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.