Q&A: Emma Coburn Discusses Her Big 2016 Season, Leaving Mark Wetmore & Heather Burroughs, & the Future of the Women’s Steeple
By Jonathan Gault
December 15, 2016
2016 was a banner year for American distance running, and few Americans had a better season than steeplechaser Emma Coburn. Coburn broke the American record in May at the Prefontaine Classic (9:10.76), then lowered it in Rio (9:07.63) to earn the U.S.’s first-ever medal in the women’s steeple. As if that weren’t enough, she got engaged to longtime boyfriend (and former University of Colorado All-American) Joe Bosshard in November and on December 2 made headlines again as she announced she was splitting from coaches Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs, who had mentored her since she enrolled at Colorado in 2008. Coburn will remain in Boulder in 2017, where Bosshard will take over as her coach.
On Wednesday, I caught up with Coburn over the phone from her hometown in Crested Butte, Colo. We talked about her incredible 2016 season, her decision to leave Wetmore and Burroughs, Jenny Simpson‘s biggest influence on her career and how Olympic champion and world record holder Ruth Jebet of Bahrain has raised the bar in the women’s steeplechase.
JG: First of all, congratulations. I know you were engaged recently, did you guys set a date yet?
EC: Yeah, we’re just starting to figure it out. I think we’re going to get married next October when I’m on my break, so try and squeeze in a wedding then before training ramps back up again.
Looking back at 2016, just really an incredible year for you. When you were drawing up your goals, this must have been pretty much a best-case scenario, right — two American records and a medal at the Olympics?
Yeah, setting my goals for the 2016 season, [they were] to PR and to try and medal. The 2015 season, I was a little bit disappointed in how some of the bigger races went. At Worlds, I was in it and thought with 300 to go I was gonna get a medal, and then had just had a crummy last water jump and a bad last 100. That was disappointing because I felt like I was so close to it. That whole season, I didn’t really feel like myself racing. My training was the best it had ever been but when races came around, I was either a little bit sick or a little bit hurt or just not finding my rhythm.
So I was really happy to get back into form in 2016. Right off the bat, Pre, I just felt right. I felt like my old self and I felt strong and that was a big confidence booster. My first steeple back, running an American record, that was great, but I didn’t think that would happen at Pre. I hoped to PR and I hoped to medal like I said, but I had had a pretty rocky buildup coming off of the 2015 season with some injuries. So I was hoping that I’d be under 9:20 at Pre but didn’t really picture an American record. So that kind of set the tone for the whole season and I was just confident and hungry for a good performance in Rio.
The races going better, was that just a product of not having any race-day sickness or injuries or was it something different that you changed that just meant that your races went better than they did in 2015?
I think it was a combo of a few different things. I had a little bit of bad luck in 2015. Big races happened to fall when I was sick or vice versa, I happened to get sick right around big races. Like Lausanne and Monaco, I was really hoping to get out and run fast and I didn’t. I felt like myself at 2015 USAs, I felt good, but the rest of the summer didn’t really go well.
2016, I think part of that is just I happened to be healthy and physically I’ve put a lot of work in to stay healthy. I added more work in the weight room and more rehab on my own and I think that just made me a much stronger person. So once I was healthy enough to train, I had done so much rehab and cross training leading up to March that when March hit I was actually able to string together decent workouts it kind of all fell into place quickly.
The feeling of being on the track and feeling confident and feeling like I was in control of races, that I think was a factor in a lot of things, but I definitely think that some of my strength and rehab routines that I did when I was hurt came back to benefit me in the summer because I just felt durable, I felt strong. And then obviously I was able to put together good running and good training on top of that. I was definitely happy with how I felt in races during 2016.
Was there a specific part of your body that you worked to strengthen with this new rehab and exercises in the weight room?
I had an Achilles injury, so obviously a lot of lower leg strength, stability, all of that. But it was mainly just making sure my hips and glutes and back and core were really strong because if that part of your body is weak, everything else starts breaking down. Definitely I noticed a lot more strength in hips and glutes and core as a result of my rehab.
So coming off this season, the greatest year ever by an American female steeplechaser, why did you decide to change coaches?
I had a really successful eight years with Mark and Heather and we had a ton of fun together setting these huge goals and just taking the logical steps to get there together. So it just was the right time for me to move on and as I said in my statement when I announced that I had left them, we mutually have a lot of respect for each other and I will always be so grateful to them for the work in the last eight years and especially in the 2016 season resulting in the bronze medal. No hard feelings, nothing bad, but it was definitely just time for me to move on.
Did you want to leave or was it on their end, were they saying they wanted you to leave? Or was it mutual? How did it come about?
I don’t want to really go into all the details but we, together, decided that it was probably best for everyone.
I’m wondering, you don’t have an agent so you don’t have to pay any fees or stuff on your winnings to an agent. Did you pay Mark and Heather in the past to coach you?
I don’t know if that’s something that they want discussed so I’m going to avoid that question because they have other athletes that they still work with. So I should probably not talk about that out of respect for them.
Will you still be using the CU facilities during your training?
No. In the last year — once I really started doing a lot more rehab for my Achilles — I would split time between the CU weight room and a different gym that I work out at. So I’m using that other gym, RallySport, and not using the CU facilities. I am currently in Crested Butte, my hometown, for the holidays and yesterday did a workout at Western State’s indoor track, it’s the highest indoor track in the world. That was my first indoor track workout, but I’m not using the CU facilities.
Will you run/work out with Jenny Simpson any time in the future, do you think?
Yeah, I’ve run with all the girls. Obviously they have to do their own thing on workout days but on easy days we’ve met up several times to run and met up for brunch and dinner and just hanging out. We’re all still very good friends and we’ll get to run together on our easy days, which is always fun to catch up.
I know you’ve probably done this a million times, but could you just describe what your relationship is like between you and Jenny?
My relationship with Jenny is really good. I feel really lucky because when I came to college, she was breaking every NCAA record out there and I didn’t even think I could break 5:00 for the mile. It was kind of an eye-opening experience to see someone who was that good and was really pushing barriers. And I’ve always appreciated that about her. She’s never accepted the status quo of what people think she’s capable of running or what the standard is. She’s always pushed past that and I think it’s definitely rubbed off on me.
In the 2014 season, that was the first year that we were both professionals going on the Diamond League circuit together and we totally fed off of each other. We both wanted to set the American record, we both wanted to win the Diamond League, we both wanted to be constantly in the front of races, pushing (Editor’s note: Simpson did, in fact, win the Diamond League that year). Having her expectations really helped me keep my expectations high. She just has such a standard of excellence and it’s definitely rubbed off on me and I’ll always appreciate that about her.
It’s also just off the track, it’s really nice to be able to train with and travel with someone who knows exactly what you’re going through and exactly how difficult training is and the pressures that we face as athletes. She’s been a really great ally for me in the life as a professional athlete and in my early days of running really opened my eyes as to what was possible for female distance runners.
Was Joe taking over your training something you had been talking about for a while?
No, we didn’t talk about it at all until Mark and Heather and I stopped working together. He, all last year, was able to travel with me and really support me emotionally, as a partner does. So he, while never officially a coach or anything, definitely has had lots of experience with me in terms of the emotional coaching side of it and getting me confident and ready for races and making sure, from the neck up, I’m ready to race. Mark and Heather also always did a great job with that too, but I’m only with them for two hours a day and I’m with Joe for the other 22.
He always did a really good job of preparing me mentally for a race and even for a workout. No, we didn’t discuss him being my coach prior to my separation from Mark and Heather, but it’s been two and a half months or something and it’s going really well.
He knows me better than anyone and he’s a student of the sport and really likes to learn about the training of great runners of the past and learn the science behind why people choose certain training methods. So so far, so good. It’s been a good situation thus far.
You mentioned that he’s been a good resource for you emotionally preparing for races. Can you remember a specific race from last year or the past where he was particularly helpful before a race?
The two that stand out to me are Pre  and Rio. Before Pre, as I mentioned, I had strung together good training in the month or two leading up to it but my six months prior to that had been pretty interrupted with training and pretty spotty. So me, Mark and Heather all thought it would be great if I broke 9:20 and Joe did the best he could to fire me up to push beyond that and just telling me if I’m seeing splits faster than 9:20, don’t limit myself to that and to really go by feel and be confident in that. And Mark and Heather have always said go by feel and really push beyond the split if you’re feeling well but he just repeated it over and over again. And so I think that helped give me a little bit of confidence when I was halfway through the race seeing fast splits to just stay on it and keep pushing and have confidence that I could do it. So that was helpful.
And then in Rio, that’s such a big moment in any athlete’s life and he just, the whole week leading up to it, was keeping me really relaxed and calm and happy. I had very little nerves and very little anxiety because of it. So I think just knowing me so well and knowing what motivates me and freaks me out, he did a good job in that moment of kind of keeping it all in balance. For those two races, he was especially helpful.
Does he have any coaching experience coaching anyone else or will you be the first athlete he’s coached?
Nope, I will be his first athlete ever. I trust him fully and think that he’ll do a great job.
How much input into your own training did you have under Mark and Heather? And do you anticipate, now that you’re working with Joe, that you’ll have more say in what you do?
I had a fair amount of input, especially when it came to races or race strategy or what I wanted to get out of a race. In terms of training, I think it’s best if an athlete can just let go of the reins and trust that their coach is guiding them in the right way. I did that mostly with Mark and Heather. The only times that I’d want to change things is if I felt that it was not going to be good for my Achilles or if it was a snowstorm and I felt like I needed to run on a treadmill and not outside. Little things like that. In general, I let them guide me and they obviously did a good job there.
With Joe, I think I’m going to take the same route and the same tactic of just trusting that he’ll do a good job, speaking up if something feels wrong, speaking up if I want to do something here or there. But In general, I think it’s best to let the coach really take charge and just trust them.
Let’s shift back to competition. This year, Ruth Jebet smashed the world record, she ran 8:52. Did you think that a time like that was possible for a female steepler?
I definitely was surprised. Had you told me this time a year ago that someone would run 8:52, I wouldn’t have believed you, but seeing how easily she made 8:59 look, she made that look pretty controlled. While I was surprised, it also somehow made sense to me because just she had run sub-9:00 twice before and looked really easy doing it. The bar has been raised and I think it’s great because I think as athletes you always face these mental barriers of what you think is possible.
Going back to how Jenny was a big influence on me, she never had those barriers. She broke 4:00 in college [for the 1500] and women don’t do that, that’s not something that people expect. So I think it’s always good when someone can break barriers. While I don’t see me running that fast — or at least anytime soon — I hope that I can break past any barriers I have, telling myself that 9:10 is no longer fast and that 9:05 is now fast. You have to always make a shift in your mind of what the next standard of excellence will be for yourself and I think Ruth did a great job of doing that for the women’s steeplechase and hopefully we can all close that gap a little bit.
She’s only 20 years old officially. How low do you think she and other women can push the world record over the next few years?
It’s always hard because we don’t really get opportunities to run flat 3k’s very much, so it’s hard to judge how much someone’s fitness will improve or how much someone’s hurdling might improve or how much someone’s hurdling will always be a detriment to their time. I think she can go faster and I wouldn’t be surprised if in five years we’re talking 8:45 world record but I think 8:52 is pretty quick and I don’t think that that is going to be a time women are consistently hitting for quite a while.
Looking at you, are there any areas you still feel you can improve on as a steeplechaser?
Oh, definitely. I think just overall strength I need to improve on in terms of running a good flat 3k. I’ve never run a 5k. I think just continuing to develop as a good runner will benefit me in the steeple. Then specifically with the steeple, which we did try to work on in the last year, is just finding a way to have power over those last water jumps when you’re fatigued. That’s a challenge that every steepler faces. I kind of had the unfortunate circumstance in 2015 where I didn’t have power off that jump and even in 2016 [in the Olympic final], it was close at the water jump and [Hyvin Kiyeng] beat me out of it [for silver]. So just making sure I have enough strength and power over that last water jump to really carry me home stronger.
You said you’ve never run a 5k. Do you have any desire or plans to run a 5k in 2017?
No plan. Eventually I do want to do one but I’m definitely not mapping out my schedule to do that this year. I think maybe in an off year it could be fun to try but since I’ve never done one, I think I would need to do a few of them to really get the hang of it. So I don’t really plan for that this year. With Worlds and the Diamond League schedule, there’s enough chaos already. Maybe in the coming years.
What are your goals for 2017?
My goals for 2017 are to set another American record, win the US championships and win a medal in London. So I think that would be a successful year and I hope I can make it happen.
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