With Houlihan & Purrier (Probably) Opting In, the Women’s 1500 at the Olympic Trials Is Going to Be Crazy

By Jonathan Gault
April 12, 2021

The 1500 meters, simply by the nature of the event, is always going to be one of the most-anticipated races at any championship meet. The race’s length is right in the Goldilocks zone — long enough for drama to build, short enough that the early laps can still matter — and the tendency for most championship finals to be settled on the final lap creates maximum excitement. Five years ago, the women’s 1500 was one of the best races of the US Olympic Trials, with Brenda Martinez edging Amanda Eccleston for the final spot by .03 after both women ran down reigning Trials champ Morgan Uceny in the home straight. The 2019 USA final in Des Moines was just as compelling, with Nikki Hiltz prevailing over Sinclaire Johnson and Kate Grace in a three-way kick for the third spot to Worlds.

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By Jonathan Gault
April 12, 2021

The 1500 meters, simply by the nature of the event, is always going to be one of the most-anticipated races at any championship meet. The race’s length is right in the Goldilocks zone — long enough for drama to build, short enough that the early laps can still matter — and the tendency for most championship finals to be settled on the final lap creates maximum excitement. Five years ago, the women’s 1500 was one of the best races of the US Olympic Trials, with Brenda Martinez edging Amanda Eccleston for the final spot by .03 after both women ran down reigning Trials champ Morgan Uceny in the home straight. The 2019 USA final in Des Moines was just as compelling, with Nikki Hiltz prevailing over Sinclaire Johnson and Kate Grace in a three-way kick for the third spot to Worlds.

The women’s 1500 is again shaping up to be one of the marquee events at this year’s US Olympic Trials. But the Olympic schedule presents a problem: the women’s 1500 prelim is on the same day as the 5000 final. Two of America’s top 1500 runners, Shelby Houlihan and Elle Purrier, also happen to be two of America’s top 5000 runners. Which events would they opt for?

Houlihan will be running the 1500 at the Olympic Trials in June (Photo by Talbot Cox)
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Today, less than 10 weeks out from the Trials in Eugene (June 18-27), the picture is beginning to come into focus. Houlihan, appearing on the Ali on the Run Show podcast last week, confirmed that her plan is to run the 1500 at the Trials. And Purrier’s coach Mark Coogan told LetsRun he is “75% sure” Purrier will do the same. Add in four-time global medalist Jenny Simpson and 2019 NCAA champion Sinclaire Johnson — not to mention Grace and 4:01 runners Nikki Hiltz and Shannon Osika — and at least one total stud won’t be going to Tokyo this summer.

Schedule Change Alters Plans

The kicker to all of this is a schedule change by USATF that suddenly looks as if it will have a significant impact on the composition of this year’s Olympic team. Initially, the 1500 was set to be run during days 1, 2, and 4 of the Olympic Trials, with the 5000 on days 7 and 10. That would have provided a fallback option for anyone who missed out in the 1500 — and it’s clearly something some of the top athletes were considering. Houlihan loves doubling up at USAs — she swept the 1500 and 5000 in 2018 and 2019 — and Simpson went out of her way to secure the Olympic 5000 standard by running 14:58 at Boston University in February 2020.

“If they didn’t change anything, it would have been 100% 1500, and if you don’t make the team, come back in the 5000,” Coogan says of Purrier’s initial plans.

In February, however, USATF announced it was changing the Trials schedule. The 1500 and 5000 finals will now be contested on the same day, just 35 minutes apart. Coogan’s plan was no longer an option. The safety net had been removed.

(USATF did not respond to LetsRun’s inquiry about why the Trials schedule was changed, but it seems likely that it was done to mimic the order of events of the Olympic schedule. Previously, the women’s 5k at the Trials was after the 10k, which is the opposite of the schedule in Tokyo. Now they are aligned.)

Purrier Still Considering 5000

If she could go over to Monaco and run a 5k, I think she’d probably run 14:30, 14:35

-Mark Coogan On Elle PURRIER

It bears repeating that Purrier is not 100% locked into the 1500. Coogan says the workouts wouldn’t really change much regardless of the event they choose to focus on, so they can afford to delay that decision. Purrier will run a 5000 this spring, likely either at Mt. SAC on May 9 or the Sound Running Track Meet on May 14. But it’s hard to imagine Purrier running a time there that could change Coogan’s mind. Neither of those meets would feature the international quality of a Diamond League — where Purrier could collect the scalps to prove herself a global medal threat — and Purrier’s New Balance Boston team doesn’t have the luxury of staging a Bowerman TC-type time trial.

“If she could go over to Monaco and run a 5k, I think she’d probably run 14:30, 14:35,” Coogan says of Purrier, whose pb is 14:58 from her 11th-place finish in the 2019 World Championship final. “But I don’t know if that would happen in Walnut, California, or at the Sound meet. We don’t have the depth like some other groups to set up time trials at that pace…I think she likes the 1500 better and that’s kind of where we’re leaning.”

Ultimately, Houlihan and Purrier (assuming she stays with it) opted for the 1500 over the 5000 for the same reason: they believe it is their best chance at an Olympic medal. A few years ago, this wouldn’t have been a debate. No American woman has ever medalled in the 5000 at Worlds or the Olympics. Heck, no American woman has even come closeMolly Huddle has the best finish by an American woman in the 5,000, with her 6th at the 2013 Worlds, and she was still 14 seconds off the podium in that race.

But times have changed. Americans are getting better at the 5000 — Houlihan and Karissa Schweizer ran 14:23.92 and 14:26.34 last summer, moving them to #12 and #14 on the world all-time list. The East Africans no longer have a stranglehold on the event — in 2019, Germany’s Konstanze Klosterhalfen, whose 14:26.76 pb ranks behind both Houlihan and Schweizer, became the first non-East African-born woman to medal in the event in 16 years. Choosing the 1500 over the 5000 is no longer a slam dunk.

Still, the Olympic 5000 is more likely to come down to a pure test of fitness than the 1500, where tactics play a larger role. Simpson probably wasn’t the second-fittest woman in the 2017 World Championship final, but she ran the second-best race to earn a deserved silver medal. In the 5000 meanwhile, you need a baseline level of ability to even be in contention at the bell. And recently, that baseline has been beyond the top Americans; the last four global 5000 finals have all featured winning times that were faster than the American record at the time. Houlihan and Schweizer may have closed the gap, but there is still a gap: Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey just ran 14:06 to break the world record in October. And Gidey hasn’t even been the best 5000 runner in the world recently, losing to Sifan Hassan in the 2019 Diamond League final and two-time world champ Hellen Obiri in Monaco last year.

Medal Chances at 1500

That’s not to say it will be easy to medal in the 1500 either. Between reigning Olympic champ Faith Kipyegon (3:54.22 pb), world indoor record holder Gudaf Tsegay (3:53.09 pb) — and possibly world champ Hassan (3:51.95 pb) — the women’s 1500 is totally loaded. You can look at Houlihan’s run in the last World Championship final as evidence that an American won’t be able to medal in Tokyo — after all, she smashed the American record with her 3:54.99 and that was still only good enough for 4th. Or you can look at it the other way: 4th is damn close to a medal. Anyone in 3:54/3:55 shape this summer will be a podium threat. We know Houlihan can get there, and Coogan believes Purrier can too.

Purrier’s coach believes she can medal in Tokyo (Phil Bond photo)

“I think [Elle] can get a medal at the Olympics in the 1500,” Coogan says. “I don’t know if she can run 14:10 right now for 5k, but I think she can probably run 3:55 for a 1500…We know she can run with anybody in the world in the 1500. She’s not scared of anybody in the world in 1500. She’s still young physically and in her aerobic development for the 5k. I think in another couple years, she can run a really good 5k. But I think she’s a little bit more world-class in the 1500 right now.”

3:55 may seem aggressive for a 26-year-old who has yet to break 4:00, but Purrier’s pbs don’t tell the whole story. Her 4:00.20 1500 best was actually an en route time during her 4:16.85 American indoor mile record last year. World Athletics’ scoring tables convert that 4:16.85 to 3:57.82 for 1500. And Purrier’s 9:10 2-mile at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix this year (featuring a 4:28 final mile) shows she is ahead of where she was last year, when she ran 9:29 at the same meet.

So could Purrier medal in Tokyo? Well, maybe. But she could also miss the US team entirely. Houlihan has been the unquestioned US #1 at 1500 since 2018 and would seem to have a spot locked up. Simpson may be 34 now, but she has four 1500 medals, a superb racing brain, and has made 10 straight US teams dating back to 2007. Johnson’s pb may only be 4:03, but she hasn’t had much of an opportunity to display her vast potential. Remember, she ran that 4:03 as a 21-year-old in her first USA final. A few weeks earlier, she ripped a 4:05.98 — the second-fastest time in NCAA history — to defeat Jessica Hull in the NCAA final, the same Jessica Hull who went on to run 4:00/8:36/14:43 last year. Houlihan, Simpson, and Johnson are all studs in their own right; if Purrier is on the team, that means one of them won’t be.

Which is what makes Houlihan and Purrier’s decision to pursue the 1500 so terrific. The beauty of the Olympic Trials is that every athlete ultimately has to reckon with the cold reality of math: no matter how star-studded an event becomes, only three athletes will go to the Olympics. In the men’s 100, Noah LylesJustin GatlinRonnie Baker, and Trayvon Bromell can’t all make the team. But even they have the 200 to fall back on. For America’s top middle distance women, the 1500 just became a do-or-die event at the Trials. And I, for one, can’t wait until we find out who does the doing and who does the dying.


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