© Copyright – 2017 – Athletics Illustrated
Jessica Furlan is one of Canada’s top runners specialising in the 3,000-metre steeplechase. She held the national record for the distance for nearly two years before Genevieve Lalonde bettered it twice in 2016, once during the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Furlan grew up in Regina and went on to compete for the University of Nebraska, where she earned a degree in Environmental Studies. As a Husker she earned All-American honours in 2012, competed in the NCAA finals in the steeplechase in 2013 and distance medley relay in 2012.
Furlan competed at the IAAF World Youth Track and Field Championships, IAAF World Junior Cross Country Championships, and IAAF World Junior Track and Field Championships
She finished 59th in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa in 2007 at age 17.
Her personal best and former national record in the steeple is 9:33.45.
Christopher Kelsall: You had the national record in the 3,000-metre steeplechase at 9:33.45 from 2014. Of course Genevieve Lalonde had that great race in the Rio Olympics to go 9:30.24. Do you have your sights set on taking it back? Or are you more suited for racing the race and letting the times come?
Jessica Furlan: That was a great race and I was really happy to see her lower my old record for the second time this past spring and summer. That being said, yes, of course I would like it back and I intend to lower it by a good 10 seconds. 9:30 is respectable, but my time goal for the past two years has been to run under 9:20. That might seem a little lofty to some people, but I know where my fitness has been, and I think if I can stay healthy and train consistently it is achievable.
I don’t think a lot of people expected me to run 9:33 when I had only run 9:48, but my coach and I weren’t surprised when I ran that time. Setting the record is never the main goal; it always just comes along with putting forth my best effort. I set it twice in 2014, and I honestly never gave any thought to the national record before either of those two races. After the first race it was a nice consolation prize because I had missed the Commonwealth Games standard by .89 of a second on the last day of qualifying. After the second time, I was happier that I had finally run a time I knew I was capable of running – it had been a long time coming. That race also qualified me for the Continental Cup in Morocco in early September. That race did not go well, but it was a great experience.
CK: What went wrong in Morocco?
JF: The race went out ridiculously slow (3:40 for the first km), and then at 2k it felt like we went from walking to sprinting. When it picked up I just didn’t have it in my legs that day. I had had a bit of a slow start to the season with this weird knee injury in March, so I think that part of my problem was that I didn’t have a strong enough base to extend my season that long.
CK: Do you enjoy cross-country running? You performed well at age 17 at the Worlds in Mombasa, finishing in 59th.
JF: That was the craziest race experience I’ve ever had. It was something like 35 degrees and 60% humidity. Twenty-five percent of the girls in the field didn’t finish, and to be honest I can’t believe no one died that day.
They told us before the race that when we finished, to go to the left if we needed medical attention, or to the right if we didn’t. Everyone was so out of it by the end, no one remembered which way they were supposed to go and it was chaos. I ended up crawling under a massage table in a medical tent and sitting there until someone found me and picked me up and put me in an ice tub. I had only found out about a month before that I was selected for the team. One of the other girls had to back out because of an injury. I was the next one on the list, and it was easy for me to say yes because I had been in Kenya with my family the previous summer, so I already had all my immunizations. But I had barely been running, because I was training for cross-country skiing. In the span of 2.5 weeks I went from competing in -30 temperatures in the Yukon for Canada Winter Games, to +30 in Kenya. I think I was happiest about the fact that I actually finished the race, and didn’t have worse problems after the race than I did.
I enjoyed cross-country when I was in high school and university when I had a team that I was running for. When we trained together every single day, and when we never thought about our own individual result in a race. It was all about getting as much out of ourselves for the team, but now, as an individual, no. If I never run another cross-country race that will be 100% fine by me. Training and racing cross-country doesn’t ever really fit into my long term yearly goals, so it works out. I like to take about a month off after track season, which is hopefully late August/early September, and then build back up slowly, usually not running workouts for a month or so. Rushing back into training and racing just doesn’t make a lot of sense when your goal is to peak for late summer.
CK: Does running for Canada not have the same team-like feeling to it?
JF: Yes and no, I think. Being able to stand on a start line in a national team uniform is the greatest feeling. And to be able to do it with teammates is even better. So yes in that sense, because you are a team and are supporting one another, but from my personal experience it is just not quite the same feeling as what I experienced in high school and university where you have trained with those teammates every single day for months. It feels more like you are running your best to represent your country (as it should be), as opposed to running your best for your teammates, in addition to representing your school or club.
CK: What about your time at Nebraska, initially why did you choose the school and did your time there work out as planned?
JF: There were a lot of things that sold me on Nebraska, but the biggest thing was my coach, Jay Dirksen. It was very clear he cared deeply about his athletes – their entire person, not just their athletic accomplishments. He was more likely to ask you how school was going, or how your family was, than to want to talk about training. He was committed to long-term development and I knew I wasn’t going to get burned out by his training. Unfortunately, he had a heart attack the summer before my junior year, and was fine, but because of that decided to retire earlier than he had planned, so I had a different coach for my last two indoor and outdoor seasons. That’s always a bit of a scary process because you never know how the new coach will be, but it turned out great, and I ran well both years.
My university career was ok. I had my moments, but it wasn’t stellar. There were definitely things that I wished I could have accomplished there that I didn’t, but things don’t always go as smoothly as you’d like, and that’s part of the learning process. I loved my school and my team, and I’m forever grateful for the opportunity and experience that the University of Nebraska gave me.
CK: The football team seems to be a very big deal at Nebraska. Was it a struggle to get recognition and stand out as an athlete representing the school in athletics?
JF: Football is huge at Nebraska. The fan base is amazing – they have the NCAA record for the longest streak of sellout games, dating back to 1962. In a lot of NCAA programs where football is the main sport, the football players have access to certain things, but the rest of the sports don’t. That was not the case at Nebraska. All of the athletes have equal access to the training table twice a day, their own athletic and academic support staff, and other programs. Regardless of what sport you played, if you had a performance that was worthy of recognition, you were recognized for it. I think a big part of what made Nebraska special though was that there was a really big focus on academic achievement and community service. Within the athletic department you were much more likely to be recognized for one of those two things than for an athletic performance. The fact that Nebraska leads the nation in Academic All-Americans, and NCAA Top Ten Award recipients (an award based on a combination of athletic and academic achievement and community involvement) really cements that focus.
CK: Is your family involved with sports?
JF: I would say that my family became involved with sports, because I was involved in sports. My parents enjoyed sports, and were active, but they weren’t involved with any one sport until my brother and I started participating in organized sport. My dad coached my community basketball team when I was younger, and my mom would travel with me to most of my track or cross-country ski meets. Neither of them were competitive athletes, but they understood it. They left the coaching up to my coaches, and supported me in every way they could.
CK: Do you have a hero or mentor in the sport of running that you look up to?
JF: Within the sport of running, I don’t have one specific person I see as a hero or mentor. I feel very lucky to have met so many great people through track and field and I have learned so much through those friendships. We’ve all had similar but slightly different experiences and struggles, and I think that connects us even more. Because of that, outside of my family, those friends have been my biggest support system, even if we are not in the same city, or even the same province, state, or country.
Outside of running, I have been really inspired by Chandra Crawford, an Olympic gold medallist in cross-country skiing, who started Fast and Female – an organization that strives to empower and inspire girls through sport. I was lucky to be able to attend an event when I was 17, and seeing how she and her teammates inspired young girls really opened my eyes to the fact that my athletic achievements could be used for so much more than my own personal accomplishment. I’m happy to still be involved with the program, but now from the other side of things as an ambassador.
CK: I understand you have a cousin who plays hockey for the UBC Thunderbirds.
JF: Yes – My cousin Kelly plays for the UBC women’s hockey team, and is actually over in Kazakhstan right now as a member of the FISU team! She and her three sisters all played or are currently playing CIS (U sport) or NCAA hockey. I have a couple of young cousins as well, and last spring when I was in Calgary visiting them, the first thing the seven year old said when I walked through the door was, “Can you teach me to be a fast runner like you?” She had been participating in running club at school and was excited about it. So maybe there will be another runner in the family!
CK: Coach Jessica. Are you a Roughriders fan?
JF: Ha! Yes, of course. I moved from Winnipeg when I was five, and I think my family lasted a year before we were converted to being Rider fans. You just can’t help it. When you are the only major team in your province, it makes it extra special. It’s similar to what I experienced at the University of Nebraska where there are no professional teams in the state. There are no bigger or more loyal fans than Rider and Husker fans. Go Riders and GBR!
CK: Will you be putting your Environmental Studies degree to work soon, or will you continue to train and race towards international competition?
JF: I think eventually I will pursue some further education, whether it is related to my Environmental Studies degree, or in a different field, maybe something nutrition related. For the moment though, I am committed to training full time.
CK: Growing up in Regina, which sports were you into, did you play hockey?
JF: I did not play hockey. I played basketball from the time I was around 10, through Grade 10, after which I switched to cross-country skiing full-time in the winter. It was a better crossover sport for running (less risk of injury, more endurance-based), and the time commitment (sometimes I’d be gone a week for races) just didn’t allow for me to play basketball and ski.
CK: Are you getting the opportunity to cross-country ski much this winter?
JF: Unfortunately, no. I wasn’t cleared by my surgeon to ski when I was in Calgary and Regina over Christmas where there was lots of snow. I did bring my skis with me back to the island, with the intention of going up to Mt. Washington to ski, but I haven’t had the opportunity to go up there, and the weather conditions haven’t been great. I’m heading to California for a couple of weeks, and so I think by the time I get back most of the snow will be gone and I’ll be out of luck.
CK: Do you get out for those legendary skis for like four to six hours? That certainly would be good for aerobic conditioning. Ever snowshoe run?
JF: I do not. I think the longest ski (or run) I’ve ever done is two hours. The longest race distance I ever had to do in cross-country skiing was 10km, and I was still in high school, so my coach never wanted me to do anything crazy – he was very focused on my long-term development. I have never done any snowshoe running. That sounds ridiculously hard.
CK: Running snowshoes are quite technical and light – it’s quite easy. Will you continue this year with the steeplechase?
JF: Yes. It’s definitely my best and favourite event. I really love the extra challenge it provides, and I plan to keep running it for the foreseeable future.
CK: As not every track meet puts on the steeple event, will you be racing some 3,000m and 5,000m events during the National Track League and other events this spring?
JF: Right now I don’t have any specific racing plans, but that’s ok. I am only a week and a half into my walk/run/return to running program and trying not to get too ahead of myself. The surgery I had was fairly intense, and although I’m a little ahead of where I think everyone expected me to be at this point, I want to make sure I don’t rush the recovery process. I am fortunate to have a great team around me that helps remind me of that on a regular basis. I’m not trying to get fit so that I can race by June, but I’m also not putting that possibility out of the question. For now I will continue focusing on taking things a day at a time, and we’ll see where that takes me.