The most remarkable thing about Annie Lydens isn't that she has the potential to be a national champion. It's that being a national champion wouldn't be the most remarkable thing about her.
Instead, it would just be one more accomplishment for a student-athlete whose constantly-growing resume could already fill up a billboard. While thousands and thousands can proudly claim the student-athlete label, few have excelled on both sides of the hyphen as well as Lydens.
As an athlete, she has won both of the NCAA Division III West Region Cross Country championships that she has entered. She has twice been named the SCIAC Cross Country Athlete of the Year and the West Region Cross Country Athlete of the Year, and was a Division III All-American in both cross country and track as a sophomore, finishing ninth in the cross country nationals and second in track (5000 meters). Lydens still has four more national meets in her career to add to her accolades, starting this weekend, when she travels to the NCAA Cross Country championships in Oshkosh, Wisconsin as one of the top contenders for the national title.
As a student, Lydens currently carries a 4.0 grade point average at Pomona, an incredibly difficult achievement at one of the top colleges in the country. She is majoring in PPE (philosophy, politics and economics), and wants to pursue a career in international diplomacy after graduation. This past summer, she served an internship at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, and can already claim former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder among her many professional references. She also spent her previous "summer vacation" teaching English to children in Cambodia.
In order to accomplish so much athletically and academically, Lydens has had to be an exceptionally driven person. It means no days off – no deciding that one little midterm or research paper isn't all that important, and no days of shortening her training runs by a mile or two when she's tired and nobody is looking.
"Sometimes it's tough," admits Lydens. "You can't drop the ball. But at the same time, the reason I am able to do it is that I truly love what I'm doing. I love running, I love the classes I'm taking here, and I love learning new things. If I didn't love it, and had to keep pushing myself all the time, there's no way I'd be able to maintain the level of commitment it takes to be successful. If it ever got to the point where running was no longer fun for me, I wouldn't do it, but that hasn't been a problem."
Indeed, when you win four straight individual races by wide margins, as Lydens has done since Oct. 1, it is hard not to have a little fun. She started out her current streak by winning the Pomona-Pitzer Invitational on Oct. 1 by nine seconds, then the SCIAC Multi-Duals by 29 seconds, then the SCIAC championship by 25 seconds, then the NCAA West Regionals by seven seconds.
The remarkable part of all her athletic success is that Lydens had never even run distance events before coming to Pomona-Pitzer. She competed in track at the American School of Singapore as a hurdler, and competitive distance events weren't offered, so she never even got the chance to try. Her first year with the Sagehens, she began the year running cross country just to stay in shape for track season, and finished fifth on the team at the UC Riverside Invitational before shutting down for the fall with a foot injury. In the spring, she settled on the 800 meters (leaving the distance events to senior All-American Alicia Freese), finishing fifth in the SCIAC Championships. It really wasn't until her sophomore year, with Freese serving as a coach and helping to push her along in practice, that she found her permanent niche in the distance events.
As a result, all of the accolades she has earned in the last 14 months have come while being almost entirely new to her sport. Yes, she's still a runner, but the difference between being a hurdler and a distance runner is sort of like switching from kicker to nose tackle. Almost nothing that she had previously learned was still useful in her new role. She had to learn how to appropriately pace herself, and had to discover through trial and error how much she has in her tank over long distances. Lydens, though, has proven to be a quick study, as you might expect.
"There's so much strategy that goes into a distance race," said Lydens. "There are different types of runners – there are runners who are more suited for the 1500 who have a great finishing kick and can switch gears easily, and there are runners who don't have that capability who need to go hard from the beginning to push the pace. You have to know what type of runners you are going up against and have a feel for when to make your move. A lot depends on how you feel on a given day and who's around you. Sometimes you can push the pace early and emotionally break the runners behind you, and sometimes you need to trust that you can stay with the pack and feel confident that you'll have an extra gear to go to at the end."
Head Coach Kirk Reynolds could see the potential in Lydens as a distance runner as a freshman, but he freely admits that her rapid development has been a pleasant surprise. "We had no idea when she came here that she would develop into this level of a runner," he said. "But once she started with the longer distances in practice, you could see that she had a ton of natural ability and was able to cruise along at the front of the pack. So we'd have her run a little longer distance, and she'd still be right up there at the front of the pack every time."
Lydens also never would have guessed that her college career would have evolved this way. "I've always loved to run, and on the playground you can tell when you're running around faster than the other kids," she said. "But I didn't have any idea that I had this in me. I think it's just my natural love for running and my desire to get better."
One of the interesting parts for Reynolds is that he has been able to work with an athlete who is so naturally gifted at her sport, but who hasn't been coached in it before, so everything he has taught her has been new. Although he laughs a little about the challenge. "I try to teach her all these things about strategy and different things to think about during a race," he said. "But back when I was running, I was just going as hard as I could to keep up with everyone, trying to hang on for dear life and make it to the finish line. None of these strategies really mattered."
Lydens feels there's no question that she's benefitted from an extra year's experience, and Reynolds' coaching. "I feel so much stronger now than I did last year," she said. "Kirk and I have been working on tightening my form. I used to be a bit of a loper – I have long legs and they'd start kicking out and my technique would fall apart. I just wasn't running efficiently. I'm a much better runner now, and I can feel the difference."
You can see it as well. As she crossed the finish line at the NCAA West Regionals last weekend, she had a calm look on her face, and even broke out into a smile as she heard the cheers from the home crowd. Unlike many of the people who hit the line at near-exhaustion, Lydens looked perfectly ready to keep going if someone suddenly pushed the finish line back another couple thousand meters.
Lydens is hoping that the improvements she has made in the last year will pay dividends at nationals. A year ago, she ran a then personal-best 21:27 to come in ninth at the NCAA Division III Cross Country Championship. In the spring, she was a close second in the 5000 meters at the NCAA Track and Field Championship, as she led coming down the final homestretch but was caught from behind a few strides from the finish. As competitive as she is, there was perhaps a risk that being a runner-up would become a haunting moment, but in many ways the opposite is true.
"I walked away from that race really proud of how I ran," Lydens said. "I made the decision to make a big move with 300 meters to go and I stuck with it – no debating and no self doubt. It didn't pay off, but I gave it my all. Maybe now I would wait a little longer before making that move, but at the line, I knew I had given everything I had and didn't feel any regret."
Of course, someone with a 4.0 GPA, by nature, isn't a big fan of almosts. "I'm not going to lie – it didn't feel great when it happened," she said. "When you can see the finish line, and see the trophy…well, I wasn't picturing the trophy in my hands at that point, because you learn very quickly as a runner that nothing is ever yours until you cross the finish line. I'm just glad that I had my strategy, stuck with it, and left it all out there, so I never had to go through any second-guessing."
Instead, she has put that race behind her and simply continued improving, which is right in character. Lydens has never been complacent with any part of her life. Part of it perhaps stems from growing up in Japan as a blonde American citizen, keenly aware at a young age that she was immersed in a different culture.
"I definitely grew up with the awareness that there so much more of the world out there to see," said Lydens, who wants to visit at least one new country every year she's alive (a goal she has maintained through her first 20 years). "It's easy here to get stuck in the "Claremont Bubble" because we have everything we could possibly need. I've been lucky enough to travel and see a lot of the world, and that has given me a different perspective, that there's always something else out there."
But then there are also simply the innate characteristics that make Lydens unique, which have enabled her to become an elite athlete and a 4.0 student. "I guess I just have this burning ambition to keep pushing myself, and an unquenchable intellectual curiosity," she said. "I want to see how much more I can learn. I want to see new places and discover new cultures. I want to find out how much better of a runner I can be if I keep working at it."
She's certainly curious to find out how the national championships go this weekend. "Just finishing in the top five or top 10 in this field is a big challenge," she said. "There are a lot of really good runners going there, and with that deep a field, it can be anybody's race."
After a pause, Annie Lydens smiled and added one of the many, many things she's learned over the years.
"But I know I'm a pretty good runner too."