Jenna Mulhern's Difficult Decision Paid Off In The End

"Sometimes it's definitely hard to be out on the track by myself, but knowing that Coach Ray is right there to jump on the phone with me, that's just what keeps me going every day." -- Jenna Mulhern

By Ashley Tysiac - MileSplit Correspondent

    For Jenna Mulhern, a typical workout day proves especially taxing in more ways than one.

      The senior from West Chester, Pennsylvania, heads to the track by herself, ready to tackle some tough 200m or 400m repeats, depending on the day. She laces up her shoes and prepares to run on her own. No training partners, no teammates. Just her and the track.

      But Mulhern isn't ever actually alone.

      The face of her coach, Raymond Friedman, displays on her phone, propped up against her water bottle next to the track. Via FaceTime, Friedman watches on from Tampa, Florida, where he lives and coaches at Cambridge Christian School, giving feedback as Mulhern rounds the track -- just over 1,000 miles away in West Chester.

      "It doesn't feel like I'm on my own," Mulhern said. "It feels like he's right there. We've done a really good job of making the dynamic work, even being so far apart."

      It's a rather unorthodox training scheme that she began last summer: Working under a coach who lives states away, deciding to compete unattached, and opting against representing her high school, West Chester Henderson, a successful program in its own right. 

      But Mulhern's decision to go down an unconventional competition and training path certainly paid off. A fourth-place finish at the RunningLane Cross Country Championships in December preceded an exceptional third-place run at the Eastbay Cross Country Championships a week later. And it solidified her reputation as one of the best distance runners in the country.

      That success in cross country continued with indoor track. The Furman University signee currently holds the nation's top time of 16:17.47 in the 5,000m ahead of Saturday's championship race at New Balance Nationals Indoor.

      Mulhern said some have questioned her bold choice to go solo, but she wants to remind people that she's not truly alone -- she always has Friedman by her side, whether through phone calls or in-person at meets.

      Despite the challenges that come from training solo, Mulhern said changing her approach reaped significant rewards, both physically and mentally.

      "I'm really happy that I made the switch," she said. "I'm so much more confident now lining up for races. I definitely have my joy back and confidence back for running, and I'm seeing it pay off."

      Growing up, Mulhern always showed athletic promise, competing as one of the top youth swimmers in the state and nation. But once she tried her hand at cross country in the seventh-grade, she said, she rose to prominence.

      However, Mulhern's high school career quickly turned sour with the onset of COVID-19 in 2020 -- it was a pandemic that left high school athletes on their own and reeling as they had to find ways to train and compete, thanks to the cancellation of countless meets and school seasons entirely.

      Mulhern traveled to meets along the East Coast in 2020 and into 2021, racing unattached in as many meets as she could. She did so, she said, because West Chester Henderson did not compete during the thick of the pandemic.

      But it proved physically and mentally exhausting for the high school junior.

      Her confidence dipped, as did her love for the sport. A myriad of stressors -- the monotony of pandemic life, pressure of competing at a high level and talking with college coaches -- left Mulhern discouraged and contemplating her future in running.

      "I was really close to not doing it at that level anymore," she said. "It was getting to be too much pressure."

      But the spark began to come back on a certain cool down run in Alabama at the RunningLane Track Championships last June.

      Mulhern had just placed third in the 3,200m and went off on her post-race run with two friends and competitors -- Mary Ellen Eudaly and Caroline Lehman, both of Cambridge Christian.

      While chatting on the run, Eudaly and Lehman began talking about their positive experiences training with Friedman.

      Mulhern and Friedman struck up a conversation following the cool down.

      "I was really close to not doing it at that level anymore. It was getting to be too much pressure."

      For Mulhern, it was an instant athlete-coach connection that she had never felt before.

      She knew then that she wanted to make a rather unconventional change, looking to train under Friedman despite being separated by such a great distance.

      "The connection there was incredible, and I had struggled so much with confidence in races," Mulhern said. "I just knew that he matched my personality and knew he was going to be able to help me on the mental side more than anything, get my confidence and love back for running."

      The two spent the beginning of the summer figuring out the best way to approach the coaching change. Ultimately, Mulhern made the difficult decision to not compete for West Chester Henderson over her senior year, a decision that she didn't make lightly but one deemed necessary to build her confidence and fitness.

      Next came managing the logistics of making such a change.

      Friedman would give Mulhern all the support she needed -- training, nutritional guidance, sport psychological help, etc. -- with the understanding that she would strictly follow his plan. Managing those tasks wasn't a problem. Instantly, Friedman knew Mulhern had the attitude and self-motivation to be successful.

      "I love this kid. She's just amazing," Friedman said. "(She's) never given me one problem, does everything I tell her to do, never had one argument, never any attitude. People like her don't exist."

      Constant communication acts as the key factor in making that coach-athlete bond between the two work, they both say. Friedman monitors and tracks a long list of measures in order to track her progress and health, everything from run paces and cadence to heart rate in comparison to training efforts.

      "You have to be courageous to do what she did, and I admire her. People don't understand the sacrifice you have to undergo to do what she did."

      Though it may seem that she is taking this journey solo, Mulhern said there is never any given moment when she truly feels alone.

      "Sometimes it's definitely hard to be out on the track by myself, but knowing that Coach Ray is right there to jump on the phone with me, that's just what keeps me going every day," she said.

      Mulhern began working with Friedman last summer. Since then, her fitness and times have only gotten better.

      Two top-five finishes at national cross country meets this fall became icing on the cake.

      For Mulhern, she said, she knew the moment she stepped to the start line at Eastbay that she felt comfortable again as a runner.

      She couldn't believe that she had the chance to toe the line with stellar racers like Flower Mound's (TX) Natalie Cook and Lakeland Regionals's (NJ) Angelina Perez. Crossing the finish in third proved to be even more shocking, and it solidified to her that taking the non-traditional path turned out to be the right decision. 

      "I was going to be thrilled to just sneak into the top 15, so I couldn't believe when I crossed that line in third," Mulhern said. "What really made that moment special was just having Coach Ray there and my entire family in tears, like 'What did we just do?'"

      This weekend at New Balance Nationals Indoor, Mulhern hopes to add to her list of successful moments in championship races.

      She says she will look to win the 5,000m and break the Pennsylvania state record in the process -- that mark stands at 16:11.85 and was last achieved by former Foot Locker Nationals champion Tessa Barrett in 2014 -- and then hopes to come away with another state record and win in the 3,000m at adidas Track Nationals on March 19.

      What's next? When her unconventional high school career closes, Mulhern has Furman waiting for her. She says joining a successful women's program like the Girl Gang motivates her every day.

      Though the two have only worked with each other for just under a year, Friedman says there's more room for Mulhern to grow. He believes her abilities will translate successfully to the collegiate level, maybe even professionally, too.

      Competing unattached in her final year of high school with a coach on the opposite end of the East Coast may not have been the path Mulhern ever imagined traveling down. But looking back, it was a road she needed to take in order to find her love for running again.

      She took the obstacles of that process head-on.

      "You have to be courageous to do what she did, and I admire her," Friedman said. "People don't understand the sacrifice you have to undergo to do what she did."

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