Jenny Simpson Puts Her Most Challenging Year Behind Her as She Turns to the Roads in 2023
After a year in which her world was turned upside down, the track legend has a new sponsor and new event as she makes her half marathon debut in Houston on Sunday
By Jonathan Gault
January 11, 2023
As the Marshall Fire approached her house on December 30, 2021, there was a brief moment where Jenny Simpson thought to herself, I can’t believe I’m doing this. The house Simpson shares with her husband Jason was formerly a schoolhouse, built in 1900 and located in Marshall, Colo., 15 minutes southeast of Boulder. And on that day, it was under threat from what would eventually become the most destructive fire in state history.
The fire, spread by wind gusts of over 100 miles per hour, was moving quickly. As thick smoke enveloped their property, choking their lungs and blocking their vision, the Simpsons prepared for the worst. Trying to limit the burn, they watered down the yard with hoses, inadvertently soaking their clothes as the wind blew the spray everywhere. Then, as the flames moved in, Simpson took one last lap around the house, grabbing their laptops, their Jack Russell terrier Truman, and a bag containing her running medals and memorabilia — one she had assembled a month earlier while being interviewed for a documentary and fortunately had yet to unpack.
Simpson, like many of us, had previously had that conversation about the one thing you would grab if your house was burning down. She had always answered with her Bible, handed down to her from her great-grandmother Genevieve Schermerhorn (“Grandma Jenny”), for whom she was named. So, as she grabbed the Bible from her office and dashed out of the house, it hit her: I think I’m grabbing the thing that you get because we might lose everything.
By the time Simpson made it to her car, she no longer knew where Jason was or whether he would make it back to the car — the smoke was so dense, it was difficult to see. He eventually made it and they sped away from their house, not knowing when they would return — or if the house would still be there when they did.
Over the course of two days, Marshall Fire would ultimately burn over 6,000 acres, destroy over 1,000 buildings, and cause over $500 million in property damage, making it the most destructive fire in Colorado history. It was a traumatic event for Simpson and her community.
Though the Simpsons’ home survived the fire, it sustained damage, forcing them to live elsewhere while it was repaired. They bounced around from a hotel to the spare bedroom of some friends from church to, eventually, a sparse apartment near the University of Colorado campus, living out of a backpack with the few things they had managed to grab from their home before the fire hit.
“It’s hard to describe how stressful that time was,” Simpson says.
On top of that, Simpson was working through a sports hernia and stress reaction in her right hip — the most significant injury of her career — and her professional future was less certain than ever. During the 2010s, few athletes were more consistent and dependable than Simpson. From 2007 through 2019, Simpson made all nine World/Olympic teams for the United States, piling up 11 national titles, three World Championship medals, and an Olympic bronze in 2016. That success led to a series of lucrative contracts from her sponsor, New Balance, and, as a highly-ranked athlete, health insurance from USOPC.
But Simpson’s New Balance contract expired at the end of 2021 — just two days after the fire that displaced her from her home. On January 1, she lost her health insurance coverage from USOPC (to qualify for coverage, an athlete had to have medalled at either the 2019 Worlds or 2021 Olympics, finished in the top 12 at the 2021 Olympics, or finished the season ranked in the top 15 in the world in their event; Simpson no longer met any of the criteria). As 2022 began, she still had Jason, and she still had the support of her longtime coaches, Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs. But the other constants in her life suddenly weren’t so constant.
“This last year, I felt more vulnerable than ever,” Simpson says. “The major safety nets in my life have been being a top-performing athlete and being in the tier system and in the USATF system, being a New Balance athlete and knowing I have a future there and my security at home. And my health. All of those things were really wobbly and testy and some of them fell apart in the last year.”
Rebuilding and replacing
One year has passed since the fire that upended Simpson’s world. Some elements of her life have been rebuilt, others replaced. The Simpsons moved back into their house in Marshall on April 1, and after months of work, she says it is 100% back to normal. Her body is also back to full health. That too required months of work.
Simpson had felt pain in her hip area during the fall of 2021 and though she didn’t give it much thought initially, it grew into something that significantly disrupted her training. Even as 2022 began, she remained in denial. After her streak of making teams ended at the 2021 Olympic Trials, Simpson knew she couldn’t afford to miss time if she was to return to her best.
“Pushing through cross training, pushing through the life challenges that we were going through, I definitely made my circumstances a lot worse,” Simpson says. “And I don’t think that’s unusual for runners. That’s kind of in our nature.”
Simpson was determined to avoid surgery, but realized such a path would require a more conservative approach. As winter turned to spring, Simpson, reluctantly, began to back off the intensity to allow her body to heal.
“The toughest thing about having a sports hernia injury and choosing to rehab and go that route and not jump straight into surgery is that it’s just slow,” Simpson says. “And none of us that are athletes, I think in particular runners, want to take anything slow.”
Simpson did not race at all last spring or summer, missing USAs for the first time since 2006 and missing the chance to represent the US at the first World Championships held on American soil. Simpson is now healthy again, but she’s still rebuilding the fitness she lost in 2022.
Another pillar of Simpson’s life — her New Balance contract — had to be replaced rather than rebuilt. Simpson did not want to go into specifics, but says that while New Balance verbally offered her a deal at a reduced level from her previous contract, the two sides ultimately could not reach an agreement. Eventually, Simpson, who had not used an agent since 2014, hired Hawi Keflezighi to negotiate a new deal and announced a sponsorship agreement with Puma in October.
Leaving New Balance behind was painful. Simpson signed with the company coming out of the University of Colorado in 2010, and after 12 years together had envisioned staying with the brand in some fashion for the rest of her life. Seconds after crossing the finish line in 10th in the 2021 Olympic Trials 1500, Simpson looked at the scoreboard and saw that Elle St. Pierre, Cory McGee, and Heather MacLean — all New Balance athletes — had gone 1-2-3 to make the team; Simpson was the first to congratulate them. She figured that, even once her racing days were over, there would still be some sort of role for her at New Balance.
“My whole future in sport and beyond was about how can I take what I’m learning in my career and make that in any possible way benefit the women’s team in the future,” Simpson says. “So seeing that [1-2-3 at the Trials] and knowing there was a strong middle distance future here and how can I continue to pour into that, that’s what I thought my future was.”
A move to the roads and a new beginning
For the first decade of her professional career, Simpson’s running life was fairly straightforward. She was consistently one of the best in the world in her event, meaning she could enter any race she wanted and was always in-demand from her sponsor (two of the reasons she went without an agent for so long). Every year since rejoining Wetmore and Burroughs in 2013 (she was coached by Juli Benson from 2010-12), she would sit down with them and figure out how to be at her best in the biggest race of the year, either the World Championship or Olympic final. More often than not, she succeeded.
But after failing to make the Olympic team in 2021, Simpson began to ponder her athletic mortality. She was nearing her 35th birthday and had a few options if she wanted to stay in the sport.
“The biggest consideration was, do I move up to the 5k, do I try to run a great 10k, or do we do something totally different?” Simpson says.
(LetsRun founder Robert Johnson will be devastated to learn Simpson did not mention the steeplechase, the event in which she won two US titles and set the American record in 2009).
Simpson dipped her toes into Option C by running the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler in September 2021 (she finished 2nd in 52:16). Midway through 2022, she had fully committed to the roads.
“It’s always been part of the plan that I would give the roads some good years of my career,” says Simpson. “And I think I just saw those really good years becoming fewer and fewer and I realistically wanted to make the transition before I was so, not just physically tired, but also just emotionally drained and psychologically drained from the intensity of it.”
The last few years, Simpson carved out a niche as a mentor to some of the up-and-coming athletes in the Colorado program. As a volunteer assistant at CU, Simpson was able to watch runners like Dani Jones and Sage Hurta at practice, then aid their transition to the professional ranks by traversing the circuit alongside them as a competitor/friend. With Simpson’s move to the roads, that period of her career is over.
“I think that’s what I’ll miss the most, is feeling like I get to be a little bit of a mother hen for the [Colorado] women that are doing really well and have a future as a pro in the sport,” Simpson says.
Now, Simpson is heading into the unknown. The training, obviously, is different. Though Simpson ran relatively high mileage for a 1500 runner — it was not uncommon for her to hit 80 miles in a week — she is now running 80+ regularly, doubling up to five times per week. During her track career, a long workout for Simpson would consist of 12 or 14 by 400m. Now she’s running 2k and 3k repeats on the track.
“That’s a long way to go for someone like me,” Simpson says. “…You go out on the first lap or two and you think, Are you kidding me? This is it? But it doesn’t stay easy for very long.”
Simpson has also had to educate herself about the road races themselves. When we first spoke for this story in November, Simpson admitted that, outside of the World Marathon Majors, she didn’t know many of the major road races and was still learning about how they stacked up against each other in terms of prestige.
Part of that is due to how the sport is structured. Track is simple: Worlds or the Olympics is the end goal and the rest of the season is built around that. The roads are different — people reach top fitness at different times. For marathoners, it’s fairly intuitive — pick one race to peak for in the spring and one in the fall. But Simpson isn’t a marathoner (yet). For road racers at shorter distances, it’s more choose-your-own-adventure.
Simpson’s plan: sit down with Wetmore and Burroughs, pick a race to gear that year’s training around, and attack it like they would a World Championship or Olympics.
“Even though it’s not to the world a big World Championships, it will be Mark and Heather and Jenny’s World Championships,” Simpson says.
As for the marathon, Simpson would not commit to running one eventually, but did not rule it out either. She watched Jason, after years of grinding, finally qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials at CIM in 2018 and knows how difficult the event is. She has no desire to rush into one.
“It is really freaking hard,” Simpson says. “You don’t know for sure that your body is suited for it just because you’ve been a good runner…What it will take for me to run a marathon? If I have a great half and I feel like my body’s handling that workload really well, we’ll absolutely do a marathon. Because at that point, you’ve gotta find out, right?”
Next stop: Houston
The big question hanging over all this: will Jenny Simpson be any good on the roads? It’s no certainty that prime Simpson, the one who won a record eight Fifth Avenue Miles, would have been a force over 10k and beyond, much less the 36-year-old version coming off the most disruptive injury of her career.
Thirty-six is not necessarily old by distance standards, though. Last year, Keira D’Amato broke the American marathon record at 37 and Sara Hall broke the American half marathon record at 38. Like Simpson, both were for a time milers on the track before moving up — though it took each several years before their big breakthrough.
After down years in 2021 and 2022, logic says Simpson could have a tough go of things. The bar for success, certainly, will have to be recalibrated. At her best on the track, Simpson was one of the top three women in the world in her event. That level of accomplishment is virtually impossible for her on the roads, but could she become one of the best in the US in the 10k, half, or marathon?
Her road debut at Cherry Blossom in 2021 was auspicious (2nd place, 52:16), her appearance at last fall’s USATF 5K champs in New York less so (she was 17th in 16:07, 39 seconds behind winner Weini Kelati) — though Simpson wasn’t fully fit in New York and knew that going in.
2023 will be the real test of whether Simpson has anything left to give on the roads. And for Simpson, 2023 begins in Houston, where she will make her half marathon debut on Sunday. There is a lot riding on the outcome, which is how Simpson likes it. She has yet to pick that one race that she will plan her 2023 season around; Houston will help her make that decision.
“This will kind of chart my course of whether we stick with the half marathon, whether I start dreaming about a marathon, or whether I say maybe it’s better for me to get back on the track, spike up, and do some faster stuff over the next year,” Simpson says.
Simpson says that while her training has gone well, the adjustment to training for the half marathon has been more challenging than she expected.
“When I ran Cherry Blossom and I ran 5:14/mile pace the whole way, the idea of running 5:10’s for a half marathon (67:43 pace) seemed right around the corner,” Simpson says. “Now having gone through a year of injury and a lot of other life challenges, I’m having to adjust what I think my half marathon debut is going to look like.”
Simpson will have Jason with her as a pacer on Sunday and said they will plan to go out faster than her pace at the Army 10-Miler in October, a race she won in 54:16 (71:08 half marathon pace). She says she has a time goal in mind but elected not to share it. Her main hope is that she can finish the race well. During her track career, Simpson was famous for her strength in the final 100 meters, but in her last two road races, she felt as if she was holding on for dear life at the end.
Simpson will step to the line on Sunday with an uncertainty that did not exist during her track career. When Simpson started a 1500-meter race, she came armed with knowledge gleaned from years of experience. She knew exactly what sort of time she could expect her workouts to translate to and how to respond tactically to every race scenario. In the half marathon, she’s starting over.
“That’s one of the trepidations of going into the race in Houston is that I’m so used to having such a clear idea of what I am capable of,” Simpson says. “My race in Houston will be as much of a discovery as the training has been.”
Even Simpson admits she doesn’t know how many more years she’ll continue to race professionally. A few years ago, she had scripted out a storybook ending for herself: a fourth Olympic team in Tokyo and a home World Championships in front of friends and family in Eugene. Make those two teams, she thought, and she would have total freedom to do whatever she wanted afterwards, whether it was continuing to race on the roads, pursuing a coaching career, or starting a family.
That, of course, did not happen. In professional sports, endings rarely go according to plan. But Simpson is embracing the adventure that comes with her new path, wherever it leads.
“The idea I had in mind was kind of cool, but there are some things that we’re now looking forward to that I couldn’t have even imagined,” Simpson says. “And if it turns out that way, it will end even better.”
Want more Simpson news? David Monti has sent over a Q&A he did with Simpson that appears below.
Q&A Jenny Simpson In Advance Of Her Half-Marathon Debut In Houston
By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2023 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
(11-Jan) — On Sunday, 2011 World Athletics 1500m champion Jenny Simpson will make her half-marathon debut at the Aramco Houston Half-Marathon. For Simpson, 36, it will be the longest race of her life. She has previously run two 10-mile races, the 2021 Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10-Mile (52:16) and the 2022 Army Ten-Miler (54:16). If she breaks 1:12:00 she will qualify for the 2024 USA Olympic Team Trials Marathon in Orlando.
Simpson spent nearly her entire professional career sponsored by New Balance, but that came to an end last December. She is now sponsored by Puma.
Race Results Weekly spoke to her on Monday from her home in Boulder, Colorado. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Race Results Weekly: At the end of 2021 you decided to hang up your track spikes and commit to longer distances on the roads. What’s the journey been like so far?
Jenny Simpson: It’s a new journey. At the very onset of it, I had an idea of how it would go. I guess it’s probably fair to say that I really mentally and emotionally made this shift at the beginning of 2022, that I’m dedicating my next training stretch to longer distances. Things immediately did not go to plan, and I had a year of a lot of interruptions, injury and setbacks. So, I think it’s been such an interesting path for me. I wanted something different, and I’ve gotten something way more different than I knew I was signing up for.
RRW: How has it been different?
JS: It’s different in two ways. The first is my running career up to 2022 was so specifically planned and dialed-in. I didn’t have trouble overcoming difficulties along the way, sticking to the plan. The fact that my plan has kind of been derailed in so many different ways, and I’ve had to stick it out, that’s been new for me. You know, not running a track season, not running the U.S. Championships. All of that has been really different.
And the other way that it’s been really difficult is I said from the beginning that going to the roads and doing longer stuff would be like taking on a new sport. And I think I kind of said that without full awareness of how true that would be. The last year has really taught me that I have a lot to learn. It’s not just that I have to learn a new way of training, and trust my coaches and do things differently. I also have to accept that it’s going to feel really different. So, conceding to that has been more difficult than the intellectual journey of saying, OK, the mileage is going to go up, the workouts are going to be different. So, kind of emotionally conceding to this that it’s not going to feel like getting ready for the 1500 anymore has been more difficult than I thought it would be.
RRW: Why did you decide to move up to the half-marathon now?
JS: You asked, ‘why Houston, why now?’ I could give you a really good answer every single time I toed the line in the 1500. Like, this is the objective, this is what we’re doing, this is the exact build-up to get me to these goals for this race. This feels a lot more –this half-marathon in Houston– feels a lot more to me, like, you can’t wait forever. You just have to get out there and do it. So, I don’t have the experience, yet, to build-up the way I did for middle distance races. I don’t have the experience to be able to walk into that half-marathon and say, this is exactly what I want to accomplish at these different mile markers, and exactly how I want to feel, and I know what I’m capable of. So, in a way I’m racing Houston because so many people have great things to say about the race itself, the organization. The course is flat and favorable for a lot of people, and it’s just time. I need to get my butt out there and start racing again and start doing what I made a commitment to do which is longer stuff. I can’t make a living off of running ten mile races, so I need to start doing standard distances again.
RRW: How has your training gone under your coaches Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs?
JS: I’ve had a good build up; I’ve had good training. But, I’m surprised for myself how frightening it feels to not really know what I’m capable of headed to the starting line.
RRW: So, it’s a race of exploration?
JS: Yes. Beautifully said, because I thought it would be kind of a training journey of exploration. So, I think one thing I didn’t give racing enough credit was that even toeing the start line and getting to those first few longer distance races is also going to be part of a journey of discovery and exploration. I don’t know if I have fully emotionally embraced that reality yet when I made this commitment.
RRW: There will be a lot of people trying to run fast in Houston on Sunday. Are you worried at all about getting sucked out too fast? Since your husband Jason is running with you, are you counting on him to help you manage your pace?
JS: The beautiful thing is that we’re both very competitive, and Jason can be just as susceptible as me [laughs]. In training that’s a real positive because we can both egg each other on and get something out of ourselves that we wouldn’t be able to accomplish just on our own. But, Jason is definitely there to bridge the experience. I have a lot of experience in being mentally tough, carrying a lot of pressure. But I have to carry that pressure through a warm-up and then a four-minute race, you know? So, that I have to be reasonable and metered at the beginning of the race is definitely a place where Jason’s experience is going to bridge my lack of experience, but with the understanding that it’s not 100% on him. He can get excited in races just as much as anyone. So, it wouldn’t be out of the question that I tap him on the shoulder at mile one and say, “this is a little hot for the first mile of 13.”
RRW: Your absolute potential for the half-marathon would be very high, but since you’re feeling your way along do you have a goal time-wise in mind?
JS: You know, I don’t have a goal. The reason I don’t have a goal is because I was disappointed in that I didn’t race fast in the 10 mile at Army [last October, 54:16, equivalent to a 1:12:17 half-marathon]. I really thought I was ready for something closer to 5:20 pace [53:18]. I was tired, I was working hard, I was coming back from an injury, and coming back from years and years of top-level 1500-meter running. All of that’s in my legs, in my heart and in my mind. But, I am coming back from an injury which is a weird part of this journey.
So, I think that Mark and Heather want to take some of the pressure off and say, be smart. Let’s start out somewhere around where you were racing at Army and you can certainly pick it up from there. So, I don’t necessarily really have a big time goal. This is really about me getting past the finish line and saying, this is not as scary as I’ve made it up to be.
RRW: It could be scary, especially because of all of the disruptions you had in 2022.
JS: At the beginning of this commitment I was healthy, and happy, and sponsored [by New Balance], and had this idea of how everything was going to go. I really thought this is going to be such an exciting, smooth and strong transition into something new. And, I carried a lot more baggage into this than I had envisioned. Not baggage, but just, like, challenges. I carried more challenges to this journey than I expected I had to. It’s so hard for me to take a deep breath and say, being in the top-3 does not have to be the meter of success every single time, and really measuring me against myself again. This has been really humbling and really difficult. For me as a human, not me as a racer, I think there’s a lot of growth that’s happening, character-wise with that kind of challenge.
RRW: So, qualifying for the Olympic Trials Marathon would be a sub-72:00. Is that on your radar?
JS: It IS on the radar. I think I can run sub-72:00. I do. I can confidently say I think I’m capable of that, and I would like to do that. I guess it would be really nice to check that box and say, OK, I’m going into the year if I want to run the marathon in Orlando that I at least have an invitation to go. I guess the reason that my mind isn’t obsessed with that goal in particular is because the idea of running a marathon still seems so big. I just want to get through this half first. The idea of running 26.2 miles, it seemed big a year ago and as I got into the training it got bigger. I didn’t seem more attainable; it seemed less attainable [laughs]. That’s kind of the beauty of something that’s really difficult. I imagine that somebody stands at base camp and looks at the top of Everest and they have all this hope and all this ambition to climb this mountain. Standing at the base is not when the mountain seems the biggest. I mean, it must be when you’re exhausted and your part way up. I guess that’s how I kind of feel right now.
RRW: The marathon must seem awfully far at this point…
JS: You start thinking about 26 [miles] and you don’t know what that is. You’ve never done it, even in training. When would I have run 26 miles in my life? I don’t think I’ve ever run 26 miles in a single day. Yeah, that to me is the difference: the half-marathon is a short Sunday run and the full marathon is something I’ve never done before in my life.
RRW: What was the injury you were dealing with in 2022?
JS: So, I had a stress reaction in my pubic bone that really lingered for a long time, and we had a hard time cross-training through that and it caused a sports hernia. That ended up being even harder to kind of heal from and recover from. It’s like a lot of things. One thing cascaded into a lot of things. I just really appreciate the support I got from the staff at the Olympic Training Center [in Colorado Springs]. It took months to sort out. It took a long time [but no surgery]. I’m totally healthy, totally pain-free. It was a long and bumpy and annoying road.
RRW: You also had to deal with the Marshall Fire in early 2022 which forced you and Jason to evacuate your home in Boulder, and although it didn’t burn there was a lot of damage from ash and soot.
JS: We just crossed over the one-year mark; it was December 30th that it happened a year ago. I look back on the year and I’m amazed at how close we’ve come to our community. Jason and I really cared, in the aftermath of the fire, to be community builders, people who were really there to support other people best as we could. But, we were also displaced. We were out of our house for three months and there was a lot of work that had to be done right here on our property. It was just bigger than running. It was bigger than your career. It was bigger than any one individual life and family. It was really really exhausting stretch of life for us. That mixed with having an injury, those things kind of ended up going hand-in-hand, kind of one stress fed the other. But, oh my gosh, praise God that we’re kind of beyond the worst of that experience.
RRW: How did you even go about the remediation work? Did you get any help navigating the insurance aspect of it?
JS: Shout-out to how incredible the running community is. There’s a coach in Iowa, his name is Mike Austin, and he’s an independent insurance adjuster. He just reached out to me over Twitter and said, ‘I’m an insurance adjuster. I kind of have seen these things around the country and if you have any questions if you need some support, feel free to reach out.’ He was a total stranger, but he’s a high school coach. I was on the phone with him for hours for points throughout the process, just getting great guidance and great advice. I look back and I think, oh my gosh, he was such a godsend at a time when we didn’t know the first few steps.
RRW: When were you able to get back into your home?
JS: We moved back in the first week of April.
RRW: That must have been an incredibly emotional day.
JS: We were in the house less than a week and there was another fire just a few miles west of us. So, it’s funny, I don’t really remember the joy of moving back in because within a few days there was another really frightening fire really nearby. The proximity and the look of it was just really similar to the Marshall Fire, and thank God it stayed really small. The fire department did a great job and put it out, and no homes were burned. But, I couldn’t believe that the weekend we moved home, we had to relive that fear again.
RRW: That’s really sobering.
JS: I have a better understanding how incredibly helpless you feel as an individual when these natural disasters make a home around your home. You know, when they settle in place around you –whether it’s a flood, or a fire, or a terrible snow storm– you just ride it out. Yeah, I have a better connection to just how powerless you are in the midst of when it’s going on.