T&FN Interview — Emma Coburn

Although she’d like to join the sub-9:00 club, Emma Coburn says, “My need to achieve certain times feels like it’s diminishing.” (MIKE SCOTT)

“THAT’S A LONG WAY TO GO to run two laps,” came the fateful words that changed Emma Coburn’s life. As a high school junior in Crested Butte, Colorado, she heard her dad balk at taking her all the way to Albuquerque (a 12-hour-plus round trip) for an 800 race. He also found a 2000 steeplechase on the schedule and suggested adding that to her dance card. “Oh, I think we could do that,” he said. “I think that’s jumping and you’re athletic.”

Recalls Coburn, “I had played basketball and volleyball and was a skier and I was always a pretty athletic kid and so he thought I would be able to do OK. I went to the college nearby and did some hurdle practice and didn’t hate it.” The rest, as they say, is history. She won the race, took 2nd at high school nationals the next year, got a scholarship to Colorado and now is the greatest steeplechaser in American history, having won a gold, silver and bronze in global competition. (Continued below)

Now Coburn—like everyone else—faces an Olympic year that is filled with uncertainty and a track schedule that in the course of a week became starkly different. She continues to train hard with her husband/coach, Joe Bosshard, and his growing flock. Along with Jamaican steepler Aisha Praught Leer, there’s Maddie Alm, Cory McGee, Dominique Scott-Efurd, Laura Thweatt and Australian Melissa Duncan. On the guys’ side is comebacking 800 star Boris Berian as well as milers Nick Harris, Tripp Hurt and prep standout Cruz Culpepper.

At the time of our mid-March talks, it was just before Stanford had canceled its invitationals, leaving plans for her first outdoor race of the season up in the air.

T&FN: Let’s start with the basics. How’s training going?

Coburn: Training is good. We will head back up to Crested Butte for some altitude training in April. So just enjoying some of the Boulder spring and I’m gearing up to run my very first 10K on the track, April 3rd at the Stanford Invite.

T&FN: That’s big. I was going to ask you if you’re ever going to run a 5000 someday, but a 10K?

Coburn: Yeah. So last year I paced it and it was really surprisingly fun. I paced a little over 4M. So this year, Joe wrote that into the training… I’ll just do it again and this time, I’ll finish it.

T&FN: Has this past winter been good for your training, compared to past seasons?

Coburn: I’ve had winters with injury and winters when I’ve been really fit and healthy. This has been just a pretty average, uneventful winter. I haven’t been hurt or sick. That’s always great when you can get through the winter without any setbacks. But Doha being so late, I didn’t really do anything that intense in training in my winter buildup. I raced in the New Balance Grand Prix and I paced a 1500 and a 5K at BU. I tried to get race sharp for both. But my indoor season wasn’t ever built up to be a really big fast experience. It was just kind of a continuation of building fitness and now that indoor is over, I’m just starting to turn my focus to that 10K. After that I’ll start lowering my distance down a bit and gearing up for the steeple at the Trials.

T&FN: You said it was an uneventful winter, but it’s a very eventful time in our world right now with all the concern about coronavirus. As a world-class athlete, what are your thoughts on dealing with it?

Coburn: I think as athletes, our job is to really train hard and focus on what we can control. I’m training and going through my life as if Tokyo will still happen and the Olympic Trials will still happen. And I’m trying not to get too dialed in and worried about the possibilities of what could happen if this virus keeps spreading all over the world and canceling major global events. So, I’m just training hard and I’m obviously extra mindful of washing my hands—extra extra—and hand sanitizer and making sure that I’m feeling protected. But in terms of a broad approach to my training, it hasn’t shifted anything.

T&FN: Obviously no one knows at this point what’s going to happen with the Olympics. A member of the Japanese organizing committee today said it could be postponed one or even two years [a idea quickly rejected publicly by the committee’s leadership]. What would a curveball such as that be like for you?

Coburn: That’s my first time hearing of that. It would be very weird. I think we as athletes prepare for the Olympics every four years and the World Championships every two years. And it definitely would be disappointing if it were to get delayed because I feel like my preparation for Tokyo has been good and it’s still a fairly long ways away. So, yeah, it would be very disappointing. I hope that doesn’t happen.

T&FN: Let’s change gears and talk about the fun stuff, racing. Last year at Pre, it was very impressive that you came back and ran a 9:04 after falling. What was that experience like?

Coburn: I had previously raced Oslo and I was feeling like I needed to change a little bit of my racing tactics. I was feeling like I should try going out more with the rabbit on that aggressive pace on the outset to see what happens. And so I did. That was my real focus for Pre: getting out harder. And when I fell, that was me just being, not distracted, but I was looking up at the woman who was 30m ahead of me. Hoping I could gain on her and catch her because she had gone out too hard as well and was falling back. It was just a mindless error when I fell, but falling definitely helped refocus me and make me reengage with the race. I think it did cost me a second or two, but I was just overall happy with how that race went. Trying out a new tactic, still running fast, even though I fell. Anytime we get to race a Diamond League on U.S. soil, it’s very special. The crowd was really fun and energetic. Lots of good takeaways.

T&FN: Do you often use early season races to try out things that you might use later on in the championships?

Coburn: I typically get stuck in a bit of a comfort zone of what tactics I like to do and how I like to race. It’s good for me to have races where I can challenge that so that I am ready for whatever scenario happens at the World Championship or the Olympics. But honestly I’m typically using those Diamond League racing experiences to try to run a fast time. That’s why I get a little bit stuck in my same rhythms. I have ways in which I like to run a fast time and splits that I typically like to run to be able to close well and run fast and feel good.

I can find myself getting into a little bit of a rut with my times and pace in some of these early season races because I’m not challenging the tactics. In Oslo, I finished off well [4th in 9:08.42] and it felt like I had run that exact time and that exact race so many times. I sat down with Joe and he was brutally honest about it, like, “We can’t do this again. We have to do something different.” And so I tried something different at Pre and even though I fell it was still a faster time and a higher finish than Oslo, so it was good.

T&FN: I assume you and Joe often sit down and talk about the race plan before the event. Are you good at sticking to the plan or do you improvise a little bit more than we can see as fans?

Coburn: I’m pretty good at sticking to the plan. I like plans. I like having splits and I like having specific objectives. It helps me stay less nervous because I’m just executing a plan. I’m usually good at doing whatever the plan was, but there are times that I feel like I’m doing the plan and then I look back at the race and I realize I did not actually do the plan. Obviously if I fall or if someone falls in front of me and stuff goes crazy or the rabbit goes out faster than we thought, or it goes out slower than we thought, there’s some adapting on the go, but typically it’s all part of the plan.

T&FN: In 2014 when we interviewed you, it was about promise and potential, but now you’ve got three World/Olympic medals. You’ve become one of the best in the world at peaking for the big meet. How do you do that?

Coburn: Over the years my experience has definitely made me feel more calm and confident going into these races. But I think early season it’s just so important to not compare to what other runners are doing. I follow lots of runners on social media and I’m friends with lots of runners and so I know what people are doing, but I never let other people’s behaviors and other people’s training and even early season race results make me think I need to change what I’m doing or make me doubt what I’m doing. There’s a lot of patience that comes when you’ve been doing this for years and years. Trusting in your coach and trusting that it’s a long season. I just kind of give the reins to the coach and say, “All right, you’re in charge of making sure I’m ready and I’ll make sure my mind’s ready.” And it’s worked so far.

T&FN: Looking back at Doha, how did you feel about the silver medal there? Is there anything you would do differently if you got a redo?

Coburn: I’m happy with the silver medal. Going into the race I had previously just run the Zürich Diamond League and went out with Beatrice Chepkoech and I died. I started way too hard. I think I went 2:53 for the first kilometer when I typically would go 3:00 or even 3:03. It was really fast for me and my body did not respond well. So testing that in Zurich, it made me have confidence in what my Doha racing decision needed to be.

Putting pride aside… the two choices were go for it and risk not being on the podium, falling apart and being heartbroken, but having a small chance at winning the race. Or put your ego aside and race with a little bit of patience and poise and hope that my fitness and strength would get me either 2nd or 3rd. It worked out that way. In retrospect, I didn’t know that I would be feeling so good. I made a break with about 600 to go and by the end of the race I wasn’t tapped. So if anything, maybe I should’ve gone that from 800 to go or a 1000 to go. And maybe I would’ve run a second or two faster, but I wasn’t going to reel in Beatrice. I wasn’t going to win.

T&FN: Is the 9:00 barrier starting to get frustrating for you?

Coburn: No, I definitely think that I can run that. I’m feeling strong. Last year, running a PR 9:02 definitely felt comfortable. That’s still a big goal of mine. I think as the years go on, my need to achieve certain times feels like it’s diminishing. Like if I couldn’t run another step starting tomorrow, I would not feel anguish over the fact that I never broke 9:00. But I definitely think it’s still going to happen and it’s a big goal. And to win a medal at these championships, you have to run close to 9:00. Whether or not it happens during the season who knows, but I have to be definitely in sub-9:00 shape to be able to get on that podium.

Coburn has won a record 8 USATF steeple titles, including a record 6 in a row. (VICTOR SAILER/PHOTO RUN)

T&FN: A lot of athletes would find it very challenging to be coached by their spouse. How do you and Joe manage the balance?

Coburn: It’s pretty good for us. We met in high school and Joe has always been more interested in running than I have been. When I was young, I hated running. I didn’t think it was fun at all. It was just painful and scary and intimidating and Joe just truly liked running and he had dreams to run in college. And seeing someone that I liked and admired being so interested in running made me start to see the good in running too.

We met when I was 16, we started dating when I was 17, so he’s been by my side for 12 years as my partner through all of this. He knows me more than I know myself. He’s always been so interested in learning about running and reading what people in the past have done. He’s always eager and somewhat creative with what he likes to do. Because I trust him so much it was a pretty easy—when I was changing my coaching situation, I didn’t want to leave Boulder. Joe was a CPA at the time. And he’s like, “OK, I can coach you for a year and we’ll see how it goes and if you hate it, we can move and you can find something else.” He started coaching me [fall 2016] and then it just immediately started working. That year I won the gold in London and so we just kept it going. The group has grown and he finds a lot of joy in coaching and he’s very good at it.

T&FN: Is he himself still a significant training partner for you?

Coburn: No; as the years have gone on and as I’ve gotten more training partners, he’s done less and less training with me. He used to run a lot with me and he used to pace a lot of our workouts. But now that we have so many other people, he just leaves it up to us.

T&FN: You live near your family and judging from social media, you seem very close. Has that given you stability as an athlete?

Coburn: I lived in Boulder until I was 7 and then moved to Crested Butte, which is a ski town in the mountains about 4 hours away. My parents live there and we go to Crested Butte several months of the year to train because it’s at 9000 feet [c2700m]. But I do have family in Boulder and definitely Boulder is home, but yeah, Crested Butte is also home. And I’m super close with my family.

T&FN: Where would you have been without your dad suggesting you try the steeple 13 years ago?

Coburn: I didn’t really like running. I liked hanging out with Joe. He liked running. And I definitely wouldn’t have run in college had I not discovered the steeplechase, mainly because then I wasn’t really good enough to get recruited without the steeplechase. I wanted to go to CU and just be a regular student. The thought of running in college never crossed my mind until I did that steeplechase. And then my coach at the time, Trent Sanderson, he said, “You could run in college anywhere you want now.” And I was like, “What?” So that definitely changed what my whole life was just based on that one day.

T&FN: How much training do you do? Compared to your peers, are you a high-volume trainer?

Coburn: I think I’m pretty normal, maybe normal to high. I do right now between 85 and 90 miles a week. In the indoor season I was doing less. I was probably only running 65 indoors. During the summer, usually right around 80. I think I vary my mileage more than others might. That again, it’s just a choice Joe makes for me and I’m happy to just follow along.

T&FN: Do you incorporate a lot of cross training?

Coburn: I never cross train. I hate it.

T&FN: Do you spend much time on the barriers in practice?

Coburn: No, we don’t have a water jump or really hurdles. So I don’t really do any except when I’m in Crested Butte. The college there has barriers. Probably starting in April I’ll go over a couple hurdles just in practice to start getting a little bit of form. But I really don’t start incorporating a lot of hurdling into my workouts until right before the end of the season. I just find that it keeps me healthier and since I’ve been doing it for so long, I don’t feel like I need the practice on my form as much as when I was younger. (Continued below)

T&FN: Are you equally comfortable hurdling off either leg?

Coburn: Yeah. Even just in my very first race, I would do both legs and didn’t ever think about it. So yeah, I hurdle and water jump with both.

T&FN: Is there any workout that you get excited about?

Coburn: The workouts that hurt the most are the ones that you can look back on and be really proud of and be excited about, but usually when it gets assigned to you, you know, you’re less excited. But I do love anything on the track, anything between like 400 and 1200m repeats, in that range. I like track sessions.

T&FN: Have you ever thought of leaving the steeple for a while and seeing what you can do in other events?

Coburn: It’s always been tempting, but I still feel like I have a lot of improvements still in the steeple. I don’t want to abandon ship and quit doing what I need to for the steeplechase just to try other events. I still want to compete at the U.S. championships in the steeple, even if there’s not a World Championships or anything.

T&FN: You’ve got to think there’s a sub-15:00 5K in those legs.

Coburn: I think a lot of the training for the steeple overlaps with the 5K—very similar paces and you need a lot of similar strengths. I think I could run a decent 5K. I’m hoping to get to do one this year. It’d be really fun to get a few cracks at a good 5K. The training actually goes really well for both.

T&FN: How much longer do you think you want to keep doing this?

Coburn: As long as my body lets me. I figure that I’ll be doing this for a long time. I’m 29, so I think at least through 2024. Obviously if my body starts protesting then I would retire, but right now I’m feeling good and feel like I’ve got a lot ahead of me still to earn and go get.

T&FN: You’ve become a great spokesperson for the sport. Not just the fact that you’ve achieved a lot on the track, but you’re well-spoken, you’ve got a big social media presence and you’re a huge role model to lots of athletes out there. Does that create an extra pressure or does it just come naturally?

Coburn: Here I am and, you know, I work hard and I’m honest and I care about the people around me and my community. So, yeah, I just feel like I am who I am. And it’s neat that people want to follow along and I hope that people are motivated. If they see something they like on my social media, it’s not like a mask that I have to put on and be like, “OK, this is my role model face.” This is how it is. This is me.