I sat down with our very own Jake Sienko this past weekend as he was getting ready to travel to LA for the Olympic Marathon trials. Jake was a standout cross-country and track runner at Hendricken, then went on to run for Columbia University. After college he continued to develop as a runner and just last year, qualified for the Olympic Marathon trials by running a 1:04:35 at the Houston Half Marathon.

I think consistency is the biggest thing. Consistency in running but also consistency in everything you do.
— Jake Sienko

In my interview, Jake candidly describes his training, coaching and mentality leading up to the Houston Half and to where he is now. He’s a great example of a local kid learning how to run under the proper guidance, making a name for himself on the national stage and daring to achieve great things. He may seem like an ordinary guy, but as I discovered, he is anything but. Very driven and goal-oriented, he also knows how to take it one race at a time and knows the value of having the right support system around you and the importance of being a part of a team.

Coach M

On January 18th, 2015 you ran the Houston Half Marathon in an attempt to qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials and succeed in doing so by running a time of *1:04:35. The fact that it was your first attempt was equally impressive, in my opinion. Going into the race, what did you think you were capable of running and how did your coach prepare you to achieve that objective?

*Jake went on to lower his half marathon time to 1:04:25 at the Jacksonville Bank Half Marathon on January 3, 2016.

JS

So the goal going into the race was to qualify obviously, but I had no idea what I could run for 13.1. Right after I graduated college I kind of kept my training going with my college coach. Tried to run the Fairfield, CT Half Marathon and I ran 1:10 there, so it was not a good day for me, like just bad! I was like half marathons are the worst. So going into [Houston] my training was going really well and at that point I had switched coaches, I was getting coached by John Gregorek who is out of Rhode Island. Yeah so he just had me doing a lot of strength stuff and a lot of work at 5:00 pace which is you know 65:10 or so. It just got to the point where that pace felt really good during practice. Even going into [Houston] it was kind of like, let’s see how close I can get to 65:00 and then my next shot at the half marathon I’ll be able to get under. I really didn’t think I was gonna first shot get under. Then everything kind of lined up, the day was perfect, competition was ridiculous, like really good, I remember going through 10K really close to my 10K PR and being like uh oh, this could end really poorly...

Coach M

Like 29:00 or something?

JS

We were like 30:00...30:10 or something. Then I was like, alright, let’s hold this pace and see when it starts hurting and it just never started hurting. I got to a mile to go and I thought, I got this! Which is pretty cool.

Coach M

That says a lot for John Gregorek, the way he prepared you. How long had you been working with him before that half?

JS

Not long, it was right after graduating college [in 2014] so summer of that year. He’s a great coach and he did a good job of using what I did in college and adding his own spin to it to, you know, better suit me.

Coach M

Sweet. You meet him through the running community?

JS

Yeah, his son Johnny ran at Columbia with me but yeah, he’s a local Southern New England legend so everybody kind of knows him.

Coach M

I was also reading that you got a chance to compete for Team USA while you were at Columbia. Describe that experience.

JS

So that was my freshman year at Columbia. Coming from Rhode Island you’re like a big fish in a small pond here and then you get into the college scene and all of a sudden you’re in 200th place in a cross country race and you’re just buried and have to get used to that. So that was a weird transition. [Team USA] was towards the end of cross country season, about 6 years ago today. The USATF Junior Nationals. It was cool race because I was able to compete again, I was at the front of this pack and I got back to my roots a little and it felt really cool. I think that slingshot me into a pretty good end of the year. That was awesome making Team USA, it was always kind of a goal.

Coach M

Not to mention the response going back to campus that freshman year, right? Who is this guy?

JS

Yeah! Yeah exactly (laughing)! When I got the stuff it was the best day of my life. I had a recruit staying with me actually and I think our coach had planned that. I got this big box of stuff, bigger than me and you open it up and there’s just like 3 USA bags and shirts and tons and tons of USA gear. I remember laying it out on my bed and the recruit was just standing there like, “I gotta come to Columbia.”

Coach M

(laughing) did he end up coming?

JS

Yeah yeah he actually did. I think he was gonna come anyway but…

Coach M

But that didn’t hurt.

JS

For sure!

Coach M

Prior to Columbia you were coached by Jim Doyle at Hendricken. What was the transition like from his style of coaching to Coach Wood and then to Gregorek. Was it pretty seamless?

JS

I think coaching philosophy-wise they were all pretty similar, heavy strength heavy mileage-type guys, but the transition was pretty bumpy. I think the best transition was college to Mr. Gregorek because at that point we kind of knew what worked for me. Jim Doyle is an awesome coach and all the coaches at Hendricken really did a good job at taking this kid that was pretty decent at running and molding me into more of a competitive runner. At Hendricken there were a few of us who were really good, so they did a really good job of being hands on with us, making sure we were doing everything right. Then you get to college and Willy Wood was kind of a sit-back coach, if you want to be good you come to me, so that was a weird transition at first and I didn’t really like that transition but I’m glad I bought into it, it ended up working out.

Coach M

You obviously ran 5K cross country in HS and then you get to college and you have times that range from the 3K all the way to the 10K. Was that part of [Wood’s] training philosophy, getting you into different races to see where your specialty was?

JS

Um yeah, so because in cross country you go from 5K in high school to 8K and then 10K in college, that was the natural progression. I would do 3Ks in high school and I was always okay at that distance but early freshman year was about seeing what I was going to be good at. If I was going to be that distance-oriented guy or more of a 3K specialist or a miler, quicker guy.

Coach M

Did you ever think that you’d be running a half so soon after college, less than 2 years removed?

JS

I think graduating college I thought that I wanted to give it a shot, running post-collegiately. A lot of people don’t. A lot of people get a job and put running on the back burner but I always kind of had goals that I’d never hit in college so I was definitely set on giving it 2 years, that was my limit, 2 years is the Olympic Marathon trials and that was always a goal for me. So let’s just hit that hard and see what we can do, which I’m glad I did. I think I’m having a great time.

Coach M

You made decisions, key decisions along the way.

JS

Yeah exactly! It worked out perfectly. I think if the Olympic Trials were 3 years out or even 4 years I don’t know if I would have kept running right away at that level but I was like, 2 years isn’t that bad. If it’s not going well then, then we can re-adjust.

Coach M

You’re here now under Coach Gregorek, but you also spent some time in Portland, OR after college. What drove your decision to move out to Portland?

JS

I’m kind of just taking it one race at a time and see how fast I can go.
— Jake Sienko

Insanity! (laughing) I had graduated college and I didn’t have a job out here and one of my good friends was moving out to Portland so I kind of went that way. I found a job at a running store out there actually, Portland Running Company. It was awesome. It was like, alright I’m gonna be running and training really hard, Portland is supposed to be an amazing place to train so I said let’s go for it.

Coach M

I think that’s a great step because I got to spend some time in Portland last year and experience that whole running community and that area is such a phenomenal running environment. Everybody is just so into the sport!

JS

Yeah, you hear of Eugene as the mecca of running and so I was like, yeah let’s go. Let’s go check that out. It ended up being awesome, the training was great. I think the one thing that I missed out there was having the support system that I have here in Rhode Island.

Coach M

Family, friends…

JS

Family, friends, doctors...my doctors here are my favorite people in the world. There is no way I’d be lining up this weekend without them. It’s been huge, because when I was injured out there I didn’t know what to do, you’re struggling to find people that you trust and so I think the support system brought me back here.

Coach M

Were you part of a club or team out there?

JS

You don’t really realize how talented the running community is in Providence.
— Jake Sienko

No I wasn’t, I was kind of looking for one. Portland is such a big running community. You get a lot of the super elite guys like the Bowerman Track Club, OTC, Oregon Project, you get those guys and then there aren’t many sub elite guys out there, marathon guys so it was kind of hard to find a team in that area. After running [Houston] I got pretty hurt, pretty banged up then I decided I was gonna move back home where I had my doctors and my family and where I could get my feet back on the ground and then figure it out. Then I met Nich Haber of the New England Distance Project and joined that team. That’s been great, it’s a pretty cool squad. You don’t really realize how talented the running community is in Providence. We went for a run last Sunday and we met up with a bunch of Providence College grads and these guys who have come over from Ireland, there were like a group of 15 of us and we were just hammering a long run and I had no idea all of these guys were in Providence. You have Ray Treacy and Molly Huddle and that whole crew, they’re right in Providence. It’s like a smaller running mecca.

Coach M

For sure, and that’s one reason I wanted to do this interview. I feel like a local product such as yourself, people need to know that runners like you exist in this town, it’s a source of inspiration but it’s also just cool to know that we have that talent here in one of the smallest cities and the smallest state in the country. It exists. I’ve seen it at the high school level too, with teams like LaSalle and some of the times that they’re running and even in South Kingstown with Ellie Lawler.

JS

We were talking about that on the run this morning. I wonder where Rhode Island stacks up in running communities in the country. Obviously you have Colorado and Oregon and New York but Providence has a pretty cool running community too.

Coach M

When you were coming through the high school ranks at Hendricken, did you think back then that you would see what the high school kids are running now, for example Drew Hunter running 3:58:25 (in the mile) today. Was that within the realm of imagination back then?

JS

Honestly, when I was in high school I knew absolutely nothing about running. Even outside of Rhode Island I didn’t know any other runners. We would go to Nationals and we’d be racing against these ridiculous runners that have gone on to Oregon and stuff, and I didn’t know any of their names so I didn’t even know what a fast mile was. One of my good friends Brian Doyle (Jim Doyle’s nephew and son of the late, great Bobby Doyle) knew everything, he would tell us we could be national champions and we were like, okay let’s go do it! Looking back at it, it’s crazy where I was in high school and where these kids are! Breaking the 4:00 mile, anybody who does that today is one of the best runners in America and this kid, a high school kid, doing that is insane.

Coach M

It is! The future’s pretty bright for US distance, because that’s world class for high school, so you can’t help but like what you see. Just a week ago he broke 8:00 for 3K.

JS

So the weekend he did that, we were up at Boston University (Terrier Invite indoor track meet). Just to put that into perspective [breaking 8:00 for 3K] qualifies you for the USA Championships, and this kid is in high school. So we were up in Boston and some of my NE Distance teammates were going up there to run sub-8:00 and just watching him do it you’re like wow, that takes a lot, trying to break 8:00 and this kid cruises to a 7:59.

Coach M

He’s Oregon-bound but he could easily go pro.

JS

Yeah, yeah. I’m very against kids going pro right out of high school. I think 100% go to Oregon. You get more of that team atmosphere that you need. When you’re running post collegiate so much of it is individual while in college you have so much more support from the team and training partners and all that stuff. He’s gonna do really well.

Coach M

What would you say is the greatest advice a coach has ever given you?

JS

Aw man, that’s tough. So we had a saying, it was always a saying on our high school team, that you can’t teach guts. That could have been anybody. That saying built into the type of runner that I am. It’s not all a big show, sometimes it’s ugly and sometimes you have to really grind it out but when it comes down to it the person with guts is gonna win.

Coach M

Kind of like a Steve Prefontaine type. That’s a good one. You can’t teach guts.

JS

Yeah exactly! I’d say that’s the one thing that jumps out at me. It probably came from Steve Prefontaine but Brian yelled it to me so many times (laughing).

Coach M

Where do you think you’ll go from here with competitive running or is it too soon to tell?

JS

I dunno...I  think it’s a little too soon to tell. This will be a really fun race I think. I’d definitely like to do really well out in Cali but I think looking forward it’s like now I know what I’m doing and I’ve settled into this support system. I have a really good relationship with my coach and everything is clicking so I’m really excited to get back on the track because I think there are some goals that I’ve always had that I haven’t been able to get. I think post-marathon I’ll jump back on the track and try to get after some of those goals and then get back to the roads this summer and do the summer road race series. I’m kind of just taking it one race at a time and see how fast I can go. That’s what I wanted to do when I graduated college. See how fast I can go, travel to some cool places and run some cool races.

Coach M

It’s all very basic right? I just want to see how good I can be. It all comes down to that.

JS

Yeah! You have to keep reminding yourself that.

Coach M

What advice would you give to anyone looking to set a new personal best this year?

JS

I think consistency is the biggest thing. Consistency in running but also consistency in everything you do. If you think about it, you gotta treat your body like it’s a machine. You gotta put in good stuff nutrition-wise, you’ve got to sleep a lot, but if you get a routine where you get up every morning and run, I know it’s tough and a lot harder when you work all the time. Consistency even in when you run. It’s been a big thing for me and it’s working pretty well

Coach M

Alright! Ready for some fun facts?

JS

Let’s do it!

Coach M

Tights or speed shorts (half tights)?

JS

That’s a tough one. My favorite is half tights with compression socks. So it’s kind of like a tight but your knees are exposed.

Coach M

I can...that counts! (laughing). Okay cool, I like that. Shalane’s look, sort of.

JS

Yeah (laughing), except she makes it look a lot better.

Coach M

200m repeats or mile repeats?

JS

Mile repeats. All day. I hate 200s. I hate anything fast.

Coach M

Track or road races?

JS

I wish it was track but definitely road races.

Coach M

Okay, right now?

JS

It’s probably always going to be road. I think I’m just better at the road.

Coach M

Alright. Morning run or evening run?

JS

I’d say morning run. I like getting it over with.

Coach M

Burgers or pizza...or clam chowda?

JS

Aw man, I’m actually lactose intolerant so I can’t do clam chowder which is the worst thing in the world. I wish I could. Burgers.

Coach M

Is a hot dog a sandwich?

JS

I’m gonna say yes. I mean, if a sandwich is just bread with something in between then yeah.

Coach M

Yeah, I mean if it looks like a duck…quacks like a duck...

JS

(laughing) Exactly!! It’s a sandwich.

Coach M

It’s a sandwich. Just a sandwich called a hot dog.

JS

The only thing is, because it’s on a hot dog bun...does that make it not a sandwich?

Coach M

So the shape of the bread makes a difference?

JS

I mean, you could do a hot dog on a piece of bread

Coach M

Yeah you could also cut a hot dog bun in half.

JS

I’m gonna say if you cut the hot dog bun in half, then it’s a sandwich.

Coach M

(laughing) So now we know, that’s how you decide!

Jake, we wish you all the best this Saturday!!! Hit the rhode and run like the wind!


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