T&FN Interview — Shelby Houlihan

Houlihan kicked off her ’19 campaign with yet another national title, this one in cross country. (VICTOR SAILER/PHOTO RUN)

Shelby Houlihan 1999—Finishes 2nd in the Sioux City first-grade cross country race, a crushing 100 seconds behind the winner over a mile. Decides to forge on despite finishing on the upward side of 10:00. “Never give up!” she says of it.

Shelby Houlihan 2011—Wins the 400, 800, 1500 at the Iowa HS finals, capping the weekend with an anchor on the victorious 4×4. She is rightly regarded as a local legend for Sioux City’s East High.

Shelby Houlihan 2014—Wins the NCAA 1500 for Arizona State with the slowest winning time in 15 years, putting together a 61.74 last lap to outkick her pursuers. “I was kind of scared the last 100, hoping no one would catch me.”

Shelby Houlihan 2018—Wins her first Diamond League meet, Pre, with her first ever sub-4:00. A month later wins the USATF 1500 by producing a stunning homestretch dash to cap a 57.66 final lap. This time, there was no fear in the final 100. She wins the 5000 the next day, and later in the summer crushes the world’s top runners with her 3:57.34 at Lausanne. Two weeks later, she destroys the American Record in the 5000 with a 14:34.45.

Now 26, the Iowa native finished ’18 sitting atop the World Rankings in the 1500, less than 4 years after she left Arizona State as a 12-time All-America and moved to Portland, where she embraced the coaching of Jerry Schumacher and the camaraderie of Nike’s Bowerman Track Club.

Since then she has become a formidable contender for the podiums in Doha and Tokyo. Her ace move is a finishing kick so devastating it leaves fans gaping and rivals gasping. Her strength, though, is the incubator of that speed, and she has never been stronger.

Taking advantage of this year’s longer strength-building phase—thanks to having a World Championships in September/October—Houlihan showed us her progress at the USATF XC, where she won in 32:47, her first-ever race at 10K. She has decided she won’t run the World Cross, so she is back to preparing for the coming track season.

T&FN: Have you come down off the high from winning USATF cross country nationals?

Houlihan: I was definitely on a high for a little bit. It made me excited to maybe see what I could do on the track. Not that I’ll be doing that anytime soon, but I think it’ll be a fun and exciting challenge. Going out there and having Marielle [Hall] and Amy [Cragg] and Karissa [Schweizer] and Courtney [Frerichs] with me, it kind of felt like we were doing a workout. Not physical-wise, but mentally it made it a little easier. It was a really cool experience. I’m glad I went and did that.

T&FN: Was there a little bit of a fear factor beforehand because you were stretching the edge of your envelope?

Houlihan: There were a lot of good competitors in there and I wanted to win. I go into every race wanting to win, obviously. But I felt like this was more like if I did it and I didn’t do well, I could let myself off the hook a little bit because I hadn’t done any 10Ks, so that kept the pressure off a little bit. But yeah, I was definitely nervous going into it. Just unsure of how it would feel and how it would hurt, I guess.

T&FN: Some have called that race one of the greatest gatherings of U.S. distance talent ever.

Houlihan: Definitely. I was racing women that I’ve never raced before. I’ve seen them, I’ve watched them race, but I don’t know if I’ve ever actually even raced Courtney or Amy before. [Edit: the Tallahassee race made Houlihan 5-0 lifetime against Frerichs—4 of them in mass participation off-track races—and 1-0 against Cragg.] All around it was kind of a different competition than what I’ve been used to. That made it more exciting as well. Just gave it that uncertain factor of… “I don’t know what’s going to happen here.”

T&FN: Was there any point during the race, where you worried that maybe your kick wouldn’t be there at the end of 10K?

Houlihan: There wasn’t really. Once I got in the race, all of that fear went away. I didn’t know what pace we were running, but it just felt comfortable and I felt like I could run that all day. I definitely had a good day as far as how it felt. I felt very in control the whole time. My biggest worry was staying in it until the last K or so just to be able to use a kick and even hoping that I wouldn’t be too gassed by the time I needed to kick. And I looked at the 9K mark and I was like, “I still feel really, really good so I’m just going to squeeze the last K and ended up being able to win doing it that way.”

T&FN: Did you raise your training volume to prepare for the race?

Houlihan: Not really. Every year I raise my weekly mileage a little bit. Usually it’s by 10 miles a week every year since probably 2011 and this year we just raised it by 5. I’m running like 85 miles a week this year. So that was really the only big difference other than we usually do strength training in the fall to get ready for the season and we have extended that. Mostly I’ve just been doing strength training still just because it’s going to be such a long season.

T&FN: Does your success at 10K have any bearing on whether you will concentrate on the 1500 for the next two championship seasons or move back to 5000?

Houlihan: I haven’t really talked to my coach about it too much. I personally would like to stick with the 1500. I just like it a lot and I feel as if more of my instincts kick in a little better on the 1500s than they do on the 5K. I’m still trying to learn how to run the 5K competitively at the world level. So I think the 1500 right now, I really enjoy it and I hope I can stick with that for a little bit.

T&FN: You mentioned going into every race trying to win. When was the last time you were at a starting line knowing that you had no chance?

Houlihan: London at the World Champs two years ago now [where she finished 13th in the 5000]. Going in, you always tell yourself, “I’m going out to win.” But at that point I didn’t really feel like I believed that and just came away from that race really, really disappointed. I didn’t put myself in the race and I kind of fell off the back and just didn’t perform as well as I should have as per how fit I was at the time. That one really got me. The next year I made that promise to myself to attack every race and put myself up in the front and in contention, just to see where that got me. Obviously that’s been working out pretty well.

T&FN: I’m curious about the psychology of how a racer that has to maintain a high level of confidence processes the occasional bad race in a way that’s constructive. How do you do that?

Houlihan: I think it’s kind of a balance. Personally, after London, on the cooldown I just stopped and cried. I was so disappointed. I just let myself feel whatever I’m feeling for a little bit. And then, you know, you just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and say, “OK, this is not how I want to feel. I don’t want to feel this way again. So what did I do wrong? What can I do better, how can I make myself better for the next time?” And I just try to take away as many positives as I can from that situation and apply it to the races that I run in the future.

And the next time I get on the line it’s like a clean slate. I don’t think about what happened before. It’s just a new race, a new day. That’s probably the best way to go about it, for me at least. You can’t put that pressure on yourself. Everyone has bad days and it just happens so you can’t make it more than what it is.

Houlihan won the USATF 1500 & 5000 titles the same way last year; with a searing kick. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

T&FN: Last year on the track, you ended up on top of the world in the 1500. Even so, do you have any regrets about the season?

Houlihan: I do, actually. I almost had a perfect season but I ended up getting 2nd in the Brussels Diamond League Final and then the Continental Cup. Those were both races that I think would have been easier for me if I had felt like I had done everything I could and still got 2nd. But coming off of those races, I think I just raced poorly and made some stupid mistakes. If I hadn’t, I could have maybe won both of those races. So that was just a little frustrating.

But at the same time, throwing that positive spin on it, it’s better to learn those racing strategy things in an off-year. I’m getting ready for World Championships this year and Olympics the next year. That was the best year to do it. I can’t be too disappointed with it. I mean, a few months earlier I would have been pumped about getting 2nd in the Diamond League Final, but I’m walking away disappointed now. Putting everything in perspective, I still had a great year.

T&FN: Which races last year do you look back on with pride?

Houlihan: Pre was most special because that was really my first race where I stuck my nose in it. I did a good job [at USATF Indoor] and at World Indoor, but I didn’t quite commit, I still kinda had that doubt in myself. Pre was the first time that I just attacked. I felt that I could win that race, but I wasn’t really expecting to. So that was confirmation for me: “OK, I am good enough, I should be putting my nose in it and competing with these women.” It kind of made it easier to do that the rest of the year.

And then USAs, proving to myself that Pre wasn’t really a fluke. It wasn’t just I had a good race on the day. I was actually competing well and I was really in shape and coming out with that win in the 1500, I was pretty nervous about that. It just proved to me that I was strong enough to compete against some of the best in the world. Plus doing it in Des Moines with all my family there was pretty fun. It was exciting. (continues)

T&FN: A year ago we talked about barrier-breaking because you were so close to some of the magic barriers. Now you’ve got a sub-4:00 in the 1500 and a sub-15 in the 5000. But that sub-2:00 in the 800 is still out there [her PR is 2:01.12 from the ’14 NCAA].

Houlihan: It’s still there. I tried to get Jerry to let me do an 800 last year and he thought about it but we just couldn’t find one that matched up in the schedule. So I’m hoping he’ll let me do one this year, but we’ll see.

T&FN: It is your Twitter and Instagram handle after all, @shelbo800.

Houlihan: I know! That’s why I want to do it so everyone will kind of be quiet about me changing my twitter handle (laughs). I’m going to prove to everybody that I can still run a really fast 800. At this point, I feel I can break 2:00. It’s just getting in the right race.

T&FN: You’ve working been with Jerry for 4 years now. That’s a magical cycle in our sport, the 4-year cycle. How has your coaching relationship evolved?

Houlihan: I think Jerry and I have gotten a little closer as the years have gone on. This last year he started maybe trusting me more. I came into 2018 pretty out of shape because I just really needed a big mental break after 2017, after London. The first few workouts, it was a struggle. I was barely finishing some of them and I think that kind of scarred him a little bit. Even through USATF Indoor and after Indoor Worlds, he was like, “You know, I don’t think we’re really in that great of shape right now. I think we’re just drawing off of the year before.”

And in my mind I was like, “I think I am in shape. I do think I’m in shape.” But yeah, I think once this last year happened he started realizing that I kind of know what I’m talking as far as my body goes. He was trusting me a little more. And I think it also opened both of our eyes up to maybe what I could be capable of in the future. I feel like we still have a long way to go as far as training goes. There’s still a lot more that can be done, which is pretty exciting.

T&FN: Now that the world knows about your kick, do you get the sense that people are racing differently against you?

Houlihan: I have definitely noticed that more people have figured out who I am. From what I saw last year at the Diamond League Final, Laura [Muir] getting out and having that jump on me going into the last lap… I think what’s going through people’s minds is trying to get as far away from me as they can going into the last lap and obviously that worked last year. So it’s also me taking notes and learning how to be better about staying up in the top going into that last lap. But I don’t know that a ton of people are really changing up their race plans. Maybe. I mean it’s hard for me to tell.

T&FN: Your sister Shayla was a notable runner. Was she the only one of your siblings who ran competitively?

Houlihan: Shayla really is the only one; she ran professionally for Brooks and now she’s coaching at Cal. She’s really the only one that pursued running in the way that I did.

T&FN: Being 8 years older than you, did she play a special role in your running development?

Houlihan: In high school, she was helping me at times, giving me workouts over winter breaks. Me, her and my mom would always go out and run together on holidays. She’s definitely played a big role and even today, like after my races, I’ll first call my mom and then Shayla will text me and kind of talk about it. I think my family members are probably some of my biggest fans, so this is really cool.

T&FN: Shayla was a solid steeplechaser (U.S. Ranked No. 7 in ’10). Yet the steeple is the one event you haven’t put your toe in yet. What’s her opinion about you and the steeplechase?

Houlihan: She does not want me to run the steeplechase because she wants to have the fastest PR in the family [laughs]. Yes! I mean, she does! I was actually considering doing the steeple last year. I started training for it and hurdling and everything and she was getting nervous about it. And then I ran a fast 1500 at Pre and that idea got swept out the window. So there was talk of me doing one but her record will stand for a little longer at least.

T&FN: But it’s not out of the question that someday you might line up in a steeple.

Houlihan: It’s not out of the question at this point. It’s probably not going to happen. But you know, who knows, I like doing new things and I feel like I would love the steeple. I don’t know, it just looks exciting to me. So we’ll see.

T&FN: In racing, you have to have nerves of steel to be a kicker the way you are. It’s a patience game. Is the act of racing still fun for you?

Houlihan: Oh yes. That is why I do it. It’s why I run, I love racing. I don’t care what distance it is. Obviously I have my favorites, but as long as I get to go out there and race, and kind of just throw myself in it and have a chance to prove myself, I love it. It’s the best feeling.

T&FN: Every runner, especially at your level, has the Olympic gold on their bucket list. What else is on your list? What do you really need to do to feel complete?

Houlihan: I do have a bucket list actually. I try to do at least one thing on it every single year because I feel like I don’t want to be old and never have done anything. I try to make a point to cross things off as I go and add things and all this stuff. Like this year I actually went and I saw a Cubs game at Wrigley, which was really fun. I ended up taking my parents to Ireland; my dad has always wanted to go to Ireland and just never did it and he’s always made excuses why he can’t go. So I was like, “You know what, I’m just going to plan this trip and you don’t have to do anything, just hop on this plane and go with me.” That was really fun. We spent a week in Ireland driving around the country. And then I also went to Harry Potter World in Florida. It was a good time.

I think as far as running stuff goes, I mean, ever since I was little, ever since I started running, I wanted all of that stuff. I want to win an Olympic gold medal and have World Records, American Records and basically I just want to be one of the best in the world. I’ve always felt like that was something that I was capable of. And I think that half the battle is just believing in yourself. So I’m excited to see where my career takes me and I’m happy to see that it’s kind of on that path.

I’m at the point where it’s like, it’s fine, I’m not going to be super disappointed if I never get those things, because this is just something that I love and I’m enjoying every day that I get to do it. That’s the bigger part of it for me.

T&FN: You’ve already accomplished so much, and you’ve only just turned 26.

Houlihan: It makes me really excited about it. And last year, not that it was unexpected, but… I felt at some point things would start clicking like that. I just didn’t really expect it to be last year. I thought maybe when I’m 27 or 28, you know, those supposed peak years. But I’m excited to get the ball rolling and it’s exciting to kind of think about what I could do the next 4, 8 or 10, whatever years.

T&FN: Do you see yourself having one of those endless, Lagat-style careers?

Houlihan: I hope so. As long as everything goes well and I can continue to stay healthy and all that stuff, I would love to do this as long as my body will let me. So I don’t know if that means 35 or what. I think Shalane [Flanagan] is 37 right now and she’s amazing. She’s still kicking butt. I can always move up in distance as well. I’m not scared to change events and try new things. So I think that also leaves the doors open for a while.

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