Lynelle Decker and her coaches are still trying to figure out exactly what kind of runner she is.
In each of her first two seasons running track at Seattle Pacific University, she has trained specifically for one of two distances — and each year had more success in the other race.
“They haven’t really been able to define what kind of runner I am yet,” the Mountain View High School graduate said.
Decker’s training as a freshman was geared for the 800 meters and she advanced to the NCAA Division II championships in that race during indoor season and the 1,500 meters during outdoor season. Her training shifted to the longer distance last season — and she went to both indoor and outdoor nationals in the shorter race, placing 11th at indoor nationals and 14th at outdoor nationals.
While she “doubled” in both races last weekend at the University of Washington Invitational in both the 800 and the mile, Decker said her training focus this year is back on the 800.
“The mile and the 800 have pretty different training regimes,” Decker said. “For the mile, I was at 45 miles a week training for that, and right now, I’m at 30 miles a week. That means no long runs and my recovery runs are only like 30 minutes rather than six miles.”
It also means training repeats of shorter distances at greater speed, such as 1-kilometer (0.6-mile) repeats in training for the 800 instead of mile repeats in training for the longer race. Speed work includes 200-meter repeats at 800m race pace, which is much faster than the same distance at mile pace.
“The difference is really mileage and speed, so fast-twitch muscles vs. long-twitch,” Decker said. “And it’s hard to find a compromise between the two, because they are physically, anatomically different from each other.”
Essentially, the strategy for this season is to train for the 800 and let whatever happens in the mile happen.
“Exactly,” Decker said. “That’s a good description of it right now.”
It seems to be working so far.
Decker’s season began Jan. 19 at the UW Indoor Preview Meet, where she placed fifth in the 800 with a time of 2 minutes, 12.83 seconds. Last year, the slowest time to advance to nationals was 2:14.37, so Decker appears to be in good position for a third trip to indoor nationals after placing 11th last year with an indoor personal best of 2:11.86. She is currently fourth in the NCAA-II provisional qualifying in the 800.
Back at UW’s Dempsey Indoor facility for a second weekend in a row, Decker ran a slower 2:15.17 in the 800 but also ran the mile in 5:00.97, just 0.19 seconds off her indoor personal best and not far from the 5:00.30 NCAA provisional qualifying standard.
Decker ran at nationals in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track in each of her first two seasons.
Not that she was expecting that when she started.
“I remember the week before the first indoor meet my freshman year, my coach pulled me into his office and was talking to me about what he expected from me that weekend,” she said. “He was like, ‘I really think you can make it to nationals. This is a goal you need to have’ — and me sitting there doe-eyed. I was like, ‘Um, what? No.’ My coach wants me to do this. It’s probably not going to happen, but whatever. I really didn’t have that much confidence my freshman year.”
Soccer was Decker’s primary sport, she said having taken up the game “as early as you can start.” So while she was a distance runner in track, she never ran cross country before getting to SPU. Decker knew from the similar experience of her older sister Elisa, who ran at Northwest Nazarene University, that she would not likely be able to compete in both sports in college. She found one school willing to let her both play soccer and run track, but preferred to be at a Division II school and learn how to run 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) off track.
“When I was looking at schools, I was trying to find a school that would let me do both, but coaches don’t really like sharing,” Decker said. She got more notice for track, she said, because, “It’s easier to see when someone’s good at track. You just look at a number on athletic.net.”
Decker said she learned to appreciate the team aspect of cross country, because she thought that giving up soccer meant she was losing that.
“The thing I miss about soccer is the physicality of the sport — pushing people two times my size down on the ground,” Decker said. In running, she noted, “You kind of get in trouble for that.”
She ran at nationals as a freshman and sophomore because of her team, she said, which makes it more of a collective blow than a personal one that a young Falcons team did not advance to nationals last fall.
“I was pretty disappointed that we didn’t make it, because we were ranked really well at the beginning of the season,” Decker said. “I was disappointed that it didn’t really pan out for us this year and disappointed that my record was broken — but then again, making it to nationals in cross country is a team thing. It’s hard to feel disappointed in yourself, but it’s a disappointment that I share with my team. It’s not just about me.”
Now she is again focused on track.
Decker considers the 800 to be her main race. She prefers the outdoor version on the full-size track rather than the unique 307-meter flat configuration of the Dempsey Indoor or the standard indoor banked 200-meter oval.
“Indoor is fun, but there’s nothing like a 400-meter track in the elements when you can succeed despite them,” she said.
Although she likely has already posted a time for a return to nationals, Decker said the only affect that may have on her approach to the rest of the indoor season is that she and her coaches may decide she does not need to run in the Seattle Pacific Final Qualifier meet at Dempsey on Feb. 28 before nationals March 13-14 in Birmingham, Ala.
Her goals are “baby steps,” she said: qualifying for nationals, then advancing to the final.
Decker has most likely already faced her toughest competition.
The winner of the 800 at the UW Indoor Preview was Mary Cain, who opted to begin her professional career rather than compete in collegiate track and represented Nike Oregon in the meet. Cain won in 2:07.21, 5.62 seconds ahead of Decker.
“Oh, my goodness,” Decker said when asked about lining up against someone regarded as a rising star in American distance running.
As Decker and the other runners were toeing the starting line, Cain was a very late entry to the race.
“All of a sudden, I see this girl run up to the side of the track and I was thinking, ‘What is she doing?’ No worries. She’s just warming up and they haven’t told her to stop,’ ” Decker said. “Then I hear over the announcements, ‘In a late addition, Mary Cain is going to be joining them.’ And I’m completely star-struck and trying not to let it get to me.
“My high school coach would always tell me not to be intimidated by names or numbers on a piece of paper — that we were all runners on the track. So even though I was star-struck, I was like, ‘Whatever. Another runner has been added to the race. That’s just more competition.’ It was really cool to see my gut reaction to having another runner on the track — that it didn’t affect my race in terms of my mental state, but it was still just exhilarating to be in the same race with her. I think we all just went out there and raced it.”