What follows is a partial transcript of an interview with Matt Tegenkamp, the former UW distance runner who will compete at the Beijing Olympics in the 5,000 meters. He and I met on Monday, July 14, at his house on Madison's west side. A trio of videos from the "Madison Project" series by KIMbia Athletics are also available for viewing.
On cramping up at the Olympic trials in Oregon:
I don't know how I got it and I'd never gotten it in a race before, but it was just a stitch, a real bad cramp. It was bad enough to where it really stuck with me for two days. I keep saying it was a cramp and people say that's not that big of a deal, but it was pretty bad and it kept getting worse and worse every lap. But once you get to the point where the spot [on the team] is on the line, you just stay in there and suffer, do what you have to do.
On setting up the 1,500-meter race in Madison on Tuesday, July 15:
I raced on Monday, [June] 30th, and got back on Thursday, the third. All the races we were going to try and run in Europe were [July] 12th, 13th and 14th. And that's a real quick turnaround. We decided not to head over so fast, so we put this race together. Our training group is quality enough so we can make it a really fast race. I'll leave on Thursday and head straight to Stockholm and race there on July 22nd in a 3,000.
On training and routine:
When you're here, in the U.S. and you're training, we're in a pretty good routine. But once you head over to Europe, a lot changes. You don't have all the stuff you have at home. You learn how to fly by the seat of your pants and it's taken me a little while to get used to it. Travel is always a hassle. But you definitely learn to mellow out and you've just got to relax and not worry about it because that negatively affects your racing. But once you're over there, the meets really do take good care of you. It's pretty funny for me to say that I'm a professional athlete in track and field here in the U.S., but over there, you really are treated as a professional athlete.
On the Olympics becoming a reality:
I was really lucky, I had a great high school coach. He actually had experience coaching at the professional level way before I came along. And he always had a big picture outlook of you're doing this right now, but you can do so much more and part of that was to get a scholarship to college and see what you can do from there.
So the dream started in high school, and then probably my true freshman year, in 2000, was when I thought I can make a living at this and make a run at the Olympics. But then over the next three years, it really took a back seat because I really went up and down with injuries and I always knew I could get myself back to where I was before the injury, but then another one would arise and I never knew if I could stay healthy long enough.
In '04, Jerry Schumacher -- my coach -- and I really sat down and made a huge switch in our training, kind of figured out what worked and what didn't. The most important thing was just how to stay healthy and find training I was comfortable with. We always knew that there were people training harder and more than I was. But we knew that if we had a long-term focus, that I'd eventually catch up to that. So I think the summer after I graduated, May of 2005, was when I knew that I was back on top of my game.
I think we make do in the winters here. I don't think we necessarily advance our training, from where we ended the previous year, but we can maintain it. And that's what we've really gotten good at here, because Jerry [Schumacher, Tegenkamp's coach] is so great at it. Everybody says we got 102 inches of snow, but for a lot of it, the bike paths were clear. They do a better job of plowing the bike paths than the roads. There's always places to run and it's especially huge to have training partners. You've got those negative 30 windchill days with ten inches of snow out, you've got somebody to help you out the door. I think the kind of culture that we've created and the tradition that is Wisconsin means there's always a great group here training.
On competition with Chris Solinsky, Tegenkamp's training partner:
Jerry's philosophy is you don't race in practice. You've only got so many hard efforts in you and you save those for your specified races. So his philosophy is you always hold yourself back a little bit in practice. He's done a really good job of controlling us in that respect and we've really bought into his plan, so we make sure we're not racing in practice.
We do a lot of our normal training together, just going out and running, we're very good friends. We kind of have a brotherly relationship where we can push each other's buttons and after that, once you cool off, everybody's fine. In training, as far as pushing one another, we can't really run faster than the next person because that's not the way we train, but you don't ever want to end a repeat short because you'll think, "He's getting a little bit better than me." So you kind of suck it up and even if you're not feeling good, you do what the other person's doing. You can't be feeling great every day. When I'm not feeling good, he's there to help me push through it and vice versa.
On Bernard Lagat:
He's always been really good to me. He's been in this for a long time. He kind of shows me the ropes and helps me stay calm, cool and collected during the high pressure situations. If he's getting the coverage, that's great. It's even better if, when he's getting the coverage, I'm able to make some surprises happen myself, I don't know if it necessarily takes the pressure off me, because I put quite a bit on myself. I have high expectations. But I wouldn't mind getting more of the national coverage that's out there.
On the European circuit you see each other over and over again and, obviously, you want to beat him. I'm not trying to hold back. But that's a very tough task. Along with that, he knows that I'm a competitor, but he still shares information that will only help me in the long run.
On the 5,000-meter field in Beijing:
I've raced against almost all of them in the past. There's some film study, like in football. We'll go through and look at past results We have a very good indication from last year's world championships, in Japan, it was very hot and humid there and it's going to be very hot and humid in Beijing. The race was ridiculously slow in Japan and it was a kicker's race, it was whoever can run the fastest last lap. I don't know if it will necessarily be like that, because everyone feels that a race like that is perfect for Lagat, so I would imagine it will be a faster, harder race. What we really learn as you race more and more is that you have to be able to adapt to your race plan and we'll have a basic race plan of what we think is going to happen and then it's just cover the moves and you've got to be there when the race actually starts, which is not going to be until the last mile.
On his style of race:
I think right now, just because I'm younger, I've run some fast times, I'm approaching that 13-minute barrier for the 5,000. But I still am not nearly as seasoned as the rest of these guys that run high 12:40, low 12:50 over and over again. So I think a really fast race like that wouldn't be great for me. I think I could run well, time wise, but I wouldn't be able to finish well, because I'd still have to run a really fast last lap. I think anything that's 13:15 or slower, I can run absolutely any type of race. This is the pinnacle of our sport at that time and I plan on being there and capitalizing on that moment.
On marketing the sport:
Right now, there's a big switch going on within USA Track and Field, they're searching for a new CEO. It'll be interesting to see where things go. I definitely try and voice my opinion and it's really hard because you can voice your opinion to our governing body and they've got nothing to do with it. It's all NBC and how am I going to get in touch with the people who make the difference?
It's funny because in our sport you deal with "You're a runner? Aw, I hate running. I can't even run one lap." Whereas if you're talking football, it's "Oh yeah, I go out and play backyard football all the time." Well, you're running all the time you're doing that. It's this perception people have and it's always been a punishment.
In gym class or if you're doing another sport, and you do something wrong, the coach will make you go run a lap. And I don't think people trying to market track and field have really tried to change that perception. It's something that really needs to be addressed if we want to make the sport bigger.
On what happened during the 5,000-meter race at the Olympic trials. The plan was for Solinsky to lead the third-to-last lap, with Tegenkamp taking over the second-to-last and then every man for himself on the final circuit. Tegenkamp, suffering a cramp, didn't take over from Solinsky, however, Solinsky ended up not making the team:
We talked immediately that night, after the race. You go in with a plan, you've got to be able to adapt that plan, and things don't always go well. With me, I was just feeling terrible and I wasn't in a position to do it. It was very unfortunate. I wish that in the middle of the race I would have been able to say something to him, like "Audible!"
It didn't work out and it's tough, especially for him, as we're still training partners. We have the exact same training schedule. But it will make him stronger. We've always been teammates and we train as a team. But when it comes down to it, there's only a few spots and it's pretty individual. And so I think now, as a learning experience, when it gets to that point, you've got to let it play out the way it's going to play out and not have any set expectations of the way things should go down. I think we learned that the hard way.
On the rest of 2008:
If things go amazing at the Olympics, I'd want to end on the highest of high notes and the season will be done right there. But right now the plan is to head over to race in Europe. There's a whole second half of the European season. Then there will be a few odds-and-ends, fun races here in the States.
Tegenkamp also discusses his training in a series of videos from introduces the "Madison Project" series about the quest by Tegenkamp and Solinsky to make U.S. Olympic Team for the 5,000 m event in Beijing.
More than a dozen other video clips about Teg are available here.