As we still miss bibs and start lines at the start of this year, Strava and Distance are launching the Segments Series, an invitation for the runners from all across France to strive for their best time on 12 segments throughout the country, until Feb 7th. To fuel your first stride, don’t miss our series of interviews that shines a spotlight on some of the most promising of the next generation of French athletes. We spent a day with them to get an idea of the effort and the sacrifices they make daily; to understand their motivations; their state of mind after an unprecedented year; and the dreams they want to make reality. These athletes took us to their favourite training grounds and showed us a segment that suits their strengths, their specialism, or their character – so you can measure yourself against the future of French athletics.
Come with us for Léna Kandissounon’s ‘life segment’, as told by the Distance team, with photos by Anne-Sophie Soudoplatoff.
Hi Léna, tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name’s Léna Kandissounon, I’m 21 and I run the 800 metres and 400 metres with Haute-Bretagne Athlétisme in Rennes.
How are you and where are you at in this strange season?
It’s going well! I’ve just run at the French National Championships (U23s and seniors at Albi). I’m now on a break and I’ll begin training again in two weeks. I won the U23s and was third in the seniors in the 800 metres – I wanted to win and podium, so that’s OK!
How did you begin in athletics?
I always wanted to do athletics when I was little. I’m not sure why, because nobody in my house did any sport, and I’m the oldest, so I didn’t have any brothers and sisters doing sport – nor any cousins. I really wanted to do athletics, but I was too young, so I turned to ‘multisports’. Every Wednesday, a different sport, but I always came back to athletics: I ran fast, but gym was a bit difficult. Athletics went well, so I wanted to give it 100%. I started at Aulnay when I was 10 or 11, in the ‘Poussine’ age category. I had 11 or 12 years with Aulnay, this is my first year with Haute-Bretagne Athlétisme.
What are your best qualities and your weaknesses? How did you choose your event?
I’ll start with my strengths: I’m quick for a 800-metre runner, I think I’m one of the fastest 800-metre runners in France, but on an endurance level I’m a little less strong than the other girls. I think that if I ran over 1,500 metres against the other 800-metre runners I’d be dropped. That’s really the area I have to work on. I lack a bit of power since I’m a bit of a beanpole so that could be better. As a youth I ran the 1,000 metres and combined events. One day I ran the 400 and it went super well, so I moved towards the 200, 400 and 800. I was very strong as a teenager in the 400, and was selected for the French squad, but after a few years, at the start of the under-20s, my 400 wasn’t so good any more. I hit a wall. I did an 800 to see how it went, and ran at the French Championships shortly after, and won, so I said to myself there was something to work at there. I wanted to delay my entry into the 800 as long as possible, because it’s good to work on your speed when you’re young, so it’s only really been in the last year or 18 months that I’ve specialised in the 800.
You’ve talked about your physical attributes, what about your mental strengths?
My big fault is that I overthink things – I really ‘intellectualise’ my performance, whereas sometimes it’s best to unplug your brain and go. To talk about my strengths, I give 110%, I have no mental barriers: I never tell myself I can’t do something, I give it everything.
When did you realise that you had the potential, that you really stood out?
In the ‘Cadette 2’ age group [16/17] I was French champion in the 400 and I told myself that maybe I could do something. In the first year of U20s I also won the 800 at the Nationals, when I really wasn’t expecting it, that really flicked a switch in me. I qualified in the heats and in the final, but never thought I could win, I was really there for the fun of it, just happy that I was in the final. Since I’d only run the 800 once that season I was really there just as a tourist! This year, with the French Championships and my time of 2’02” in Marseille I really turned a corner. I’ve a lot to do now, to go looking for results in the seniors, I know that.
Who are the most important people around you these days?
My mother! She’s super annoying, but I love her. Seriously though, she is there at lots of my meets – she’s travelled as far as Poland to see me run. She has no notion of sport and doesn’t have a background in athletics, but she’s always there. Then, like all athletes, there’s my coach, he’s called Marc Reuze. We’ve only worked together for a year, but we work well together: straight away I had some good performances. Then there’s the physios, doctors, training buddies, they’re really important. This is the first time I’ve been in a real group, with strong girls, and it’s really too cool. We have a great dynamic.
What values must an athlete have to flourish?
To really thrive as an athlete you have to love what you do. There are quite a few who don’t like it day-to-day, who force themselves to do it for dad or mum, or to prove something to themselves. I don’t know if you can really perform like that, or feel good about yourself. To truly perform, you’ve got to feel good in your spikes! Balance is vital too; I found mine thanks to the Sciences Po [university in Paris]. I think it’s important always to have other things going on and not to only focus 100% on sport, otherwise you can go completely loopy. Do other things on the side, whether that’s cultural or at school.
What has your sport taught you and how has that helped you grow?
Athletics is one big family, I’ve met so many nice people through it, which makes me really happy. I don’t often think about it, but I’ve been in this world for 10 years already. People often say that athletes are more determined than other people, with a gift for self-denial that not everyone has. I think that’s what being part of this world has given me.
Talking of self-denial, how many times a week do you train?
I do about 10 training sessions a week. Two weights sessions minimum, a sprint session and two interval sessions on the track. Monday and Thursday I add in another session of light running.
In what ways is your environment ideal for your training?
I live in Brittany [in north-west France], so you might say it’s not necessarily ideal. I spent a year in Los Angeles which was a really my happy place as it was over 20ºC [68ºF] all the time. I was in sports bras and shorts all year round, on a campus where there was everything you could want. But at the end of the day, Rennes isn’t all that bad. It’s a small city, so everywhere is easy by bike. I’ve got 24/7 access to an indoor 200-metre track. There’s a weights room, my physio isn’t far. Everything is in one place, I think that’s important for good performances. This year I’m going to Sciences Po in Paris, which is only an hour and a half away, I think I’ll manage that!
How far would you like to go? Which races do you dream about? What would you like to have on your palmarès?
I’d like to go as far as I can, and for as long as I can, definitely past the age of 30. This summer, racing in the elites, the two women in front of me were over 30, I’d love to be like them. I was born in 1998, and I’m a ‘banlieusarde’ [from the Paris suburbs] – I grew up in Aulnay-sous-Bois. So in 2024 [for the Paris Olympic Games] I’ll be 26 and the 800 metres will be at the Stade de France, in Saint Denis, three train stops from where I grew up – I’ll be at home, really at home, so that is my real goal. The title I dream about, like everyone I think, is the Olympic title. I’d love to be Olympic champion, it would be a dream.
What’s your favourite session, and your favourite place to train?
I love track sessions, hate the gym! My favourite intervals? I like any session at 800-metre pace – with fairly long distances at 800-metre pace and then finishing with a quicker 200 and little recovery between! I really like these kind of intense sessions.
Tell us a bit about your segment then – what is unique about it and why does it represent you well?
It’s a 300-metre [330-yard] segment in the middle of Aulnay-sous-Bois that’s tarmacked, and with a cycle path painted on one half. There are no people living on it – on one side is the stadium and on the other is a school – it’s lined by trees and it’s pretty quiet. I chose it because I live 200 metres [220 yards] from the stadium, so during lockdown it was where I trained. I did quite a lot of up-and-backs on it, and it was great because it’s straight, there’s a lot of space in which to do all my sessions, it’d practical and there was was nobody around. My four years at junior high were at the school opposite, and the stadium – the Stade du Moulin Neuf – is still my home stadium.
Strava recently launched the ‘Local Legend’ achievement: where do people see you running most? Do you feel you’re already the most recognised runner in town?
I do get recognised, particularly after this year. A local magazine did an article about me and then all my mum’s friends sent it to me. I’m really seen as the sporty one, the athlete, in my friendship group. When I was doing my sprints during lockdown there was always an old man or woman who’d ask, ‘Are you doing sport?’ One day a bus driver stopped to ask me what I was doing. It intrigued people to see someone running all out on a sidewalk like that in the middle of lockdown. So yeah, I’m the Local Legend of the Moulin Neuf!
At your level, you obviously must take a lot of segment Course Records when training. Is this something you pay attention to, and do you ever go CR hunting?
I don’t really notice, I’m mostly looking at my average/km, the splits on the kilometres in the runs, to see if I’m finishing fast. But my brother is a cyclist and a big Strava user, and when I nab a CR I send him a message.
So what advice would you give your brother to beat your best time on your segment? Do you know anyone who could take it from you?
Warm up well first, and specifically for the segment, not a longer run – warm up as if it was for a race. He’ll have to run fast to steal it from me. I think that my great friend Clara Liberman could probably take it off me, because I did it during an interval session for the 800; I’ll have to go and do it again full gas so she doesn’t take it! The overall record is Michaël. I’m not far off but if I took it off him, he’d come and take it back – he’s a guy who does a 1’50” 800!
Do you have an suggestions for clubs or athletes to follow on Strava?
First there’s the Tempo Run Club – go and sign up to the TRC club! Then there’s also Haute-Bretagne Athlétisme. I won’t say Alexis Miellouse [Miellet], he’s already got too many followers! My brother, Arthur Kandissounon, and I’d also say Bernard Liberman, Clara’s dad – he was the first to follow me on Strava, my first fan. He teased me, saying ‘You’re on Strava, you’re a real middle-distance runner now!’. He runs a lot, puts in a lot of threshold miles. And then Yakoub – Yakoub D on Strava – he’s the king of Rennes!