Shelby Houlihan Deadly When The Sprinting Starts

The 1500 field was close to Houlihan at the bell; at the finish, not so much. (MIKE SCOTT)

It was that kick. More than anything. In Des Moines, Shelby Houlihan won national titles Nos. 6 & 7 in the last 15+ months.

But that kick! Twice!

“The huge focus this whole time is just getting to that point where I can be in these fast races and still have the kick,” explained the 25-year-old Arizona State alum. “So it’s finally coming around.”

In a big way. On Saturday she was a close 4th as the 1500 hit the bell, but among those ahead of her was Jenny Simpson, no slouch at last-lap speed. But nobody could match Houlihan’s scintillating 57.66. On Sunday it was the 5000, where she was a close 2nd with a lap to go. Once again she sped away, with a 62.85 closer that was remarkable for the speed she unleashed in the straightaway, covering the last 100 in 12.9, lifting like a sprinter to conclude her double.

For the woman with a fatal kick, the race is a waiting game. Her Bowerman TC coach Jerry Schumacher told her to wait until at least the final 400 before moving to the front. So no matter how good Houlihan felt—and she felt great—she had to hold back.

“I think the biggest thing in my mind is just to stay calm,”she explained. “I’m constantly having these thoughts, like ‘I feel really good, just stay calm.’ It was kind of just random. I was listening to the music a little bit as I was running just to kind of get a rhythm, but I knew going into the last lap that I had a huge kick left. The whole last lap I was just like, ‘Not yet,’ until about 200 to go. In racing, it’s good to have patience in that way to be the last one to show your cards. It’s something I’ve been practicing the last 7 years. I’ve seen other people with huge kicks so I was just hoping that it would be enough to come out with the win.”

Managing the double was not a big thing for the Iowa native. “Usually I recover really well, I take that really seriously,” she said. “As soon as I’m done getting my cooldown, I’m eating right, drinking a lot of water and going to sleep. I’ve been able to come back feeling pretty much like the same each day.”

This wasn’t the first time she’s pulled off a national title double. At the ’17 Indoor, she won the mile/2M pairing in slow tactical times at altitude a day apart. This winter she did it again, taking the 3000/1500 a day apart, and then producing an 8:50.38/4:11.93 double at the World Indoor over the course of 3 days, with a 1500 heat in the middle. That landed her a 5th (3K) and a 4th in Birmingham and suddenly she could be considered an international threat.

An 8:36.01 indoors at Boston and her first Diamond League win with a smashing 3:59.06 over Laura Muir and Jenny Simpson at the Prefontaine Classic have only underscored her membership among the world’s elite.

“That’s the big thing with international races,” she says. “They’re a little more tactical. I think having that kick in my back pocket—if it’s a slow race—it’s a big advantage for me. We’ll see how it works out.” As she told T&FN during the winter season, her steady growth as a runner has been a long process: “I really think slowly chipping away, workouts getting harder, getting older, maturing as well, all those things I’m hoping will come together at the right moment and I just have to be patient for it.”

Now she heads to Lausanne for another DL 1500 in a summer that will focus on the shorter distance. Her dance card only has one more 5000 currently on it, where she hopes to run in the 14:40s. That is something that only 4 U.S. women—led by Shannon Rowbury’s 14:38.72 AR—have ever accomplished.

“I feel like I am focusing on the 5K right now and I’ve been able to put some really awesome 1500 performances out there,” she said. “I think it’s mostly just working on that aerobic strength so that I can get to the end of a faster 1500 and still have a 28-second last 200.” She adds, “Mostly focusing on getting strong for the 5 has really helped my 1500.” And the mental preparation has been crucial, she adds, “Trying to give myself confidence, like ‘You belong here, you’re good enough to win these races.’ ”

Of that there’s no longer any doubt.