The Storybook Finish that Didn't Happen – Jenny Barringer's NCAA Cross Country Championships

by Stephen Walker, PhD, CC-AASP

What Happened to Jenny Barringer?

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said, “Things work out best for those who make the best of how things work out.”   The first time I read that I had to go over it a couple times to really let it sink in.  Jenny Barringer is such a person.  Heralded Olympian and American record holder in the 3,000m Women’s Steeplechase Barringer was heavily favored to win the 2009 NCAA Women’s Cross Country Championships.  Barringer had a misstep this past Monday when she faded during the last 3rd of the race dropping from the lead to finish in 163rd place.  Holy Moly! What happened?

What Every Gifted Athlete and Coach Should Learn From Barringer’s Experience

Following her story after the race and listening to her description of what was happening to her at mile four, its pretty clear to me that Barringer was feeling the unfortunate effects of “Overtraining Syndrome.”  Barringer reported feeling “light headed” even at the start, but that sensation intensified shortly before dropping out of the lead.  She described the experience of losing her sense of physical attunement as if a huge “weight had landed on my shoulders.”  Click here to watch her entire interview the next day on FloTrack coverage.

Jenny Barringer is a tough competitor and she’s known to train hard.  She is no stranger to monster workouts.  She’s trained heavy throughout the past two years and hasn’t taken much of a break since long before her 9th place finish in the Olympic Steeplechase.  She has set NCAA and American Records, had numerous PR’s in the past several months and engaged in a full complement of competitions through the World Championships.  With little or no break after Worlds, she started right into Cross Country and began a 4th straight year in NCAA competition without a break.  To say that Barringer is tough is an understatement.   Her NCAA Cross Country Championship was to be her last hurrah before turning pro.

As many best laid plans are set in motion, Barringer came to a very important conclusion during her post-race interview, “I’m not a machine, I’m a human being, but I had set the bar a little higher every time I went into a race this year…and I set this one so high I wanted to break the course record and win by a lot…and that didn’t happen.  I’m out of energy and tired and I need a good break.”

Stress Plays a Huge Role

Barringer had so much going on in recent months, her daily planner took over her life.  Graduating from the University of Colorado this month is small stuff compared to prepping for the race, getting engaged, beginning the process of planning a wedding, turning pro, interviewing potential agents, fielding a barrage of offers from sponsors wanting an inside position, dealing with the press and dreaming of the storybook ending.  “I realized my life is not a book, its a life and it requires care and attention.”  Everything else pushed into priority status and Barringer is not one to be careless with the management of things.  Even though coach Mark Wetmore encouraged her to “slow down”, Jenny defines her life not by her limitations, but rather her accomplishments.  I’m hoping Barringer takes her coach’s advice and re-evaluates her challenges with this experience as a reminder of the importance of balance.

Many athletes and coaches consider the absence of training makes it a “rest day”, but Barringer might just begin to redefine that standard as many sport psychologists and experts in overtraining can attest.  For more information on this topic and a compelling podcast interview featuring Dr. Kristen Dieffenbach on “overtraining and under recovery”, this is really important to understand.  Dr. Dieffenbach goes into a very thorough and comprehensive review of her doctoral thesis researching this issue with athletes training at the USOTC.



It appears that this combination of timing and events turned out to be “the perfect storm” for Jenny Barringer.  Hopefully, she will bounce back from this and continue to develop into one of America’s premier runners.  One thing for sure, she has heart and that puts her in good company along with a bevy of  University of Colorado women elites like Kara Goucher, Renee Metevier-Baillie, Shayne Culpepper just a few of the NCAA Champions who have graced this program and gone on to illustrious pro careers.

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