Focus On The U.S. Women’s 5000

Shelby Houlihan & Elise Cranny could be major players in the OT 5000… or concentrate their efforts elsewhere. (MIKE SCOTT)

TRUTH: the women’s 5000 has not been America’s best event historically. Not even close, in an event which debuted in the World Championships in ’95 and in the Olympics a year later. In the history of the OG/WC, some 19 races, not once has an American woman even stepped on the podium, the high in each meet being a 9th.

But one race last summer is among our reasons for excitement about the 12½ lapper. Two American women went under the AR and moved to spots 12 and 14 on the all-time world list. Since the flame left Rio’s Olympic cauldron in ’16, only 7 other women on earth have run as fast. They won’t all be contesting the Tokyo.

Suddenly, it seems America is in the game and not just because of the two who broke the record most recently. The event boasts a wealth of talent, and some of these athletes have proven themselves to be savvy racers on the international scene. In all, 7 of the top 10 in U.S. history, including the top 4, are potentially still in the mix; No. 5 all-time at 14:44.80 is this month’s T&FN Interview subject, recently retired Shalane Flanagan.

However, the narrative for the event stateside has been significantly affected by the change in the meet schedule which puts both it and the 1500 in the first few days of the Trials. The finals are now scheduled 35 minutes apart on Day 4.

That means that assuming the schedule is running like clockwork, a wannabe doubler would have less than a half hour after an extremely competitive 1500 to gather herself for an extremely competitive 5000.

Fuhggedaboutit! None of the top contenders are looking at that as a possibility, though some of the longer distance types are contemplating another double, whether to run the 5000 final 5 days before the 10,000 final.

Which leads the wily prognosticator to the next conundrum: who’s going to choose the 5000 over the 1500? At least three of our top contenders in each are faced with the choice, and they’re all waiting to get some serious racing in before making their decision.

The Contenders

At first, we wanted to divide this into the 1500 types and the 5000 specialists, but there’s really no such thing as a 5000 specialist these days. It seems like they all share an affinity with Jenny Simpson, who says, “My heart is in the 1500.”

Shelby Houlihan is key to the conversation. Now 28, she set that American Record of 14:23.92 last summer in Portland. She opted for the 5000 at the ’16 Olympics and ’17 Worlds. In ’18 she won both events at the USATF Champs and racked up some big finishes in Europe. In ’19, having won the USATF double again, she opted for the shorter race in Doha, placing 4th in an AR 3:54.99. Her plan when Houlihan spoke with T&FN a year ago was to double at the Trials. We’re now guessing she might be leaning to the 1500 these days, but we have no reason to be confident in that guess.

Karissa Schweizer is a sure thing for the 5000, and she says the big question is whether she will come back for the 10,000. Last summer she was right behind Houlihan in that 5K, moving to No. 2 among Americans with her 14:26.34. The 24-year-old’s recent breakthrough includes a 4:00.02 and a 30:47.99. In other words, should she make the team, she’s fast enough and strong enough to be a podium contender on the world stage.

Shannon Rowbury is a formidable 5000 threat, even at age 36. She has a PR of 14:38.92 (’16), twice she’s been a WC finalist in the event, and given that she twice placed 4th in the OG 1500, she clearly knows how to race in a fast crowd. Stronger than ever after the birth of her daughter, last summer she ripped times of 4:02.56 and 14:45.11 on the Euro circuit.

Elise Cranny, 25, put herself in the conversation with a 14:48.02 PR last summer in Portland, finishing just ahead of steepler Courtney Frerichs. Primarily a 1500 runner in the past, the Stanford alum looks like a threat at both the 5K and 10K (where she is now the No. 3 American ever at 30:47.42).

Vanessa Fraser, also 25, produced a big 14:48.51 indoors in early ’20, but lost a good chunk of time in the summer with Achilles problems and double surgery on her heels. Since then, she’s run one 10K (32:09.57 PR) and worked through a stress reaction in her femur. If her Instagram posting is any indication, she can’t wait to get to a starting line. If healthy, she’s a team contender.

Jenny Simpson has made no secret of the fact that she prefers the shorter race, but she is keeping the door open to the 5000. While her 5K PR (14:56.26) dates back to ’13, she ran an indoor 14:58.67 in early ’20. Whether or not she makes the jump to the longer event at age 34 depends on what she and her coaches see as she starts racing this season. A rough opening 1500 in Eugene did not settle the question. “I’ll call that a rust-buster,” she says.

Allie Buchalski, 26, hasn’t been U.S.-ranked yet but is improving quickly as a member of the Brooks Beasts. Last summer she overcame injury problems and worked with a sports psychologist to get her edge back. It seems to be working; the Furman grad ripped off a quick 14:57.54 PR for 2nd behind Emily Sisson in March.

Elle Purrier, 26, chose the 5000 as her main event in ’19, placing 3rd at USATF and 11th in Doha in a PR 14:58.17. However, her splash of big speed in the pre-pandemic ’20 indoor circuit probably has her looking much more closely at the 1500 now. She ran a an AR 4:16.85 to win the Millrose mile. Then in August, after a quiet pandemic spring 2020 at home in Vermont, she cruised a low-key local 1500 in 4:00.77. Reportedly her coach, Mark Coogan, says she’s leaning 75% toward the 1500.

Rachel Schneider is showing more strength than ever at age 29. While she might be tempted to try the 1500 — where she ran a 4:02.26 en route to a 4:20.91 mile in Monaco in ’19 — she says she’s more likely to attempt the 5K/10K double. Between her 1500 best and her December 10K of 31:09.79, it would seem she is ready to improve her 15:06.71 PR at 5000 by a healthy margin.

Alicia Monson, 22, an NCAA Indoor champ for Wisconsin, is training in Colorado under the guidance of Dathan Ritzenhein as part of the new On Athletics Club. She’s already improved her PR to 15:07.65 and last December she took nearly 2:00 off her 10K best with a 31:10.84. She’s probably a good bet to double though her coach says the decision still has to be made.

Lauren Paquette, 34, has U.S.-Ranked in the 5000 on 3 occasions and last summer ran a PR 15:10.01. Since then she has fought through some hamstring problems but says she is ready to race again.

The 10,000 Types

Then there are those that are fuzzy crystal ball says may be more likely to focus solely on the 25-lapper.

Molly Huddle, now 36, has plenty of good credentials at 5000, with a 14:42.64 PR (’14) and several Olympic/World finals to her credit. Yet she has done better on the world stage at the 10,000 and says her training is focused on that event.

Molly Huddle will come into the OT as reigning 5000 champ, but will she run it? (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

Marielle Hall, 29, is probably also a better pick at the 10,000, where she placed 8th at the ’19 Worlds in a PR 31:05.71. However, with the 5000 first, she might consider the double. Her 5K best, 15:02.27, is from ’19. So far this year, she’s shown us a 9:05.72 and a 31:21.78 in her specialty.

Gwen Jorgensen, 35, has been generally assumed to be a 10K hopeful, but a recent PR in the 5 (15:08.28) might give her the impetus to double. The triathlon gold medalist from Rio, she has skipped the Nike Bowerman Club’s altitude phase after she and her coaches agreed it hasn’t worked well for her.

Emily Sisson, 29, has been flourishing in the longer distances, but a recent visit to the 5000 gave her a surprise PR 14:55.82. However, she has said she won’t be doubling. A win in the recent USATF 15K Championships in a snappy 48:09 speaks well for her strength.

Emily Infeld, though she’s run a 14:51.91 indoors (’20), tends to opt for the 10K in the big meets, where she won the World bronze in ’15. At 31 she reports that training is going well and her speed is progressing. Two February races looked quite good: an 8:51.63 for 3K and a PR 31:08.57 for 10.

Kim Conley has been a 2-time Olympian in the 5000. At 35, will she concentrate more on the 10,000? Don’t ask us. We’re just guessing here. In March she ran a 4:16.14 for 1500 in a low-key meet in Scottsdale, so she has some speed. And her 5000 seasonal best is 15:17.66, not too terribly far from her ’19 PR of 15:05.20. She’s a gritty racer and should have an impact in whatever she chooses.

Whoever shows up on the Hayward Field starting line for the last race of the day on June 21, we know that it will probably take sub-14:45 fitness to finish in the top 3. The race — whether fast from the gun or slow and tactical — will likely give us our finest 5000 team ever. And that bodes well for the possibility that an American might finally step on that podium.