The U.S.’s Potent Women’s Steeplechase Duo

Emma Coburn & Courtney Frerichs pulled off a surprise 1–2 at the ’17 World Championships. (VICTOR SAILER/PHOTO RUN)

AS THE USATF Championships draws near, times are the sign of the times for defending steeplechase world champion Emma Coburn and American Record holder/breakthrough ’17 Worlds silver medalist Courtney Frerichs. Their meeting over the barriers in Des Moines foreshadows a new—pardon the pun—high water mark for the event at a U.S. Nationals.

The pair’s promise in the hurdle-and-splash event was evident when they won NCAA titles—Coburn a pair for Colorado in ’11 & ’13 and Frerichs the ’16 crown before both reached the Olympic final along with Colleen Quigley later that summer. What they’ve done since, of course, is rewrite the U.S. all-time list, elevating steeple standards on these shores. Coburn’s Rio bronze 9:07.63 took the American Record under 9:10 for the first time. Her 9:02.58 in London two years ago in front of Frerich’s 9:03.77 moved the target ahead to the 9:00.00 barrier, and Frerich’s 9:00.85 at the Monaco DL last July put them on the cusp. All 10 sub-9:10 times that head the all-time list have their names attached. Quigley—Frerichs’ Bowerman TC mate who hurdled 9:10.27 to win at the ’18 Berlin IWC meet—looks primed to join the club.

However, after 9:04.90 and 9:09.75 finishes in the loaded Pre Classic race—the first U.S. sub-9:10 marks ever before July—Coburn and Frerichs spoke mainly of a September 30 aim, a podium hunt in the Doha Worlds final in the era of game-raiser Beatrice Chepkoech and her 8:44.32 WR.

Coburn didn’t come to Pre sharp but she came to test herself with her fastest-ever first kilo, 2:56.59. “For sure, yeah,” she said, smiling after her 2nd-place Pre finish. “I think in Monaco last year I was 2:57 or 2:58 [2:57.3] and I think today I was like 2:55. If you have to write splits on how you’re going to run a PR race, that’s definitely not how you do it, but in this event, with how far head Beatrice is, to be in contention you have to get out hard. I tried that last year in Monaco, and died and felt really bad that day. And today I obviously slowed down but I felt a lot more composed than I did a year ago in Monaco when I tried this tactic.”

Coburn, coached by her husband—and former Crested Butte High and Colorado teammate—Joe Bosshard, also won a wrestling match with emotion and controlled response after she fell near the 2K mark. “I was rounding the corner and kind of looking up ahead to the straightaway. I just got distracted and I think I clipped my toe,” she said. “Unfortunately, that was the third race I’ve fallen in this year but today it was fall down, get right back up and try to not let the adrenaline buzzing through your body throw you off, and try and stay calm and just get back into what I was doing. It wasn’t a sub-9 mistake but today was a good day.”

All the jockeying for barrier lines 35 times per race raises the risk of tumbles in the steeple. That’s obvious but also indoors this year in both the New Balance Grand Prix mile and Millrose 3000 fickle fortune and, Coburn surmised, her relative inexperience with close-quarters, tight oval, racing put her on the floor. Chances anyway to condition her response to mishaps.

For Des Moines, the 28-year-old New Balance pro plans to be readier still after her two early-summer DL appearances. “Third’s as good as first” is a Trials race mantra but Coburn is riding a 5-win Nationals streak and owns 7 total titles in her event. Look for her to press enough to shave the contenders to a cozy trio at most on the last lap. “I had only done one steeplechase workout so I knew I was going to be a little rusty leading up to Oslo,” she said, reviewing the young campaign, “and I did one more steeple workout between Oslo and [Pre]. So I think the difference is now having done a total of three steeplechase efforts makes it feel a little bit more comfortable. It’s just slowly sharpening up and trying not to be too perfect too early in the year. So nothing really changed dramatically between here and Oslo but I think since I raced in Oslo I felt a little bit more primed today.”

It showed as the crowd behind Chepkoech hurtled toward the penultimate waterjump. “I saw a clear path and I took it,” Coburn said of her cut to 2nd on the rail. “I often find myself there because there’s so much traffic that you’re just trying to find a space that’s not too chaotic, and that was the spot today.”

Coburn vows not to overthink Chepkoech’s boggling PR as summer racing heats up. “I’m really just focusing on myself,” she said. “I think there are a lot of women that are between 8:55 and 9:08. There’s a lot of people right in that belt, there’s probably 9 of us. So really I have to run 9:00 to medal at Worlds and I’m just going to keep my eye on that target.”

Prepping for the long game is Frerich’s strategy too—guided by coach Jerry Schumacher and with Quigley as a training partner. Her fastest-in-the-field last lap at Pre told her that her fitness is growing. “I’m excited about that,” she said. “We haven’t done much steeple work and our eyes are really on Doha. I wanted to try to kind of go out with the front pack, but with a 2:53 first K I know I’m not ready for that. The execution of the last K, 600, is going to be really important, I think, when I comes to Worlds, and I can work in practice on faster starts after this race now.”

Pulling out the fourth-fastest time of her life in her first ’19 steeple rendered Frerichs understandably upbeat: “I’m pretty excited to open up in the 9-ohs, you know. That’s my fourth [career] 9-oh race so that was the goal this year: find more consistency. I’ve had a much more consistent leadup into this as far as my winter and fall training goes.

“I’ve been really lucky to be healthy my whole career but just my ability to execute workouts and complete workouts, get that higher mileage [is improved this year]. We set a new goal mileage, I’ve upped my mileage [to 85 per week] this year and I was able to reach it in November. It took till February last year. So it’s been a big jump from college. I was doing like 60s, 70s. So that was a big jump and I feel really good about it. I obviously struggled to show my fitness a few months ago because of that high-volume work I was doing, but I think that we’re starting to see it come together. I’m really excited. I think I’m one of those people that just kind of has to gradually build throughout the whole season and Jerry and I are really excited for what’s to come.”

Like Coburn, Frerichs will head to Des Moines, from altitude in Park City, without a lot of steeple-specific work logged: “We’ve only done two steeple workouts and both of them I finished feeling eh.” Untapped. “There was a whole lot more,” she clarified. “But like Jerry keeps telling me, I get a little impatient with the timeline. Normally we’re kind of getting ready to go right now but he keeps reminding me I need to get appropriately fit right now. A few years ago that was 9:20 and I got down to 9:03 so I think it’s really exciting that I’ve been able to open up at 9:09 and to show consistency, and hopefully that I can dip into those 8:50s.”

Frerichs admits holding back in practice for a late-September peak introduced some anxiety this spring, but mostly over seeing others race. “The Diamond League started in May,” she said, “and I’m watching these girls run really fast, but one thing that I know Jerry does better, in my opinion, than anybody is get us ready for a champs. That’s why you don’t see us in other races. I saw a comment that my flat times are astonishingly slow, which I was a little offended at first but part of that is that we put so much of a focus on championships, I don’t really get the opportunity to run those other [events]. I think I can count the number of flat races on one hand since I joined Jerry. Obviously I would love to reset some of those PRs but we want to win medals, we want to be on the podiums at champs and I’m all in on that with him.”

Schumacher let Frerichs cut loose in a 1500 before Nationals, and she churned out a new best, 4:11.05. “Came away with a heat win & a new PR in the 1500 feeling strong & like there is a lot more there,” she tweeted. “Followed up with pacing duties in the 5K to help my speedy teammates to some new PRs.”

As you wait for their Nationals meeting, know Coburn and Frerichs are friendly rivals. Coburn is “in great shape and obviously we’ve got to keep pushing toward being next to her,” Frerichs concluded. “One thing I’ve admired about her the last especially two years is her ability to run pretty close to her times she’s going to be at for the whole year, the whole season. That’s obviously something I’m striding to do, and I think she’s gotten better at it each season so I’m hoping that I can do that also. I think we key off each other really well in races, once I can get up there, and the same with Colleen. So her being up there is going to keep pushing us to be up there. And I think having three of us in the front pack is going to boost our confidence, and confidence is going to be really important in Doha.”