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Merrell Noden
November 26, 1990
Lynn Jennings became the world cross-country champion the hard way
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November 26, 1990

She's The Queen Of Hill And Dale

Lynn Jennings became the world cross-country champion the hard way

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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."

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