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Going the extra miles

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 04/18/99

''I think I'm very irritating to some people. It fascinates me, because I'm so sweet really.''

-Katharine Hepburn, at the age of 75

NEWMARKET, N.H. - Gazing out from her massive deck toward Great Bay, the warm spring sun on her bare arms and a pair of snow geese flapping over the tidal marshlands she calls her backyard, Lynn Jennings explains why she took up duck hunting.

''It's the whole romantic thing,'' said Jennings, the Harvard, Mass., native whose long career as a distance runner has been one of the most successful in history. ''The boat, dawn, watching the sun come up - it comes up right over there, the whole sky fuses pink every morning - the sounds, the smells, the breezes. When it's rainy, it's harsh; all those elemental things. I thrive on that.''

Then, as conversation drifts to the general joys of solitude, she chuckles and says, ''I grew up as a teen-ager believing I was going to be Katharine Hepburn: She wore pants when no one else did, she was smart, she was her own woman. I absolutely thought I was going to be Katharine Hepburn.

''And I still can be.''

Much like Hepburn, that other Yankee icon, Jennings is nothing if not her own woman: elemental, sometimes harsh as a cold rain at daybreak, sometimes pleasant as a breeze across the bay. And always, regardless of the consequences, true to herself.

So tomorrow, Jennings will stand at the starting line of the Boston Marathon her own woman indeed, finally making her long-awaited official marathon debut after two decades of brilliance at lesser distances. And woe, she warned, to anyone who says, ''But you're 38 years old.''

''Where are the rules? Where is it written down?'' she demanded. ''It's like saying you're supposed to have a baby when you're 25, you're supposed to get married at this time, you're supposed to have this kind of job at this age. Those are expectations that people somehow want to adhere to. But why? Life is out there and you have to shape it how you want.''

Single again after a six-year marriage, Jennings had planned to run Boston last year. But on April 1, she pulled out.

''I was not doing the work necessary,'' she said. ''The passion just somehow wasn't in place. There was nothing heroic being done with the training, and that's a far cry from this winter. My sister, who is my touchstone in every single way, told me she was having nightmares. She was really, really relieved.''

''It would have been a mistake,'' affirmed her longtime coach, John Babington. ''Lynn is a great runner in large part because of her mental powers, and on occasion that eludes her. The marathon last year just took place at a time when she needed a break from it all.''

This year, said Jennings, ''I'm loving everything about it.''

With a few breaks of their own, Babington and Jennings have been together since he rushed up after seeing her ''charge out of nowhere looking sort of untrained and raw'' to take second in the mile in 5:12 at the Massachusetts high school state track meet in 1975.

''Something told me that here was a precocious talent,'' he recalled.

She started to train with Babington's all-female Liberty Athletic Club three days later, and in less than a year became the first high school girl in the state to break five minutes.

But when she was 17, coach and pupil had a falling out over Jennings's determination to run, yes, the Boston Marathon. She was a year too young to get a bib number, and Babington didn't want her to do it, but she wanted to and so she did. Her 2:46 would have been good enough for third place had she been an official entrant; what it got her was a 10-year split from her coach.

''Being an impulsive adolescent, being told not to do it by John,'' listed Jennings of her reasons for wanting to run. ''I'd been accepted to Princeton; I was just stretching my wings.''

They were soon clipped. First, there was arthroscopic surgery on her knee to repair a meniscus damaged in the race (the only injury she's ever had); then, she retired three times during a spotty collegiate career that too often found her overweight and confused. By 1988, however, she had made her first Olympic team at 10,000 meters; after finishing what to her was a disappointing sixth, she asked Babington to coach her again.

''When we got back together in 1989,'' said Babington, a Cambridge, Mass., attorney, ''it was with a sense of some unfinished business.''

A year later, Jennings won the first of three consecutive World Cross-Country championships, catapulting her into the upper echelon of the sport. According to a statistical analysis by Ken Young for Analytical Distance Runner, in Jennings's 243 lifetime races she has 143 wins, and has placed either first, second, or third 205 times for an 84.2 percent success rate, among the best in history.

In 1992 alone, Jennings won her third World Cross-Country title at muddy Franklin Park in March, an Olympic bronze medal at 10,000 meters in Barcelona, and broke the course record in the Falmouth Road Race, among other triumphs.

And in what is perhaps the most remarkable statistic of her career, Jennings has won at least one national title every year for 15 years, the most recent just last month at 15 kilometers in the Gate River Run in Jacksonville, Fla.

However, Jennings has not endeared herself to her competitors, who often complain she is unpleasant, even ungracious. Both Babington and Jennings are well aware of the image.

From the moment Jennings arrives in town for a race, Babington explained, ''She's temporarily antisocial and intensely private, not smiling and greeting people. So what her competitors see most of is the prerace version of herself. Some of them interpret that as Lynn being a basically cold, unfriendly person.''

Then, if she wins - which she usually does - her postrace comments tend to be blunt: If she thinks she didn't have any competition, she'll say so, taking what Babington calls ''visible pride'' in her accomplishment.

''She's a confident winner,'' he said. ''She's not meek enough, humble enough, the way people expect a woman athlete to be.''

Jennings, he said, ''does not put on insincere social airs in any way. She's the exact opposite of a phony.''

Joan Benoit Samuelson understands the strategy.

''She needs to do what she feels she needs to do,'' explained Samuelson. ''If that means putting on a game face, alienating or not warming up to her competition, that's what she needs to do.''

To tell the truth, said Jennings, most people on the racing circuit just don't know her.

''But I don't open the door very much, either,'' she acknowledged. ''That's the way I like to approach the competitive part. I go to races to do a job. I'm focused, I'm aloof, I'm separate. That's the way it works for me. I've reaped results with that approach and I'm not about to change it.''

And ferocious. Jayne Winsor, a Newmarket neighbor, recalled the first time she saw Jennings compete, at the 1992 World Cross-Country Championships in Franklin Park.

''That was scary,'' said Winsor, an elementary school teacher. ''She's a friend, so I'm used to her friend face and there she was at work and it didn't have the soft walking-the-dog face that I'm used to.''

Jennings is also a huge fan favorite, especially among women.

''I've been a recipient of that my entire career,'' she said. ''There must be something about seeing a woman moving, competing, being strong, being fearless that triggers something in other women. I think they would like a little piece of that emotional resilience and courage, and that strength and bravery. If that's what I give to women, what a great thing.''

Those fans will number in the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands tomorrow. Samuelson, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist from Maine who won here in 1979 and 1983, said Jennings having the crowd on her side could be worth a couple of minutes in her favor.

''There's a lot to be said for running in an environment you feel at home in,'' said one who should know.

There was never a question, not a doubt, that once Jennings decided to move up to the marathon, Boston would be the site.

''I grew up watching Billy [Rodgers] stop and tie his shoes,'' she recounted. ''I remember seeing Kim Merritt win and Joan and Rosa [Mota] and watching Grete [Waitz] drop out; I mean, every single story on the women, I know. I was taking it all in when I was 14. Every single time Boston happened it resonated with me. There was no question it would be the one.''

Besides, she added, ''At this juncture, the biggest stuff gets me excited. The small stuff doesn't. I've been everywhere, I've done everything. I need the emotional punch, and Boston provides that for me.''

This story ran on page C23 of the Boston Globe on 04/18/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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