner for more than a decade and is Australiaís greatest female distance runner ever. She was a silver medallist in the 1988 Seoul Olympic marathon (behind Rosa Mota) and won back to back Commonwealth Games marathon gold medals (Edinburgh í86 and Auckland í90). Lisa has been merit-ranked in the world marathon Top 10 on six occasions by the authoritative American Track & Field News magazine (1984, 7th; 1985, 6th; 1986, 4th; 1988, 2nd; 1990, 3rd; 1992, 2nd).

My interview with Lisa took place in her suburban Canberra home in March í96. Lisa offered me a beer and we had a pleasant 90 minute chat. Not being willing to disregard the observations of sports psychologist Gaylene Clews, we had agreed on an evening that I hoped was not prior to track training or competition. It turned out to be my longest interview ever.
Here it is.

•  Would you have ever dreamed or predicted that you would leave Australia a nationally ranked 400m hurdler and go on to become a world-class marathoner?

No. When marathoning was first suggested to me in 1983 I was absolutely dead set against it. I was afraid of the event and thought there was no good reason to go through that much pain. My debut wasnít so bad after expecting the worst so I just kept doing it.

•  How would you rank the Top 5 marathons of your career in terms of personal satisfaction?

My course record of 2:24 in New York í92 is an easy number one. It was the fourth time I was trying to win after two seconds and a third. I never expected to get the record because I think itís a slow course. Second would be the silver medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and 13 seconds from the gold. Third would be the solo 2:23:51 in Osaka í88 which is my PB and still the fastest by a female on an out and back course. Fourth would be the solo 2:25 in the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games and fifth the solo 2:26 in the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games. I think the last three were really fast times to run alone without competition.

•  Is a DNF in a marathon worse than coming last?

No. When Iíve DNFíd itís because something is drastically wrong. I regard it as common-sense. Every time Iíve DNFíd, my next marathon has been really good - 1987 Rome World Championships then Osaka í88, 1992 Barcelona Olympics then New York í92 and DNF in Japaní95 and then back iní96 at Osaka which was the Australian Olympic Trial. I comfortably qualified for my fourth Olympic team.

I DNF for physical reasons and not because I wasnít winning. In fact, most of my marathons Iíve never won. By DNFing Iíve been able to recover and come back and do something good. By struggling on I would have damaged myself for I donít know how long. The attitude that you must never, ever DNF a marathon is stupid. There are times, especially when conditions are absolutely extreme, when it is called for.

•  Eleven years ago in an interview you told me that youíd much prefer to be a 10,000m track runner rather than a marathoner and in fact you achieved a world track ranking in 1992 (31:11.72). Do you still feel the same way?

Not any more. For women, marathons, especially the big-city events, are more glamorous. I enjoy 10,000 track but the event doesnít have much spectator appeal. Theyíre hardly ever held on the European Grand Prix circuit. Iím glad Iím a marathoner.

•  What about your marathon training in terms of quality and quantity in the preparation stage for a major marathon?

A good week would be 210km training twice-a-day every day. Sometimes on Sundays I might only do a long morning run of 38km. I have 3 weekly track work-outs. For example 20 x 400m with a minute rest or 6 x one mile or 40 x 200m. I also do a long hard continuous run of 10-16 km. Consequently thereís a lot of quality.

•  You wouldnít be more precise about the actual speed of those intervals and repetitions?

I donít like to because people might try and copy them, which would be dangerous. What works for one person doesnít necessarily work for another. If some young runner tried to reproduce the sessions, they might get into real trouble. You have to remember that what Iím doing now is based on a build-up over a decade. In fact two decades when you consider the time I spent as a sprinter/hurdler.

•  Obviously with your achievements over many years you are seen as an icon by other Australian female distance runners. Do you feel any obligation to other elite women or promising juniors?

If I was spending more time in Australia I would, but at the moment Iím based for over half the year in America. Certainly when my career winds down Iíd like to do more. Iím still a full-time athlete. Itís my job and how I support my daughter Emma. Training is so time and energy consuming that I find I cannot give much at this stage. Otherwise you just spread yourself too thinly.

On the other hand I regularly receive letters from kids. For example, thereís a little 10-year-old in Sydney who writes to me. After the Osaka marathon I had two easy weeks and I called her parents and invited her out to watch the Sydney Grand Prix track and field meet with me. Sheís a keen distance runner and we also had a jog together. I was able to give her time because I wasnít competing and it was during a rest and recovery period. That was wonderful and something that Iíd look forward to doing when I retire.

•  In what ways, if any, did motherhood in 1990 change your athletic goals or the direction of your career?

As soon as I found out I was pregnant I stopped running completely. So for eight-plus months I did nothing. After Emma I was so happy and content that I didnít really give a damn when I got back into training. On returning to Canberra when Emma was four months old, Dick Telford asked me if I was ever going to run again. Prior to Emma, running was everything to me, but subsequently I thought if I donít run well again thatís fine and if I do thatís a bonus.

Having Emma (and also at that time Yobes) there was the knowledge that when I stopped running (and everyoneís career is going to finish) thereís a whole lot more there. If I didnít have Emma Iíd be really dreading the end of my career. I watch other athletes as they get older. For example, Joan Samuelson ran 2:37 in the US Olympic Trials last weekend struggling to make a team. I donít want to do that, and having Emma put me at ease. Itís just another focus.

•  Can we now look at your coach-athlete relationships. I suppose there have been fundamentally four - Ken Martin/Jack Daniels, Dick Telford Part 1, Yobes Ondieki and Dick Telford Part 2. What have been the pluses and minuses from your point of view?

Actually I cannot think of any minuses with Ken and Jack and basically my training has not changed since those days except for the two year stint with Yobes at high altitude (7000ft/2000m) in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Ken and Jack's work-outs were 16x400m with one minutes' rest the day after a twenty miler. Then an easy day followed by 4 to 6 repeat miles. Another easy day then a hard steady 4-6 mile run on the track. About the only difference now from that pattern established in 1983 is a possible increase in the tempo run up to 10 miles and maybe twenty quarters now. That's how good the program was. It worked like a dream for me first up.

Dick Part 1 and 2 was a continuation of that basic training pattern. You only have to look at my diaries to see it hasn't changed. Dick just supervised it.

Then there was training with Yobes at altitude. This was where my training changed a lot and it was a minus. The Kenyan way is set, hard work-outs. The coach only has to be there, time it and make sure the athlete does it. There was no emotional support or psychology working. No concept of resting up and peaking for races. Absolutely no consideration of injury prevention. It's essentially survival of the fittest. If you don't die, you'll run great. For the first time in my life I felt like I hated running. Of course I did some great performances from this training like a 31:11 for 10km track in Helsinki and a 2:24:40 course record in New York. But I also DNF'd in Barcelona because I think there was no consideration for heat and humidity. It was a program that even after ten years of marathon training background I simply wasn't going to survive.

You could say it was interesting but I believe there's more to coaching than writing out an incredibly hard program and saying to the athlete 'Do it!' It was Dick that added the emotional and psychological support. He can make me laugh and he's great to have around at races.

•  Some years ago Scotland's Liz McColghan and you seemed to be the worst of enemies, if you can fully believe the mainstream media, but now you appear to be the best of acquaintances, if not friends.

Liz really did get under my skin and irritated the hell out of me, but boy she's made a small fortune from it. She has been reportedly paid $250,000 a year in appearance fees to run London for three years - that's $750,000 total which is not bad. It was all because her mouth was so big and she predicted all these world records. I distinctly saw it in print in a running magazine that Liz wasn't going to waste her time running 2:26 but instead would run 2:16. Unlike Barcelona I didn't dream this.

Liz has disdain and lack of respect for all previous female performances. It was Grete Waitz and others who had made the marathon a popular event and paved the way for appearance fees. What I couldn't understand was that Ingrid Kristiansen held the world 10km track record of 30:13 and Liz hadn't even remotely run that fast. Ingrid had run 2:21 for a marathon and yet Liz was predicting 2:16.

Of course Liz acts like she really believes it. I just thought this event is going to humiliate her. She's yet to break 2:27 and her fastest was her debut. At the 1995 Tokyo marathon Liz was so friendly but also very confused. She was training harder than ever before, three times a day and yet couldn't break 2:30.

The marathon can humble everyone. It certainly has me and Liz too. But it has made her a nicer person. She invited me to come to Gainsville, Florida to train with her and I said maybe I would. Liz even invited me to stay in her own house but I said a girl has got to draw the line somewhere and that I'd find my own place.

One of the reasons we never liked each other was because we were so similar. We had the same sort of fire - shoot your mouth first and think about it and regret it later. I've now found out I quite like her. We were talking about our work-outs and this was a big step, sharing information with Liz. I didn't think that would ever happen.

Liz's training was very similar to mine but then she had to put in a little stinger at the end. I'm slightly exaggerating but Liz told me she'd do ten one-mile repetitions in four minutes and whatever seconds. I said okay, but how much rest? Liz replied: 'just a wee rest - about 10 seconds.' I could accept and believe all the other work-outs but not this one. That was just Liz. But she was very nice and having also become a mother has probably changed her too.

Having said all that I still don't regret our conflict either. When we first raced each other in London '93 they said people came out of the pubs on to the street to watch the fight. It was London's best spectator crowd for years. So if it creates some interest in women's marathon running I've no regrets.

•  You said that if the Chinese women competed in the 1995 World Championships you would not be a starter. Do you still feel that way?

The Chinese were just so blatant. You have to realise there's no solidarity amongst athletes because it is not a team sport. I just wish that if 90% of distance runners had said 'we will not compete' it would have been great. There has got to be a lot more pressure on the IAAF to do more with the drug testing. For example, a Chinese runner might come out and run 29:30 for 10km track in Atlanta. How could you randomly test her now, six months ahead, because you might not know who that is going to be. It might conceivably be someone with absolutely no previous record.

As far as I'm concerned the drug testing is still pretty useless. When Primo Nebiolo stood up and said he couldn't see there were any problems in China I just thought it was a joke. It was like a slap in the face to all of us. There were people who then took the opportunity to say that Western women didn't know how to train hard. I was offended by that because if we were on the same drugs we might recover a whole lot quicker and we might also be able to run up to 300km a week. There were some people who seemed to take real glee in that Western women were so weak and pathetic.

Now I would compete against the Chinese because if I finished fourth behind three Chinese, as far as any Australian is concerned, I would have got a gold medal. Their reputations have been so destroyed I would compete against them and consider they are non-entities. I'd simply remove all Chinese names from the race results. Also for marathon ranking lists of East Germans and Russians, I just don't see their names.

Part 2



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