Women’s Steeplechase: Emma Coburn Breaks Meet Record to Win 3rd U.S. Title

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By LetsRun.com

June 28, 2014

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — On Saturday, Emma Coburn proved what many already knew to be true: she’s in a league of her own among American steeplechasers. But by running a meet-record 9:19.72 to win the 2014 USATF Outdoor Championship at Hornet Stadium — her third title in four years — she also served a reminder that she’s among the very best in the world in the event.

The Race

Defending champ Nicole Bush took the lead early and for the first four laps, it was Bush leading fellow New Balance runners Coburn and Stephanie Garcia. After a fourth lap of 76, Garcia took the lead, but was quickly passed midway through the lap by Coburn, who immediately separated herself from the pack. With three laps to go, there was a gap from Coburn to Garcia and Ashley Higginson and another gap between those two to Aisha Praught, Rachel Johnson of Baylor and Bush.

With two to go, Coburn’s lead was 30 meters and it was clear this one was over. The race was on for second though, as neither Higginson nor Garcia would relent. WIth 500 to go, Higginson made a bid to pass Garcia and this time there was no response. She had five meters on Garcia at the bell and would pull away to run 9:27.59 for second, a seven-second PR that moved her up to #5 on the all-time American list. But the story in this one was Coburn, who missed the second half of 2013 due to injury but has been on fire in 2014.

Quick Thought #1: It’s too bad there’s no World Championships this year because Coburn would have a great shot to medal.

Since the women’s steeplechase was added as a championship event in 2005, no American has placed higher than fifth at Worlds or the Olympics. But with defending World champ Milcah Chemos and silver medalist Lidya Chepkurui both out of form in 2014, the best women in the event are Ethiopians Sofia Assefa, Hiwot Ayalew and Coburn. Those three have run at least five seconds faster than everyone else this year and with her 9:19.72 in Sacramento — in 84 degree heat, no less — Coburn now owns three of the top six times in the world.

Quick Thought #2: Coburn was happy to see Ashley Higginson break 9:30.

Coburn said that she was excited that Higginson broke 9:30 since now there are three Americans (Coburn, Higginson and Garcia) under 9:30 on the year. As for her race, Coburn said that she’s not always comfortable in the heat so she wanted to run with the group for the first couple kilometers. She felt good with 3.5 to go and decided to take it from there. Coburn added that she didn’t press hard the last 400 and was pleasantly surprised with the time. That suggests that Coburn could be in shape to challenge Jenny Simpson’s American record of 9:12.50 when she races at the Paris Diamond League meet on July 5.

Quick Thought #3: This was a breakout race for Ashley Higginson.

Higginson getting second wasn’t a surprise (she was second last year and made the Worlds team) but her time (9:27) was. Coburn is still on a different level, but Higginson but prior to her breakout 2014, Coburn’s PR was 9:23. In a Diamond League race with cooler temperatures, Higginson definitely has a shot at that. It’s a big change from 2013, a season that Higginson said left her upset because she wasn’t able to get under 9:40.

Just as Coburn said she was happy that Higginson broke 9:30, Higginson in turn credited Coburn for motivating the other American steeplers to reach the next level, calling Coburn “world-class.”

Higginson is a law student at Rutgers and is interning at the Riker Danzig law firm in New Jersey this summer. She said that she her bosses have been supportive of her running career but that they also make sure that her work gets done. Higginson said that “I’m excited to be able to go to work on Monday and be like ‘I came in second! You didn’t ruin my season, lawyers!’” Law may be the future for Higginson, but she said that she doesn’t have any immediate plans to stop running as long as she keeps doing well.

Quick Thought #4: Despite the heat, there were a lot of PRs in this race.

Higginson, Praught and Johnson — three of the top six — all PR’d by a total of 18 seconds. Championship steeplechase races are actually very conducive to PRs, for a couple of reasons.

1) A rising tide lifts all boats. If there’s a fast pace up front, everyone else will run faster to keep up. Seems obvious, but because it’s not a big disadvantage to lead in a steeple (it allows the leader to stay out of trouble and get clean run-ups to the barriers), the very top women will lead more than they would in a 5,000 or 10,000, resulting in a faster pace.

2) The women’s steeple isn’t very deep. Because there aren’t a lot of world-class steeplers in the U.S., it’s hard to find a really fast race with all of the top women in it. USAs brought them all together and the result was a lot of PRs.

Quick Thought #5: Aisha Praught was very happy to PR by 5-seconds in the heat.

Praught was wobbly as she walked through the mixed zone after the race and it was clear the heat had hit her hard. With the conditions she was very happy to get a 5-second PR and is excited about racing in Europe this summer. She leaves Monday and wants to run a fast flat 3000 as well as another steeple and knows she can put up a very good time.

Results below. Full lap splits here.

PlaceAthleteTime
1Emma Coburn
New Balance
9:19.72
2Ashley Higginson
Saucony
9:27.59
3Stephanie Garcia
New Balance
9:32.76
4Aisha Praught
Nike / Oregon TC Elite
9:34.69
5Rachel Johnson
Baylor
9:41.56
6Courtney Frerichs
Unattached
9:43.36
7Shalaya Kipp
Colorado
9:46.57
8Nicole Bush
New Balance
9:48.08
9Grace Heymsfield
Arkansas
9:48.10
10Carmen Graves
Unattached
9:50.27
11Alicia Nelson
Adams St.
9:53.80
12Sara Vaughn
Brooks
9:56.36
13Sarah Pease
Adidas/RogueAC
9:59.62
DNFBridget Franek
Nike / Oregon TC Elite