While the world gravitates towards specialization, Jen Rhines refuses to be boxed in.
Rhines competed in three different distances at the past three Olympics, and instead of running farther and farther each time, she continues to race up and down the spectrum.
In her Olympic debut, in Sydney, the blonde Villanova graduate competed at 10,000 meters. In Athens, she quadrupled the distance and placed 34th in the marathon (behind training partner Deena Kastor who captured the bronze). In Beijing, at age 34, Rhines dropped down to 5000 meters, which requires much faster leg speed, and placed 14th despite having torn plantar fascia tissue under her left foot.
“I’ve enjoyed going back and forth,” she said. “It’s exciting to go back to the track and run faster.”
Already this year, Rhines won US titles at 15 kilometers and the half marathon.
Not even Rhines’ coach/husband can say which is her best event.
“I don’t know if I could pinpoint one over another,” said Terrence Mahon, who married Rhines in 1998 and is the head coach of the renowned Mammoth Track Club in California, a group that includes Kastor, 2004 Olympic silver medalist Meb Keflezighi, and, until recently, 2008 Olympian Ryan Hall.
This summer, Rhines is targeting the 10,000 meters for the world championships in Daegu, South Korea. She also plans to make the 25-lap race her event for the 2012 London Games.
In between, Rhines will also run her eighth career marathon – in New York City in November – after a five-year hiatus from the 26.2-mile distance.
“I really want to be in the top three,” she told teamusa.org shortly after announcing her entry, and even though the marathon may seem like a diversion, it’s not.
“When I look back,” Rhines said, “my strength from marathon training was part of my success in 5K.”
“It is not easy to be so broad in an athletic career,” Kastor said of Rhines’ versatility. “It would be like 400-meter world record holder Michael Johnson being able to race the best in the world at 100 meters up to 800 meters. Jen makes it look easy.”
And Rhines has more to accomplish.
At worlds in August, she wants to place in the top-six. (Her best finish at worlds so far was a seventh place in the 5000 meters, in Osaka, Japan, in 2007.)
She would also like to break 31 minutes in a 10,000-meter race.
To that end, she and Mahon have been making subtle adjustments to her mechanics.
“I’ll be 37 this year, and I’ve been running the same way since I was 14,” Rhines said, explaining, “I don’t push through the ground enough.”
“We’re trying to make her a more elastic runner,” Mahon said. “If you put more force through the ground, you create elastic recoil and get energy recoil.”
To do that, he said, “She’s starting to use more of her long muscles – using the ankle, knee, and hip in harmony to get more