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Making the Leap with Star Steeplechaser Emma Coburn

Heading into the IAAF World Championships in China, Emma Coburn takes us inside the steeplechase and what sets her a part from the competition.

Emma Coburn is one of America’s best chances for a distance-running medal heading into this month’s IAAF World Championships in China. The front-running Coloradan takes us inside the steeplechase—the original obstacle course race—to see what makes it so difficult, dangerous and fascinating.

Let’s get this straight from the start: The 3,000-meter steeplechase is by far the most peculiar—if not 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’re scarred for life. Or you end up submerged in the water pit to the cheers of bloodthirsty fans who crowd  at the edge of the pit, smartphones poised, praying for YouTube-worthy carnage. Competitors have scars on their inner thighs from where the underside of a track spike sunk into their flesh during a group hurdle.

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. At the 2012 London Olympics, Birhan Getahun of Ethiopia 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.

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 Olympic glory and the woman who will push the boundaries of what’s possible, is definitely the latter. 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 9:22.73 as a junior at the University of Colorado, breaking it the next year with a 9:12.50 in Berlin.Coburn, then an 18-year-old sophomore 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 Pekoe Sip 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 and Olympic 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 the Olympics,” says Coburn, who now surrounds herself with Olympic training partners and distance running royalty Kara Goucher, Jenny Simpson and Shalaya Kipp. “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 Nike Outdoor Nationals 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.

RELATED: Video: Emma Coburn Talks Steeplechase

The normally stoic Coburn has cried twice on camera. The first time was in 2012 after she and Kipp took first and second respectively in the steeplechase at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., earning berths to the London Olympics. 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 a 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 three more since, and, along with being a five-time All American and eight-time All-Big 12 honoree, she’s won two NCAA outdoor titles, captured the 2012 Olympic Trials title and finished ninth in the Olympic 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 Super Mario Brothers 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 last year when Coburn closed in on a dominant win at the U.S. outdoor track championships in Sacramento, Calif.

Two months before she clocked her 9:11.42, Coburn ran a 9:19.80 to earn her first IAAF 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.

Coburn had just gotten out of the shower when her boyfriend and fellow CU runner, Joe Bosshard, asked her if she’d taken a drug test after her American-record-setting race. She told him no and that she’d waited around the meet in case anyone asked her for one. He told her that he’d read on a running message board,, that without the test, her record would not be ratified by USATF. Coburn fell to the floor and sobbed.

Because she opted not to sign with an agent after she turned pro, Coburn didn’t know that to ratify an American record, an athlete has to request a drug test before the race. No one at the event let her know, and even though her sponsors and national governing bodies had tweeted the good news, no one reminded her about the final step to ensure her name would be in the record books.

“In the end, it’s my responsibility to know that rule,” says Coburn, whose 9:11.42 still stands as a legal time and makes her the fastest American, a title that her sponsor New Balance graciously acknowledged with the bonus given to new record holders. “I was mainly hurt by how I’d found out about it. If I’d known that I’d broken that rule, I would have run the steeplechase the next week while I was still in Europe and do it again.”

Instead, she’s had to endure the well-intentioned but hurtful “You’ll get it again next year—it’s no big deal” responses. Without a world championship or Olympic focus, 2014 was a perfect year for runners to run fast without having to worry about scheduling their season around big races. Coburn knows how hard it can be to land another perfect race. For that reason, she refuses to focus on the American record in 2015. (However, she did break her own U.S. championship record with a 9:15:59 effort on June 27.)

“There’s a piece of me that wants to chase fast times to say, ‘Aha! I told you I’m fast!’” Coburn says. “But I don’t want to run just to prove people wrong. I’ve reframed my 2015 goal as getting a personal best. By default, that will be a new American record. Until then, I’m going to run with a pee cup in my sports bra so that when I PR, I’ll pull out the cup and say, ‘I’m ready.’”

Unlike the 5,000, a race whose runners are competitive until their mid- to late-30s, the steeplechase is too hard on the body for that kind of longevity. This season points toward the IAAF World Championships final on Aug. 26 in Beijing while next year is all about the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

If all goes well, she’ll still be at the top of her game for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo when she’ll be just 29.

Right now, she’s hesitant to make time or place goals for even the world championships because many women used the 2014 off year to have babies or disappear for a little while. It’s hard to know what the field will look like when the championship rolls around, but she’s got plenty of Russians, Ethiopians and Kenyans who will push her times even lower. Russian Gulnara Samitova-Galkina holds the current world record in 8:58.81.

Coburn may be our best hope to push it even lower. She has the technique, speed (Coburn ran her fastest 1,500 meters yet—4:05.01—on May 30 in Eugene, Ore.) and strength to secure a place on the world podium.

“The women’s steeplechase is so competitive right now it’s crazy,” Coburn says. “Women are running so much faster in other events like the 1,500 and the 5,000, and getting the Olympic “A” standard in them, too. But the dread I felt during my early years of racing is now mostly excitement. This year will be tough, but it will be an exciting adventure.”

RELATED: Photos: American Steeplechase Runner Emma Coburn