Women’s 3000: Shelby Houlihan Earns Convincing Win as Katie Mackey Makes Her First Worlds Team

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By Jonathan Gault
February 17, 2018

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Now that is how you make your first Worlds team.

Katie Mackey, 30 years old and in her eighth season as a professional runner, entered today’s women’s 3000 final at the 2018 USATF Indoor Championships having run 13 USATF finals on the track. Not once had she made a World Championship team. But if 13 was unlucky, 14 was the magic number as Mackey held off Emma Coburn by .17 of a second, 9:01.68 to 9:01.85, to nab the second spot at Worlds in the women’s 3000 behind a dominant run by Shelby Houlihan, who repeated as champion in 9:00.08 thanks to a 28.83-second final lap.

Until this point in her career, Mackey’s story had been one of heartbreak in the biggest moments, none more devastating than coming one spot shy of making the Olympic team in 2016. But recently, she received some wisdom from coaching guru Dan Pfaff that caused her to change her perspective.

Mackey duels with Coburn in the home straight

Mackey duels with Coburn in the home straight (Phil Bond photo)

“Well, seems to me like your negative story is a novel and your positive story is an outline,” Pfaff told Mackey. “So when you’re in the last 200 meters of the race, how do you expect the outline to win out over the novel?”

Mackey took it to heart and began writing affirmations in her daily training journal to keep her spirits up. And in the moment of truth, Mackey delivered.

“I’ve just been trying to beef up my positive story as much as I can,” Mackey said. “And I think it really showed. Because the last 200 meters out there, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh man am I gonna miss the team by one spot again?’ I was thinking, ‘I’m gonna make this f***ing team!’”

The racing began in earnest with 800 meters to go when Coburn moved to the front and began to squeeze the pace down, dropping a 35.05 lap, by far the fastest of the race to that point. She followed with a 33.64, and that succeeded in getting rid of everyone save Mackey and Houlihan. Though Coburn has a solid 4:05 1500 personal best and was an NCAA mile champion in college, she knew that Houlihan and Mackey — both former 1500 specialists — would be dangerous in a kick and was trying her best to get rid of them.

The next lap was even quicker — 32.29 leader-to-leader as Houlihan seized the lead at the bell — and it set the stage for a thrilling finish. Three women for two spots. Houlihan, the defending champion and second-fastest American ever in the event. Coburn, the reigning world champion in the steeplechase trying to prove that her prowess extends to the flat events. And Mackey, with one more shot to make a team she’d never made. Even if Mackey had written a novel about this story, it would have been hard to top this climax.

Houlihan quickly began to power away up front, so it soon became a two-woman battle for one spot. Mackey fought Coburn around the entire first turn to slot into second and finally got there entering the back straight. Coming off the final turn, Coburn and Mackey were still together, but Coburn could not get around. As they headed toward the finish, Mackey began to drift out into Coburn’s path, instinctively protecting her position. She crossed the line, but there was no immediate celebration. That changed quickly, however, with the arrival of her Brooks Beasts teammates and her coach/husband Danny Mackey.

Houlihan, 25, was brilliant tonight, once again displaying the fierce kick that makes her a medal contender at the World Champs in Birmingham two weeks from now. Coburn, 27, put up a valiant effort to show that she is more than just a steeplechaser. There are more World Championship teams in their future.

That wasn’t a given for Mackey. Not every athlete gets their moment, but tonight, Katie Mackey got hers.

This tweet sums it up pretty darn well:

Houlihan won handily in the end

Houlihan won handily in the end (Phil Bond photo)

Quick Take: Make no mistake: Shelby Houlihan is a medal threat in Birmingham

We gave Mackey a lot of (deserved) love above, but the performance of the night undoubtedly belonged to Houlihan, who made a 28.83 final 200 look easier than she had any right to.

“I had no idea what pace I was going,” Houlihan said. “I was hoping it was fast enough to get a jump on everybody.”

It certainly was as she wound up putting a second and a half on Mackey and Coburn on the final lap. Houlihan now has four USATF titles in the last 12 months — she won the mile and 2-mile indoors last year and the 5k outdoors — and will go for #5 in tomorrow’s 1500, where she should probably be considered the favorite. With Molly Huddle gone to the marathon and American record holder Shannon Rowbury taking the year off to have a child (Rowbury will be 34 if/when she returns in 2019), the U.S. needed someone to step up in the 3k/5k and Houlihan looks capable of filling that void.

Houlihan said she would probably only run the 3k at Worlds even if she makes it in the 1500, so how are her medal chances? Two years ago, when Rowbury medalled, Maureen Koster was 4th and Abbey D’Agostino was 5th. Houlihan would have had a GREAT shot at a medal in that field. But the 2018 field is WAY better than the 2016 edition.

Houlihan’s 8:36.01 in Boston on February 3 puts her #3 on the 2018 world list, behind Genzebe Dibaba (8:31.23) and Sifan Hassan (8:34.45). Both those women are total studs with big kicks (Dibaba has run 3:50, Hassan 3:56); beating either will be tough. And then there’s Hellen Obiri, the reigning 5k world champion, and Laura Muir, a 3:55 1500 runner herself and the reigning European champ. That’s a lot of talent that Houlihan will potentially face at Worlds, but she’s a pretty big talent herself. If you can close an 8:36 race in 28 seconds — as Houlihan did in Boston — you’re a medal threat.

Quick Take: Mackey overcame an injury last year to bounce back and make her first World Champs team

Mackey suffered a sacral stress fracture last June that caused her to miss USA outdoors.

“It was the most heartbreaking thing to watch everybody who I love and respect and admire out there tearing it up and not be out there,” Mackey said.

Mackey said that it’s been tough coming back from the injury. She cut back to six days of running a week and while the result is that she’s stayed healthy, she would doubt herself for not running seven. She also said that she’s felt phantom pain from the injury — even as recently as this morning.

But Mackey showed the fitness was there by running a PR of 8:43 at Millrose two weeks ago and proved that she can still kick too, closing in 30.27 to make her first team. Now it’s on to the World Champs in Birmingham.

Quick Take: Emma Coburn came up just short but acquitted herself well in the flat 3000

It’s a criticism that steeplechasers inevitably face: If he/she were such a great runner, they’d be doing the flat races instead of the steeple.

You can debate whether it’s a valid point or not — and it’s here where we point out that if it were so easy for someone like Mo Farah to dominate the steeplechase, then why hasn’t he done it? — but it’s a criticism Coburn felt coming into tonight’s race.

“I don’t think many people had me picked to make the team,” Coburn said. “People were kind of s****ing on the women’s steeplechase.”

And yes, the world champion in the women’s steeplechase did not make the U.S. team in the 3000 meters. But Coburn ran well, closing in 1:36.53 for her final 600 (30.38 final 200) and lost to a stud in Houlihan and a strong kicker in Mackey. She ran 9:01 at 5,300 feet with a fast close and has every reason to be proud of her performance.

“I feel like I fought a strong race and that I proved that I’m a good runner all around,” Coburn said. “I just was going against some incredible competitors today.”

Coburn said that if she had been a little fitter, she might have tried to force a fast pace from the gun. But she didn’t think she was strong enough to drop an 8:36 woman in Houlihan and a pair of low-8:40s women in Mackey and Marielle Hall early on. As the race approached its conclusion, however, Coburn knew she had to make a bid for the lead. With 800 to go, she took off, telling herself: “Just go because I’m probably not going to outkick these girls in a flat-out 400.”

She came up .17 short — but that’s closer than her male counterpart, U.S. steeple king Evan Jager, has come to making a U.S. indoor team. Jager was only 7th in the 3k at USA Indoors in 2016, though he did make the 5,000 team outdoors in 2009. Coburn has had a strong indoor season overall, which should set her up nicely to take some shots at sub-9:00 in the steeple outdoors.

Other action: Paul Chelimo wins the men’s 3k, Sam Kendricks is beaten, Jarrion Lawson jumps 8.38, Christian Coleman preps for WR attempt

We’ve recapped the men’s 3k final in a separate article hereLRC Men’s 3000: Army Strong – Paul Chelimo Repeats As Shadrack Kicphirchir Outkicks Ryan Hill.

The 800 prelims also got their own article: LRC Big Drama in Men’s 800 Prelims: Clayton Murphy Goes Home Early, Women’s Favorites All Advance

We briefly recap the non mid-d and distance action for you below.

Sam Kendricks did one thing consistently last year – win. He was undefeated on the year indoors and out (only one indoor competition). This year, Kendricks has yet to win in three competitions and suffered a loss to a fellow American on Saturday as Scott Houston went over 19 feet for the first time, vaulting (5.83 19’1.5”) for the win.

In the long jump, worlds silver medallist Jarrion Lawson jumped 8.38 to get the second best mark in the world this year, Daniella Hill won the shot (18.10), Erik Kynard won the high jump (2.30) but didn’t get the standard, Jeremy Taiwo edged Wolf Mahler in the heptathlon (5935), and on Friday Erica Bougard gave the American record in the pentathlon a scare (4760 for her, record 4805).

Here are some recaps of all the action :

IAAF: World Silver Medalist Jarrion Lawson Impresses In The LJ With 8.38m To Defeat World Indoor Champ Marquis Dendy
AP: Erik Kynard Wins A Record 5th Straight US Indoor High Jump Title But Doesn’t Get Standard
Reuters: Scott Houston Gets Upset Pole Vault Victory Over World Champ Sam Kendricks Houston cleared a PB of 5.83m to Kendricks’ 5.78m.
USATF : Jeremy Taiwo Wins Heptathlon; Christian Coleman Leads 60m Heats With 6.46

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