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Buffalo Soldier: Exclusive Interview With Emma Coburn

The Colorado senior-to-be is continuing a strong steeplechase tradition.

The Colorado senior-to-be is continuing a strong steeplechase tradition.

Interview by: Kevin Beck

Emma Coburn has steadily developed from a modest high-school runner into a national -class steeplechaser in less than three years. Photo: Mike Scott

Last month, University of Colorado senior-to-be Emma Coburn put an exclamation point on a superb track season by winning the 3,000-meter steeplechase at both the Division I NCAA Championships and the USA National Championships. The latter performance earned the Colorado native a trip to the IAAF World Track and Field Championships, which will be held in Daegu, South Korea beginning on August 27. She ran her personal best time, 9:40.51, on May 1 at the Payton Jordan Invitational in Palo Alto, California, winning by over eight seconds.

Coburn is 2008 graduate of Crested Butte High School, where she was an eight-time 2A state champion, set school records in every event from 400m to 3200m and also high-jumped 5′ 1″. Nevertheless, she is another in a long line of Coloradans who came to C.U. with comparatively modest credentials — she never broke 11:30 for two miles as a prep — and steadily developed into a national-class athlete. Last fall, she finished 53rd at the NCAA D-I Cross-Country Championships and was eighth in the mile at the NCAA D-I Indoor Champs in March in 4:36.08, the second-fastest time ever by a member of the Lady Buffs. caught up with Coburn while she was taking a short training break back home in Crested Butte. Congrats on a fantastic month. An NCAA Nationals-USA Nationals double is tough in any event and especially so in the distance races. How far in advance did you decide to run both?

Emma Coburn: It was my goal throughout the whole season, since I’d been having so much success with the event. I got the IAAF “A” standard at the Peyton Jordan meet, so I didn’t have to worry about times after that.

Coburn is not the first University of Colorado steeplechaser to pull off the NCAA/USA Championships double. Photo: Larry Lawson Did a former teammate, Jenny Simpson, pulling off the double steeple win give you confidence in your chances of doing the same?

EC: I really hadn’t thought about that, about what people had done in the past. I knew that I had won at NCAAs and knew based on how the season had gone that I was in top-three shape at USAs. Was your pre-race strategy different at USAs, where you weren’t the prohibitive favorite like you were at NCAAs?

EC: It was. At NCAAs my plan was to focus on a certain pace, because I knew that if I held it the pack would eventually fall off. So I ran from the front. At USAs, I wasn’t actually looking to win, I just wanted to be in the top three and make the World Championships team. So I wanted to stay near the front and wasn’t concerned about the pace. After the first couple of laps were really slow, I did make a move to keep the pace honest, but that was it. In high school you ran 5:11 for 1600 meters and 11:32 in the 3200, but were fourth and second at the national championship meet in the 2000-meter steeple. Did you come to C.U. with the idea that the steeplechase would be your primary event?

EC: I knew it would definitely be my best event, but since it’s only run in the spring I knew had to become better at everything else as well. You did a range of events in high school. What was your first exposure to the steeple? Did you ever try the hurdles?

EC: That’s a funny story. After my junior track season, I wanted to run the 800 at the Great Southwestern Classic in Albuquerque. But it didn’t seem worth it to travel that far just for that short a race, so my dad looked at the event schedule and saw that the only other distance event on a different day from the 800 was the steeplechase. Before we went to New Mexico I went to Western State and the coach there showed me the basics about steeple technique. I won that steeplechase [after running 2:16.00 in the 800 to place third], then was fourth at Nationals. Did you have a chance to run any other steeple races between Nationals your junior year and the end of your senior year?

EC: Not during the season.  I won again at Great Southwest as a senior and was second at Nationals [to current Providence standout Shelby Greany].

Coburn, shown here coming off the water jump at the recent USA Championships, ran her personal best of 9:40.51, on May 1 at the Peyton Jordan Invitational in Palo Alto, California. Photo: Mike Scott How do you work with, or around, being at altitude when you have to get ready for strongly anaerobic events lasting less than ten minutes?

EC: I’ve never really noticed a difference. Crested Butte, where I grew up and still train a lot, is at 8,800 feet, so in a way coming to Boulder [mean elevation approximately 5,300′] is like coming to low altitude. You ran a 4:36 mile indoors last winter and then 4:14 for 1500 meters at the Mt. SAC meet early in the outdoor season, which was your only 1500 of the spring. Do you see yourself developing as both a miler and a steepler, a la Anna (Willard) Pierce and Jenny Simpson?

EC: I’d really like to. I think any distance event complements the steeplechase. Unfortunately because of the schedule I only get one chance to do a 1500 outdoors each spring while I’m still in college, so that event has to wait. With the steeplechase being more of a strength event, it would seem that top steeplers would be especially fearsome cross-country runners. Although you were a solid 53st at NCAAs last year, do you feel as if you haven’t put it together in that discipline yet, or did you merely get a lot stronger between last fall and now?

EC: Cross-country is definitely a weak link for me and always has been. In high school that had mostly to do with not training enough in the summer, but I died in last 500 meters at Nationals last fall, and went from the mid-30s to 53rd. I’m okay with being stronger in track — some people just are — but I do have unfinished business in cross.

Emma Coburn on her way to winning the steeplechase at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational earlier this season. Photo: How do you intend to balance preparing for your last cross-country season with getting ready for Worlds?

EC: It’s going to be tricky. I’m now on a short break for just a couple of days, and then I’ll be doing mostly cross-country training but throwing in some steeple-specific training too. I am going to Europe to race this summer so I may miss out on some of the important base training for cross-country while I am gone racing. Unlike a lot of collegiate distance runners, you haven’t redshirted any seasons yet. Do you plan to exhaust all of your eligibility in the coming academic year?

EC: I’ve been really lucky as I’ve been healthy and have never dealt with injuries, so I’ve just been rolling on through. Over the next year I’ll have to see what makes sense. I love running at Colorado, so I may redshirt next spring if it seems like a good choice. Do you usually train alone in the off-season or with teammates?

EC: I come to Boulder once in a while and run with teammates taking summer classes or who stay there. In Crested Butte I do some training with [C.U.’s top male distance runner] Joe Bosshard, who’s my boyfriend, and also run with teammates from high school. You’ve had a taste of professional running, even if you can’t yet be paid for it. Do you plan to continue competing after you graduate?

EC: I would love to if someone will take me. I’m having a lot of fun running and want to keep doing it for as long as I can.