Jenny Simpson Still Going Strong… But In Which Event?

Jenny Simpson was blown away when she broke 4:00 at the ’09 Pre Classic. To this day she remains the only collegian ever to break 4:00 and the call of the 1500 remains strong. But what about the 5000?… (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

“IT HAS BEEN THE LONGEST stretch of my career, probably since middle school, that I’ve gone without racing,” notes Jenny Simpson. “Since the dawn of my interest in running at all, I’ve never gone this long without racing.”

We last saw America’s most bemedaled woman distance runner on the track back in February of ’20, when she made a rare foray into the 5000 and came away with a 14:58.67 best, then the No. 3 U.S. indoor performance ever.

Of her hiatus the 34-year-old Colorado alum says, “You’re not the first person to ask, ‘What’s that like?’ and I feel I don’t really know yet.” She’s looking forward to racing at the end of April to straighten out her thoughts on the time away. “[Whether] I won’t miss a beat, or if it’s really going to take a toll, I will know that better once I get out there and start racing again.”

In any case, one of the many effects of the pandemic was that Simpson enjoyed the rare treat of staying home over the summer. “Your goal is to be healthy and be racing and making teams. And I’ve had this incredible fortune of a long streak of summers where I’m out on the road. In 2019, I remember we were headed to the U.S. Championships and it was the first time it felt like this streak of consistently being gone and traveling… it was the first year that it felt like a lot.

“When the pandemic hit and we started to evaluate what options we would have as the dominoes fell, my coaches were just really thoughtful and really incredible and they said, ‘You deserve a summer off; just stay home and enjoy your life. You deserve a break.’

“It’s not that we shut down and stopped training, but we didn’t look for racing opportunities. I got to spend the summer here just training, putting in miles and getting to be kind of a normal person with a dog [Truman, a Jack Russell Terrier] and yard projects.

“It was my first summer home since I’ve been married, my first summer home as an adult. I’ve really tried to just revel in that and be appreciative of it. Looking back on it, I wonder if having that release valve is going to give me more years in my career, because I don’t feel tired anymore and I feel eager again, I feel really enthusiastic about getting out there and racing again.”

As usual, last year coaches Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs had Simpson take an end-of-season break, but this time it came earlier — August — and lasted longer than ever. And she still started on her fall base-training earlier than usual. “It kind of shook up the schedule and I won’t really know if we did it right until I start racing again. But along the way I felt like we made really good decisions.”

She put together a solid winter of training, though she says that the unpredictability of the pandemic resulted in challenges using indoor facilities at the right times and sometimes complicated workouts with training partners. “That’s where some of my experience came in as a strength,” she explains. “If everyone’s dealing with this, then I’m no worse for it. The person that will get through it the best is the person who doesn’t let it rattle them. So I just tried to go with the flow, but even for me, it was hard at times.”

Now looking ahead to the racing season — finally — Simpson is faced with the same mandated choice as many in her event group: 1500 or 5000 at the Trials? And though it has been 10 years since she won her World title in the 1500, she still is not sold on the notion of moving up.

“I’ve tried to imagine my life apart from [the 1500] and it just never seems to work out. [However] I always keep my mind and my heart open to the possibility that there could be another event that’s better suited. It’s just prudent to not be so addicted to one thing if your training tells you could be good at something different. I really encourage young people to keep your mind and heart open to the possibility that you may be great at something else. That’s because I experienced it, going from the steeplechase [where she finished 8th in the ’08 OG and 4th in the ’09 WC] to the 15.

“But the 1500 has my number and that’s what I’m trained for and excited about.” She adds, “I’m qualified in the 5K and the 15 for the Trials. So I’ll keep my options open and be watching how the training goes. If the 15 looks shaky for any reason…” she pauses, then says “but so far, the 1500 hasn’t let me go.”

Yet as any armchair coach is absolutely convinced, Simpson could be so much better at 5000 if only…!

She laughs. “The candid truth is it’s more frustrating — or alluring, depending on the way you look at it — to my coaches than it is to me. I look at my career and the finish lines I’ve run through, and I think, man, I’ve gotten more than I ever dreamed and more than I think I deserve. And I’m never going to look back and say, ‘What if?’ because the version of the career I’ve run, I’m so grateful for.

“The people that bring it up often are Mark and Heather. Even with just a little bit of training last January I ran under 15:00, so it’s out there. I definitely could focus on the 5K and run another PR, and just the curiosity to see what that PR could look like. But I don’t know. I’m curious, but it’s not something that drives my training personally.”

However that choice plays out, Simpson’s opponents know to never count her out. Her career has been filled with successes in the most pressure-filled scenarios. She has qualified for the last 10 World/Olympic teams up for grabs, and then made the finals 8 times, with 4 podium appearances topped, of course, by her ’11 gold.

Always introspective and candid, Simpson will, when asked, explore the reasons she has found so much success. “So few people medal, you kind of have to have everything to make it happen,” she responds. “There’s certainly an amount of talent that you get or you don’t get and that’s not determined by you. And then there’s a work ethic and then there’s an aptitude for some of the technical aspects of it.

“But I think the greatest attribute for a person who is eventually going to go on to medal is that they — and I don’t think this is just in me but I do think I’ve experienced this over and over — you just always think you can win. Even when the odds didn’t dictate that I should feel that way. It doesn’t mean that I feel that way every day or that I feel that way when the plane lands at the location of the next race. But when I toe the starting line, I just always think that I would put my money on me and that has to come from a really genuine and sincere place to work.

“I don’t know if that’s good parenting or good coaching or what, but somewhere along the way and probably all along the way, I’ve had good people speaking into my life and encouraging that part of me that has maybe an unjustified confidence that then turns out to be a really great asset.”

With global championships now happening annually through ’25, Simpson will have plenty more podiums to aim for. She says, “I plan on racing until my talent runs out. That’s my plan, and kind of tongue in cheek, but kind of seriously, I say I thought I would have gotten slower by now. I mean, I’m going to be 35 this summer and I’m doing workouts that are as good as ever for the 1500. Who would have thought that my body and my mind and my will could last this long?”

She mentions her father, who has had the longevity conversation with her many times over the years. “The last time we were together during the pandemic, he said to me, ‘I don’t think you know why you have this longevity’ and that’s the closest thing to the truth.

“So yeah, I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m committed to this. If I still have this talent and I still have people like Mark and Heather, people at the Olympic Training Center, people at the University of Colorado that are willing to dedicate part of their life to my talent, then I’ll keep going.”