Shelby Houlihan’s Afterburners Ready To Be Lit Again

After regularly outkicking her U.S. rivals Shelby Houlihan is ready to unleash big stuff against the international set. (MIKE SCOTT)

THE EIGHTH IN A SERIES of event-focus articles on the U.S. women’s 1500, an event on a hot streak and one in which we expect to see fierce-fierce racing when the competitive trek toward the Tokyo Olympics resumes.

“WE BECOME WHAT WE BEHOLD. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”

Case in point, Shelby Houlihan, 1500 American Record holder, the Bowerman TC’s Rio Olympics 5000 finalist who stepped down to the 1500 in ’18 and has rated No. 1 among Americans in the metric mile the past two seasons. The quote is often attributed to media critic Marshall McLuhan although evidence suggests the words may have originated with a colleague.

No matter. The spike fits Houlihan, 27, who took her 1500 pedigree from her college career at Arizona State, steeped it for three seasons in Bowerman coach Jerry Schumacher’s endurance-building program and emerged as the No. 1 World Ranker for ’18 with a blinding finish befitting her prep history as an Iowa state champion in the 400 and 4×4 (plus 800 and 1500). Yet she has also successfully doubled at the USATF Champs in the 1500 and 5000 the past two years, dropped the American Record in the 12½-lapper to 14:34.45 and prevailed at the ’19 USATF Cross Country over 10K.

That thar’s a full toolbox. “I ran the 15 in college pretty much the whole time,” Houlihan says of her evolution. “I was able to win an NCAA title [’14]. I think my first year pro I kind of switched over to the 5K. I had some work to do just building that aerobic base more. I always had that seed and I always had a kick at the end of races if it was slow enough.

“But it was like my struggle was being aerobically strong enough to be able to have my kick off of fast paces. That wasn’t ever able to click just because I had some catching up to do in terms of that. I never really ran a lot of mileage in high school and I was really, really slow to build that in college just ’cause I was more focused on not getting hurt.”

Houlihan cites as her game-changing moment the 2018 Pre Classic, “my first big win and the first time I broke 4:00 [3:59.06],” outsprinting World Indoor silver medalist Laura Muir and Jenny Simpson. At that year’s outdoor Nationals Houlihan blasted her final circuit in 57.66. At last summer’s World Champs Trials she waited till the last backstretch before bolting yet still pulled off a fastest-in-the-field 60.59 closing circuit.

Few will forget how the World Championships final 9 weeks later in Doha went. The Netherlands’ Sifan Hassan front-ran all prospects of a kicker’s race into oblivion. Houlihan, formcharted for a medal, came tantalizingly close as her 3:54.99 for 4th in one of the event’s all-time great races cut 1.30 from Shannon Rowbury’s American Record.

“That was a bittersweet race, obviously,” Houlihan says. “I felt like I was the most prepared that I had ever been going into a World Championship or that type of championship race. And I was super-confident and I kind of had that mindset of, ‘I don’t care what happens, I’m gonna walk away with a medal here. I’m in great shape. I think I’m in around 3:54 shape.’

“And I did that, which was awesome. To be able to string together everything and know that you’re in this type of shape and actually go out and do it, that’s an achievement in itself. But yeah, I kinda just went into that race very confident. I was like, ‘If I’m in 3:54 shape, there’s no way I don’t medal.’ You know, statistically or historically, in races that should medal.”

When Hassan, winner of the 10,000 just a week earlier, punched the accelerator just 300m into the race, “I was actually surprised that she did take it just because she had done so many races up to that point,” Houlihan admits. “But it didn’t feel super uncomfortable up until maybe 300 to go. I was trying to kind of find some gears and that last finishing kick and it wasn’t really there. I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I don’t have a kick this time,’ and just trying to hold on and try to reel in some people. I ended up having to settle for 4th but it was still good for an American Record. So I mean that was one of my goals for that year, to get that 1500 American Record. So I was happy to be able to at least walk away with that.”

Let the splits show, too, that Houlihan was hardly left flat-footed. Her 61.82 last lap was the fourth-fastest of anyone’s and her 16.07 final 100 stacked up as swiftest in the field.

Over and above her record achievement on the clock and adding an outdoor Worlds 4th-place showing to her World Indoor 4th (and 3000 5th) from ’18, Houlihan added some psychological armor to her toolkit.

“Yeah, not being able to medal was definitely hard,” she says. “I was just kind of expecting it of myself to be able to go out and do that and wasn’t going to take no for an answer, which is, I think, what I need to have in those types of races. And I think that was a good step mentally for me. I’ve just got to keep carrying that over into the Olympic year, I guess next year, and continuing that. But I thought that was a good step and I’m just gonna keep putting my head down and training harder and obviously 3:54 isn’t fast enough so I gotta get a little faster. I’m proud but I’m definitely not totally satisfied.”

Before the pandemic locked down the Olympic campaign, Houlihan authored a highly productive indoor season in February, winning a fourth straight 1500/3000 (or mile/2M) double at the USATF Indoor. At that month’s end she moved to No. 2 on the absolute (indoors or out) U.S. all-time list in the 3000 with an 8:26.66 clocking behind training mate Karissa Schweizer.

On the topic of doubling Houlihan is clear. She intends to run both the 1500 and 5000 at the Olympic Trials next year even though the Tokyo Games schedule precludes serious consideration of racing both there.

Ever since orders to shelter in place came down in March, Houlihan says, “We’re kind of just trying to treat this season as normally as possible. Obviously we don’t race a ton [in normal seasons], so it’s not that different than normal. The only difference, I guess, is we don’t really know. When are we supposed to be peaking? And we don’t have races to necessarily look forward to. But I think we’re kind of just gonna make do with what we have and if opportunities come about then we’ll be ready for those. But if they don’t, then I think we’re gonna maybe do our own little time trials as a group. ’Cause I feel like we have enough athletes on our team that are high enough caliber to still feel that, do those hard-hit time trials.”

One imagines those runs against the clock will be hammerin’ fast by the standards of most. Even in April Houlihan was hard after it on the track with small groups of clubmates.

“My little group is Colleen [Quigley] and Karissa and we’ll just meet on workout days and do the workouts together,” Houlihan says. “It would be a little harder to get these workouts done alone cause we’re still doing some hard-hit workouts. But we try to be conscious of if there are other people on the track, the whole social-distancing thing. But we’ve tried to limit our exposure to other people to just our workout group. Just us and our watches and then we send Jerry our splits. He just said he has to trust us that we’ll run the right paces and we don’t always run the right paces.”

How far ahead of the coach’s program do the women get? On the day we spoke for this article, Houlihan admitted, “We ran about 10 seconds too fast on our last mile, but I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

And what does 10 seconds too fast mean? “Like a 4:34 mile,” she says. “It wasn’t supposed to be that fast.”

Off the track, Houlihan has waxed creative with filling time as many of us have since mid-March. “I have kind of started trying new cooking recipes, just finding random recipes on Instagram and by buying some new cookbooks,” she says. “I feel like I can get into a routine of making the same things over and over again each week, and so I’m trying to branch out. I’m going to try homemade gnocchi tonight, so that’s gonna be interesting. I made homemade fettuccine noodles less last week, which was fun. I’m just kinda trying to learn how to have some more good meals in my cycle of meals.

“And outside of that I’ve been playing a lot of video games.” Mostly Call of Duty with boyfriend Matthew Centrowitz. “It’s been kind of fun, actually,” she says. “I don’t feel the need to have that strict 10:00 PM bedtime, wake up at 7:00 AM. I don’t really feel like I need to be that regimented. So I’m kind of going to bed at midnight or 2:00 AM and sleeping in. I’m trying to be as relaxed as possible.”

In her off hours, anyway. Until it’s time to race again and turn on those trademark afterburners.