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On the grounds of the University of New Hampshire, outside Durham, a dirt road winds through a yellow wood. The road is soft and springy. "It forces you to use different muscle groups," says Lynn Jennings as she confidently picks her way over roots and ruts at a pace of six minutes a mile. "It preserves your legs."
Jennings plans to endure. She is 30 and has been a serious runner for most of her life. For a time, the road was broad and well-marked, and Jennings had no trouble following it. When she was 17 and the top high school runner in the country, Jennings told a friend that she would be the best distance runner in the world by the time she was 30. The remark was curious, containing as it did the rival virtues of ambition and patience. Yet earlier this year a string of races proved her right:
?March began with a U.S. record of 31:06 for a road 10K in Orlando, Fla., and ended with a convincing win at the World Cross-Country Championships in Aix-les-Bains, France, the first victory at that meet by an American woman in 15 years.
But between her early display of extraordinary promise and its recent fulfillment, Jennings lost her way. "I was at odds with my true self," she says of that confusing time. "The real me was lost. I was trying on all these different little personalities. I was afraid that a big part of me had died, the running part of me."
On Saturday, Nov. 24, Jennings will go to a starting line in New York City's Van Cortlandt Park to try to win her fourth straight national cross-country title. Though track remains her first priority-she finished sixth at 10,000 meters in both the 1987 World Championships and the '88 Olympics—cross-country is her passion. "It's so pure," she says. "I'm sort of a nature geek. I embrace the weather changes. They are what makes me endure as an athlete. You lean into the wind; you get wet and dirty and cold, and experience the whole spectrum of sensations."
Torrential rains, gusting winds and ankle-deep mud are strange wellsprings of pleasure and motivation, but for Jennings they are inspirational. "I follow my own drummer," she says. Her conversation is sprinkled with admiring allusions to such Yankee individualists as Emerson, Thoreau and Benoit. "As a kid I never had packs of girlfriends," she says. "I always preferred to do things on my own."
Like most complicated people, Jennings yearns for simpler ways. She wrote her undergraduate thesis at Princeton on the Shakers. "I like the simple way they did things," she says. "They lived for the purity of things. I try to do that too—to live as clean and pure a life as is possible in 1990, not to be overwhelmed by things."
She laughs. "How hypocritical can I be? I just bought a new sports car, a polluter, a thing."