Shelby Houlihan Talks About Her Breakout 2018 Season, Making America Great at 5000 Again, and Jerry Schumacher

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By LetsRun.com
January 31, 2019

Shelby Houlihan joined us on the LetsRun.com Track Talk podcast this week. The US star had had success domestically prior to last year, but in 2018 she took it to the international level as she went from 4:03 in the 1500 to running 3:57 and winning the Prefontaine and Lausanne Diamond League meets and breaking the American 5000m record by running 14:34. You can listen to the entire podcast with Houlihan in the player at the bottom of this page or via your favorite listening platform, but Houlihan’s comments were so interesting that we decided to highlight them for those of you not into podcasts.

Houlihan will run the US Cross Country Championships for the first time this weekend with some of her Bowerman Track Club teammates, Karissa Schweizer, Marielle Hall, Amy Cragg, and Courtney Frerichs.

We have paraphrased the LetsRun.com questions below and condensed portions of the interview below.

You can click on a blue timestamp to hear that portion of the audio. Full podcast player and links to iTunes at bottom. If you’d like to listen to the full Houlihan interview, it starts at the [39:22] mark.

LetsRun.com Tell us how the decision came about to run USA Cross Country?

Photo by Phil Bond

[40:10] Houlihan: Back in like November-December, workouts had been going well and I was feeling pretty strong and I kind of just like jokingly brought it up to my coach Jerry [Schumacher] and [I] was like “how ’bout that 10k cross country?” and he kind of laughed. And then after a couple more workouts, he was like “hmm, maybe. Maybe that is a good idea.”….Just because it is a long season and I haven’t done cross country since college, so about four years, and it was just kind of a new challenge, something fun to throw in the mix and really excited about it…

[41:36] I know that if I can kind of get it in his head far enough out, he’ll at least think about it. Uh, so that’s kinda what I was doing. Up until the last couple of weeks it had always been like, “well, this is something that we might do.” And then about like two weeks ago, he was finally, he finally committed to it and said that I could do it, but still going to do US indoor a couple of weeks afterwards.

If you got selected to World Cross Country and it was solely your decision, would you want to do it?

[43:26] Houlihan: Absolutely. I’m always down to race. I would love to, but it’s usually not my decision anyway.

Bowerman’s really sending a pretty powerful squad to USA Cross Country. You’ve got Amy Cragg, Courtney Frerichs, Marielle Hall, Karissa Schweizer. They may not all make the team because it’s a tough team to make, but if that happens, that’s a group that could maybe bring home a medal on its own if you guys will decide to run in Denmark.

[44:34] Houlihan: It’s really fun just being able to go with my teammates. It makes it a little less stressful and I’m really excited to line up with them and just kinda see what we can do. I know it’s not as much of a team aspect kind of race, but we’re kind of focused on just like working together throughout. Cross country is one of those races that it is more of a team thing traditionally. So it’ll be fun working together and having everyone hopefully in a big group throughout the whole race. But yeah, it’ll be fun.

Who is the fittest in the group?

[45:19] Houlihan: I think everyone’s really, really fit. It kind of could be anyone on the day. Marielle is a really good 10k runner, Amy is a marathon runner, so everyone’s pretty strong. Courtney is good on the grass. So is Karissa obviously. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

Have you all been training together?

[46:03] Houlihan: We’ve been doing all of our workouts together. This year has been a little different. Usually at altitude we’ll start focusing [on our races]. I’d be focusing on like 1500 or mile and 3k or two-mile workouts for indoor and since this season’s so long we’ve kind of kept that fall training, strength training going into this January. So we haven’t done a ton of specific, shorter workouts. I am going to do US indoors. I don’t feel like we’ve really put a ton of emphasis on that. We’ve mostly just been doing base building and I think we all know we’re going into this, not like [sharp]. This shouldn’t be the peak of our season right now because we’re really focusing on July and September/October for hopefully making that world team and having a good showing at Worlds. So this isn’t really the focus. We’re most mostly just strength training right now.

What’s are your longest runs and workouts?

[47:50] Houlihan: Our long runs, it’s taken me a few years, but I am up to two-hour long runs and we go off of time. So usually depending on the pace I’m running, how good I’m feeling. It’s either somewhere between like 16 to 19 miles. Some of the tempos were about like four- or five-mile tempos. We usually do some stuff on the end too. Usually like fall strength training is more like mile repeats or stuff like that. And that’ll get up to like a 10-mile workout day.

10 miles of intervals?

[48:42] Houlihan: Yeah, it’s definitely a lot more than what I was doing in college. I think the most I ever ran in college was 60 miles a week and definitely not that long of workouts. So that was the big transition coming into this group and I think as I’ve been able to stay healthy and consistent and that obviously is showing in my races. I’m finally getting strong enough aerobically that I have the speed on the end of my races.

You’re turning 26 years old next week. What is the next skill you need to develop to go further in your career? What is the next skill you really want to work to improve?

[49:30] Houlihan: I think mostly just being consistent and staying healthy. I think there’s still a ways that I can go as far as aerobic strength, I think I’m kind of breaking the surface there. I think last year was a good jump, but I also think it was just a start. I feel like usually there’s always little things that I can work on every year such as diet, getting a little better. I’m still terrible at stretching and rehab stuff. I feel like I’m the type of person that I can’t do everything, I can’t change everything all at once or I’ll just kind of burn out. I have to do little things at a time and it’s taken me a long time to start consistently doing all of the right things, but I still think there’s a lot of little things that I can improve on.

In the back of your mind are you’re thinking, Hey, it’s nice I’ve got some room to improve.

[50:54]  Houlihan: It’s really exciting because I feel like, like I said last year was a big jump, mostly just I think in confidence, racing more confidently and putting myself in the mix, but I do think that was just in my opinion, the start of things coming together and doing things consistently and doing all the right things and I think there is still a lot more to improve on and that’s really exciting. I’m really excited to see what I can do this next year in the next, within the next, like, I don’t know how long my career is going to last. Hopefully like the next 10 years, you know? It’s just exciting to think about.

Was last year becoming one of the best in the world a surprise for you? Now that you’re one of the best in the world, is it different day to day?

[52:12] Houlihan: I knew I was capable of getting to that point. I just wasn’t expecting it to be last year. I think I did have some big PRs in the 15[00] and the 5k [last year], but on the inside, I think I was capable of running around 4:00 the year before and like around 14:55 in the 5k a year before [but] I just didn’t really have that opportunity or I didn’t take advantage of those opportunities, didn’t put myself in the races to run that fast. I think the fitness has steadily grown each year. Last year was a big step for me, just racing with confidence and kind of being a little fearless, throwing myself in and to my surprise wasn’t really dying towards the end [of races]. I still had that kick, which was new.

As far as day-to-day stuff goes, I’m still training like I normally do. I don’t, I try not to let that pressure of how well I did last year affect me. Like obviously I’m doing a little better and doing all the little things and I didn’t take as hard of a break this last fall. I did take a break, but the year before you should’ve seen me. I was very, very out of shape. I took a really big mental break [two years ago] and this year I didn’t feel like I needed the mental break as much because I was really excited about how the year went and how this next year will hopefully go. But yeah it’s just same old Shelby, training every day and just loving what I do.

What was your favorite race from last year?

[54:07] Houlihan: I’d say probably Prefontaine. That was really the breakout race for me. I knew I was capable of winning. I just didn’t know for sure. You never know for sure. But I knew that if I put myself in there and gave myself the best shot, I could potentially come away with a win. And for it to kind of come together like that and everything to fall into place was, it was a really cool experience and kind of the highlight of my year.

After Pre, you were pretty much unbeatable for the next two months. And then at the end of the year, you got second in the Diamond League final and the Continental Cup. Obviously those on paper — objectively, they’re not bad results — but when you’re used to winning they’re not as good. Did you feel worn down at all at the end of the year? Was it just a simple result of racing against really good women? What’d you think about those, those runner-up finishes at the end of the year?

[55:07 ] Houlihan: They stung a little bit. I think I didn’t run tactically very smart in the final of the Diamond League, which made it harder to swallow I guess. I think if I had run it a little smarter, I would have had a better chance at winning. And I think yeah, I just think I could have potentially won, but I didn’t race that smart and I came away with second, which was still really good. It was hard because I had to remind myself six months ago you’d been psyched about getting second at the Diamond League final. So trying to look at the big picture of things and reminding myself that this is a really, really good step this year even though I almost came away with a perfect season. And then the Continental Cup was kind of the same thing. It was just was a sit and kick race and I trusted my kick a little more than I should have probably. And I think I still kicked at 57 but it wasn’t enough.

I think Winny Chebet who beat you was 56 on the last lap. That’s pretty hard for any woman to beat.

[56:30] Houlihan: [Yeah that’s] really fast. And maybe I would have run that little bit differently as well. It’s a good learning experience. And I think for it being an off year, that’s the year that I do want to get second. And I do want to learn things and make mistakes to hopefully make myself better for World Championships and Olympics. I think overall it was a really good year and I’m really happy with it and it just kinda of stung at the time getting second in those two races.

How fast were you in high school in the quarter?

[57:08] Houlihan: I think in high school I ran 55 in the open 4, but a little faster in college. I never ran the 400 in college. I did it on the four by four, around 54.

One of our pet peeves is every 1500 meter runner thinking they have the best kick, but we don’t blame you in that race. You didn’t know someone else was going to run a 56.

[57:35] Houlihan: Jerry [Schumacher] also probably thought I had the best kick because he told me to just sit and wait. Looking back I probably would’ve taken it a little sooner and just tried to run it in the ground.

When we think of your kick last year, we think about the 5k as USAs and watching that replay, it looks like you’re a 100-meter sprinter just like peeling away from everyone. We’re wondering do you get the same feeling when you watch it?

[58:12 ] Houlihan: In that particular race it wasn’t super fast race and we practice doing that in practice. We do 120-meter sprints where you’re switching gears like that and I think if you look at me closely you can see me switching gears. And I mostly did that because Rachel Schneider is really fast and I didn’t really know where she was so I just wanted to make sure I used all my gears. That’s something that we practice and that’s something that I’ve been able to get better and better at. And I practiced that in high school as well. So just you know, hopefully keep having that towards the end of my races.

Have you ever times yourself for what you can do in the 100 in practice?

[59:04 ] Houlihan: I’ve timed myself at the end of a workout doing a 100. I think it was like around 12-low, but I don’t really know what that means.

It is better to win at home? Doing it [winning nationals this past year in your home state of Iowa] in front of friends and families, is that extra special?

[59:43] Houlihan: I love going back to Iowa and I’m really excited that USAs is back there again this year mostly because I still have a ton of family that lives in Iowa and they don’t really get to see me because I am traveling a lot and they also don’t get to see me. Usually we’re not racing in Iowa. So it’s a good opportunity to see everyone and have a huge fan base. I can hear my whole family all the way around the track, which is a pretty cool feeling just to have that. And I also have a lot of those people that do come and watch, watched me in high school, which I think is a really cool connection. It’s a little bit of a pride thing. I do want to go back and win and make my home state proud. It’s a really cool experience to be able to go back and have that big fan base there.

Speaking of high school, what’s the number one advice you would give a high school runner? Or if you were talking to high school Shelby, what would you tell her?

[61:00 ] Houlihan: That’s kind of a hard question. For me personally, I know I was not doing a ton of the right things. I was eating McDonald’s every morning before school. But I think that was good for me because I didn’t need to be a professional or even a college runner at that point. I think the best advice that I can give is to be patient and not wear yourself out. In high school, I had a personal coach that I worked with and I mostly trained like a sprinter and he only wanted to meet with me like three times a week because he wanted it to be fun. And I think at the end of the day, as long as you’re having fun with what you’re doing, you’re going to be good at it. You’re going to be willing to put in the time and effort it takes to be good at it. So just staying patient and not taking it too seriously because it should be fun. It should be a fun thing that we’re doing.

Your mom was a really good runner [2:35 marathoner]. Could you remember her running? And how did she teach you? She wants it to be fun for you, but I’m sure at the same time she wants you to be good. How did they manage that whole thing? How did they make sure it was fun for you and you had this long-term approach?

[62:23] Houlihan: Yeah, I think they actually did a really good job with that. I never felt pressured to go run every day or train every day by my parents. Usually just watching my mom go run, I could see how much she loved it and it made me want to do it as well. She would go out for her long runs and I’d go up and be like, “can I come with you?” Just because I liked doing long runs with her and it was a good bonding time. I kind of found the love of running on my own, which I think is a really important thing. Anytime you’re forced to do something, especially I know myself, if someone is trying to force you to do something, I’m going to try to do the complete opposite. They did a really good job in just letting me kind of do my own thing and never pressured me to try to love it or anything like that. They really like let me find it on my own, which I think was huge. And even today my mom is the first person I call after all my races just kind of go over what happened or what went right or how I felt and she’s always saying, “oh, I think you could have run faster.” [And I’m like] I felt like I did everything I could. It’s good to have her there and she knows all about it. It’s a good bonding thing that we have.

This upcoming track season is still a couple months away and you know, you’ve gotta run USA indoors, but you’ve had success over so many different distances and we obviously know your Twitter handle is still @shelbo800. Are you a 1500 runner for this year? Moving forward? How do you view yourself? Is that going to be the event for you?

[64:20] Houlihan: I view myself as being a 1500-meter runner right now. I’m really enjoying the 1500 and I think there’s still a lot I can do there. It’s my most experienced and strongest event right now. I am liking the 5k, but I’m still a little young there. I don’t really know exactly tactically how to race that very well yet. I’m getting better every time I do it, but I feel a lot more confident just in the 1500 and I think you can kind of see that in my races. I just have a lot more confidence in myself and where I should move. I race more on instincts in that race than I do in the 5k, but that’s also the conversation that I’m going to have with Jerry and what makes the most sense. I kind of hope I race the 1500 this year. I’m really enjoying that. But whatever he thinks is going to be the best for me is what I’ll do.

The 1500 and 5k finals are Worlds are back to back so you can’t double. Does that make you upset?

[65:45] Houlihan: I’m not upset. But it would be better if it was an option. I like to race, but at the same time, with three rounds of the 15 and there’s two rounds of 5k, there would just be a lot racing over that small period of time so I don’t even know if I would double anyway. But having that option would be nice.

American women have medalled at pretty much every event on the track in recent years, the 800, the 1500, the steeplechase, 10k, they’ve even done it in the marathon with Amy Cragg. The one event no woman from America has ever medalled in the at Olympics or World Championships is the 5k. With the success that people have had in the 10 and the 15, why do you think that is? Why do you think that drought exists? Are you even aware of that drought?

[66:54] Houlihan: No, I’m definitely aware of it. I think right now American women in the 5k just have that mythical 15:00 barrier and I’m hoping after last summer having been in the 14:30s that more people realize they’re capable of running a lot faster than they are right now. I’m kind of hoping to get that movement started and it helps having a bunch of 5k runners on this Bowerman team. So once we get past that mental barrier of that 15:00 barrier, I think we will hopefully be seeing more and more women making the 5k final [at Worlds/Olympics] and being in contention, which would be really exciting.

We like the sound of the 14:30 club. I think you’re right it’s been a 15-minute club in the US and you could make the final running right around there but it’s no longer competitive for the top spots.

[68:02] Houlihan: It’s hard to look at the other international runners that are running a lot faster than 15:00. And it’s frustrating to see the US be so far behind that right now and hopefully we can get the ball rolling and get more people under that barrier and maybe they’ll start realizing how much faster they can run. I’d really, really like to get the US women really competitive in the 5k again. That would be really cool.

Making the 5k great again? There you go. Or making it great for the first time.

Houlihan: Yeah.

Do you have a Jerry story or something about Jerry that the public doesn’t know? Because I think we’ve talked to him once in an official interview. He just doesn’t really talk to the press.

[69:33] Houlihan: We have a Bowerman banquet at the end of the year every December, and I won one of the Bowerman awards this year, so Jerry was up there introducing me. He’s definitely not one to really pat you on the back. He was just kind of saying, “she had a great season and it was almost good, but just those two second-place finishes” and everyone was like, Oh my God, come on. And he just wouldn’t give it to me. I kind of agreed with what he was saying, but it was kind of funny to hear him [saying] “it was almost good. It was almost good. But just those second-place finishes at the end…’ He’ll never give it to ya.

You need to have a perfect season to please him?

Houlihan: Something to strive for.

What kind of awards are there at this banquet?

[70:40] Houlihan: It’s mostly geared towards the youth group that we have, but we also recognize the professional runners in the Bowerman group and some of the other elite runners. But I won one and I think Mo [Ahmed] won the male athlete of the year. There’s a ton of different awards and it’s mostly geared towards the kids and there’s masters awards too. We have a bunch of different groups with the Bowerman Track Club. It’s a fun banquet.

You’ll have to win the cross country this weekend and you’ll be on your way to the perfect season. Well good luck this weekend.

Houlihan: Thank you.

If you’d like to listen to the full Houlihan part it starts at the [39:22] mark.


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