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Emma Leaps onto World Stage:

An inside look into track's most fascinating event

Our friends at Competitor recently penned an article, "Making the Leap with Star Steeplechaser Emma Coburn." Read the full article here

 

Let’s get this straight from the start: The 3,000-meter steeplechase is by far the most peculiar—if not the most technically demanding and one of the most difficult—distance running races out there. 

The “steeple” is a savage compromise of strength, speed and endurance, and it entails running nearly 2 miles at a crazy-fast pace (about 4:50-mile pace for women, 4:20 for men) while negotiating 35 barriers—seven of them in front of a daunting water pit—in what might best resemble a sadistic equestrian event.

The steeplechase barriers are not the lightweight aluminum hurdles set up by school kid volunteers that tip over when you brush your knee against them. A 30-inch high, black-and-white-striped steeplechase barrier is an unmoving, 13-foot-wide, 220-pound mammoth of an obstacle. Clip a toe and you kiss the track. Hit your shin and you have a scar for life. Or you end up submerged in the water pit to the cheers of bloodthirsty fans who bunch up at the edge of the pit, smartphones poised, praying for viral video-worthy carnage.

There’s a unique pain in watching an amateur steepler drag herself through the course, looking more ragged with each lap and more afraid as she steps on the water jump barrier. The pros aren’t exempt, either. In 2012, an Ethiopian athlete slammed into the final hurdle and exited the track in a wheelchair. A wrong step has sent thousands of athletes head first into water pits, most recently in the prelims of the 2015 U.S. track championships in Eugene, Ore., in June. Competitors have scars on their inner thighs from where the underside of a track spike sunk into their flesh during a group hurdle.

In reality, the 3,000-meter steeplechase is the track and field equivalent of a Benny Hill chase scene.

Why would anyone want to run the steeplechase? A runner would have to be crazy, masochistic or just a genuine badass to willingly submit to that event. Emma Coburn, who became the fastest American steeplechaser in history last summer, one of the U.S.’s great hopes for glory in Rio and the woman who will push the boundaries of what’s possible, is definitely the latter.

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And it just so happens that Coburn, 24, thinks obstacles are fun, too. While men have been competing in the event since 1896, the steeplechase didn’t debut in the women’s NCAA national championship until 2001 and the Olympics until 2008. At first, college coaches weren’t willing to sacrifice their fastest runners to the obstacle course, and it became a dumping ground for athletes who couldn’t keep up in the ultra-competitive 1,500 meters or handle the sustained grind of the 5,000. The rationale was, maybe these athletes will be more competitive if we make them jump over stuff, too.

Then women hit their stride and the steeplechase became competitive. Seven years ago, Jenny Simpson (née Barringer) blazed a new American record in 9:12.50 as a junior at the University of Colorado, decimating the previous record by 10 seconds. Coburn, then an 18-year-old freshman and fellow Buffalo, was paying attention.

The native Coloradan grew up in Crested Butte, a mountain town at the end of a highway where a four-season high school athlete (cross country, volleyball, ice hockey, track) complemented school sports with downhill skiing, kayaking, mountain biking and hiking in her downtime. Outmaneuvering people comes second nature to mountain kids, and Coburn’s role as outside hitter in volleyball and leaper-of-jump-balls in basketball meant the girl had ups.

In 2007, the high school junior stepped into her first 2,000m steeplechase in Albuquerque, N.M. Coburn and her family had driven five hours for her to run the 800 meters, and they figured she might as well do something on Day 2. Her race form may not have been pretty, but Coburn, born scrambling up mountainsides, gleefully tackled the hurdles and water jump.

“Every lap, I had something to look forward to,” says Coburn, sitting at a coffee house in Boulder, picking at a pastry as her 2-year-old rescue mutt, Arthur, looks upward from beneath the table. “It was a challenge that gave me something to focus on other than the misery of running lap after lap. I liked the adventure of it.”

She qualified for the national championships and soon after got a recruiting call from Heather Burroughs, assistant coach to CU head coach Mark Wetmore.

“When I was in high school, I wasn’t looking at high school or college times, I didn’t care about the professionals or dream about running internationally,” says Coburn, who now surrounds herself with world-class training partners and distance running royalty, including Jenny Simpson.

“When Heather made the recruiting call the summer after my junior year, I may have been a little too honest. I told her I wasn’t sure I wanted to run in college.”

Then Coburn stepped on the track at the 2008 High School National Track and Field Championships and placed second. And for the first time, Coburn contemplated the possibilities of a future in running—and the mistake of telling the coach at her first pick school that she wasn’t sure she wanted one.

The normally stoic Coburn has cried twice on camera. The first time happened in 2012 after she and her CU teammate, Shalaya Kipp, took first and second respectively in the steeplechase at the U.S. Championships in Eugene, Ore., earning tickets  to London. A reporter began his interview with “It all worked out, obviously,” and she lost it. The second time happened in Glasgow in 2014 when a reporter began his post-race interview by saying, “We’re here with the brand-new American record-holder.” The lanky 5-foot-8 racer began trembling, tucking her blonde hair behind her ears and wiping away tears that wouldn’t stop.

“It was like I’d woken up from a coma and realized what I’d done,” says Coburn, who followed Simpson’s lead and became the second CU runner to win a U.S. steeple championship title while in college. She’s won four since, and, along with being a five-time All American and eight-time All-Big 12 honoree, she’s gone on to take two NCAA outdoor titles and ninth place in the London finals. Then, last year, she ran five of the six fastest U.S. steeple times ever. The big one—the fastest at 9:11.42 in Glasgow, Scotland— beat Simpson’s American record by 1.08 seconds.

“In Glasgow, I knew I had to do it by charging it alone, which is really physically and emotionally taxing,” says Coburn. That’s because Coburn runs from the front. The tactic is twofold: she’s able to run her own pace, and she avoids the accordion effect that comes in the first kilometer of the race—when a cluster of runners approach a barrier and everyone comes to a stutter-step stop like a multiple-car pileup. The swell of runners in front of a hurdle means the women buried in the pack won’t see the barrier before they’re right on it, causing the graceful, efficient leap of a 100-meter hurdler to morph into a video game character bound.

“Time stops as you approach the hurdle,” says Coburn of the moments when she’s surrounded by a pack and approaching a barrier. “I stop breathing and it runs through my head in slow motion as I try to visualize how it’s going to happen.”

Coburn’s leap, when clear of the pack, is perfect. There’s an ease to her power over the hurdles and a poise in her work ethic on the rubber lanes of the world’s largest stages. Her technical prowess is unmatched—Wetmore, her coach of seven years, calls her the “poster child for women’s steeplechasing.” That’s what makes her so exciting to watch and causes announcers to inexplicably yell lines like, “The blonde locks are flowing—flapping from side to side!” as one did when Coburn closed in on a dominant win at the U.S. outdoor track championships in Sacramento, Calif., last year.

Two months before she clocked her 9:11.42, Coburn ran a 9:19.80 to earn her first Diamond League victory in Shanghai. She jumped on with the pace rabbit at the gun, growing a 40-meter lead three laps in. “By 200 meters, there was such a gap the rest of the women didn’t even think about coming up on me,” says Coburn. “Some of them claim they thought I was the rabbit and let me go, but I was like, ‘If I’m a rabbit, then go with me.’”

By the time they realized Coburn was a competitor, they didn’t have enough time to catch her before she crossed the finish line. At the same time, Coburn realized she didn’t need other runners for race support and she ran her own race from then on.

“What separates Emma from most other American distance runners is her fearlessness in taking control of the race,” Wetmore says. “So many Western middle- and long-distance runners are waiting for the race to carry them along to something fast. In Emma’s case, she grabs the race by the lapels and shakes it into the race that she wants. She and Jenny [Simpson] have developed a reputation on the circuit to be the protagonists of their race.”

And the reputation paid off when six weeks later, Coburn broke the American record at Glasgow. The impact after landing a hurdle leap is nicknamed a “body blow.” Runners deal with 35 body blows in the course of the steeplechase. Each landing jars joints and knocks bones, compressing and stretching ligaments. The body blows eventually cracked Coburn’s sacrum in 2013, right after she won her final NCAA outdoor steeple title and signed on with New Balance. That was one of the two worst moments in Coburn’s life. The broken sacrum meant Coburn wouldn’t see the 2013 World Championships in Moscow. But that didn’t compare to what happened seven months after Glasgow.

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