By Jonathan Gault
August 24, 2017
ZURICH — I’ve interviewed Emma Coburn a lot over the past year, whether it was to discuss her coaching switch from Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs to Joe Bosshard, the importance of hurdle form in the steeplechase or her shocking world title in London. I had the chance for another one-on-one with the U.S.’s greatest ever female steepler one day before the Diamond League final in Zurich, so rather than rehash her gold-medal run at Worlds or her thoughts on the 9:00 barrier, I decided to switch up the format a bit. For this interview, I asked Coburn to run through the “greatests” of her career — greatest race, greatest place to run, etc. — before finishing up with her thoughts on former training partner (and former American record holder) Jenny Simpson‘s steeple potential.
JG: Maybe an easy one, but greatest race you’ve ever run?
EC: I don’t know if it’s an easy one. To me, it’s really tied between World Championships and the Olympics. The Olympics last year, I had ran a lot of it solo and it was 95 degrees on the track and it took a lot of mental toughness those middle laps to not get discouraged and to still be in contention for third. And then London, on paper, might be a better race because it was faster and I came away with the gold, but it came easier to me and it felt easier than Rio felt. So I think I have to say both are my greatest ever.
Yeah, that’s fine, that’s a good answer. What about your favorite race? I mean, is there a difference between that and greatest? Which one would you say is your favorite from your career?
I think London is my favorite race. I think how exciting the finish was and how fast Courtney [Frerichs] and I ran en route to the medals, I think that’s my favorite race. And sometimes I’ve gone back and watched Rio and I still like, hate, that last 150 because I didn’t pull out the silver. And this race, the last 150 is super fun to watch. So yeah, I think London’s my favorite.
Your greatest rival?
That’s a really good question. As cliché as it sounds, maybe myself. Just because your body can betray you and injuries happen and doubt creeps into your mind. And so on the international stage, the people at the top have changed every year in the women’s steeplechase. There hasn’t been a consistent rival. And then in the U.S., kind of same thing. The faces have changed. And Courtney and Colleen [Quigley] have been consistently on the team the last two years. But I think as silly as it sounds, probably myself just because pushing through injury and every day kind of pushing through the hard moments that every athlete has to go through. I think if you can get rid of all those injuries and the doubt and the uncertainty of things, then you’re ready to roll.
Well would you say that part of that is just the fact that you’ve sort of been a cut above most of the Americans? I guess until London. Courtney was pretty close to you. But most of the time, you’re not really challenged in domestic races.
Just because, on paper, I’ve been ahead of the rest of the women in the U.S. in the steeplechase doesn’t mean I’m not challenged by them. The races have been within a few seconds the last couple years and U.S. championships are really difficult and really challenging for me to win. So I get along really well with Courtney and Colleen and Stephanie [Garcia] and Leah [O’Connor] and the descending order list of the women’s steeplechase, we all get along well. So the word “rival” is kind of, I feel like, someone you should hate and not get along with at all. So I’m definitely challenged by the women in the U.S. and just because I’ve been ahead doesn’t mean that I don’t have to work hard for it.
The greatest training partner you’ve ever had?
I think I’ll say [current training partner] Aisha [Praught Leer]. It’s been really fun having her. When I trained with Mark and Heather, I had Jenny and Kara Goucher and Shalaya Kipp and Sara Sutherland and Jessica Tebo. And so I had this big group of really great women but Aisha kind of, in training, fills the role that a lot of them filled. In long runs, Shalaya and I were shoulder-to-shoulder. Or Sara, Jessica and I were shoulder-to-shoulder. Or Kara. In steeple stuff, I had Shalaya pushing me. In 1500 workouts, I had Jenny ahead of me, me pulling off behind her. And Aisha kind of fills in all those spots just as one person. So we physically match up really well in training. And then she’s just a wonderful person.
Greatest place to race?
London. London’s really great. I think internationally, London is my favorite. Probably my perception of it is a little skewed now. But the stands were totally full, so loud. I like the weather there for racing. But in the U.S., I do really like racing at Hayward. Really energetic crowds, great weather again, usually, and just kind of memories of good fast times there.
Greatest workout you’ve ever run?
There’s not one that sticks out in my head as like, the best ever. There were a few hard miles at the end of workouts or at the beginning of workouts when we were up in Crested Butte (Coburn’s hometown in Colorado) that when they were over, I was like, Okay, I can get close to 9:00.
That was this winter?
In May. So one of them, at the start, I can’t remember if it was at the start or the beginning, but we had a ladder. And one of the miles was, up at 7,700 feet, 4:42, as just part of a workout. I had help with a pacemaker, but that was good motivation to just feel confident and feel like steeple pace would feel comfortable after that.
Greatest piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Joe always says, “It’s just running, baby.” And he just says it to me as a reminder that it is just running and it’s not complicated and you just have to go out and go as hard as you can and give it your all. And he says that it’s all worth it, the hurt is all worth it. And so remembering that it’s just running, I don’t have to overthink it, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. I just have to put one foot in front of the other and jump over things. And if I can do that to the extent that I know how to, then I should be okay.
Greatest trail or place to run?
That’s an easy one. My favorite run is in Crested Butte, Colorado. It’s the Lower Loop and it’s a single-track but not technical, very runnable. And it’s just incredibly beautiful and gorgeous scenery, beautiful flowers, beautiful aspen trees. Yeah, hands-down my favorite.
Greatest scalp — greatest person you’ve ever beaten?
Oh gosh. I mean probably in London, beating [Beatrice] Chepkoech and [Ruth] Jebet. I mean Jebet’s the world record holder and Chepkoech is the world leader (Editor’s note: Chepkoech is actually #3 on the 2017 world list) and she’s run sub-8:30 in the flat 3k and I think she placed pretty high at World Cross too this year, Chepkoech did (Editor’s note: That was actually her Kenyan teammate Hyvin Kiyeng, who was 4th at World XC). So she’s a really good runner outside of the steeplechase. But yeah, probably Chepkoech and Jebet.
Greatest place you’ve traveled?
My favorite place outside of Crested Butte is Kauai. I love Hanalei on Kauai and that’s actually where we’re getting married in October so that’s kind of my favorite spot outside of Colorado.
Well if you’re going to Hawaii for the wedding, where are you going for the honeymoon?
Just a different spot in Hawaii.
Greatest mistake you’ve made?
I’ve raced a few times when I was sick or hurt and that’s probably a mistake. I’ve had times that I had too much pride. I was sick in Monaco 2015 and my coaches were like, You’re sick, do you feel like you’re able to race? If you’re not well, you shouldn’t race. And I just totally, not lied, but I just tried to convince myself that I was healthier than I was and I raced and I think it probably set me back and potentially affected the World Champs that year. So yeah, racing that when I was sick — and I actually raced Zurich in 2014 when I was sick — and both those races were pretty crummy.
Greatest race you’ve watched that you weren’t personally involved in?
That’s a good one. Wow. I felt like so many races in London were incredible. Watching Jenny in the women’s 1500 and watching Amy [Cragg] in the mile. Sorry, marathon. Twenty-six of those miles. Sorry. Watching those two races really, really inspired me and motivated me. Seeing friends and peers gut it out against the odds. Amy wasn’t expected to medal, Jenny came into the meet not ranked near the medals, and they both gutted it out. And watching their races, I cried after both and was so fired up and motivated. So those two races were, in my recent memory, the greatest.
Greatest fan encounter?
You mean of me being a fan of someone?
No, meeting a fan.
I was going to say, if I’m a fan, I met Al Michaels last year and freaked out. I’m really a big fan of his. My favorite fan encounters are just when kids come up or girls come up and say that I motivated them or inspired them and that’s coming from kids, it feels like it means a lot.
All right, one last question. Jenny Simpson: what could she run in a steeplechase if she trained for it in the offseason, and would you want to race her next year in a steeple?
You know, Jenny has four medals in the 1500 so I feel like she’s in the right event.
Oh, I agree with that. But LetsRun wants to see this.
I’m sure Jenny could run close to 9:00 and if not break it. And I think it would be a really fun race. I mean she has a much better flat 3k PR than me, granted I never really run flat events. But she’s obviously one of the best American distance runners of all time and I think she’d do well in it. But I think we’re both happy to have our own respective events.
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