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Inside Lane: Shelby Houlihan’s Audacious Goals

The 8-time U.S. champion opens up about her decision to race cross country, her training, goals, dreams and what it’s like to be teammates with Shalane Flanagan.

So we knew Shelby Houlihan was good.

The Bowerman Track Club athlete was off the charts in 2018, breaking the American record in the 5K (14:34.45), unseating Jenny Simpson as the U.S. queen of the 1500m, and setting a shiny new 3:57:34 PB.

The Iowa native recently showcased the depth of her talent by captured her eighth straight national title at the USATF Cross Country Championships in her first-ever 10K. She set a course record of 32:46.8 at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee, Florida over proven distance stars like Molly Huddle, Aliphine Tuliamuk and Amy Cragg.

She’s dreaming of Olympic gold in 2020.

But first things first.

Next up are the USATF Indoor Championships in Staten Island, February 22–24, where she’ll seek to defend her double distance titles (1500m/3K last year, mile/two mile this year). We chatted with the rising star about her first cross country race since her NCAA days at Arizona State, what it’s like to train and race with Shalane Flanagan, and how she uses social media.

Tell me about your decision to run USATF XC.

I came off of last year pretty well so I was doing well in the strength workouts [in November] and just jokingly approached [coach Jerry Schumacher] about it, and said, ‘what do you think about me doing cross country?’

Jerry was very hesitant but I was trying to plant the seed in his mind. Sure enough, a few weeks later, he said, ‘you know what, that might be a good idea with just how long the season’s going to be, and to give you something to do before outdoor track.’

The focus was really on just training for cross and U.S. indoors. We mostly just keep our strength workouts going through January just because it is going to be such a long season. We haven’t really started the real workouts.

What were your expectations for USATF XC?

I wanted to win.

I didn’t really know what to expect, especially because I’ve never raced a 10K and—besides in college—I hadn’t run cross in awhile. I was a little unsure and nervous going into it but at the same time, even if I go and I bomb, no one’s expecting me to win anyway. It’s not my race or my event, so that made me feel a little better going into it although in my mind I did really want to win.

It’s cool to see a middle-distance runner win a longer race in cross country. What do you think allowed you to win this race? Is it just being super fit, after the year you had last year? Mentally, is there anything different?

I think it was a combination of the two. I did feel pretty fit going into it. Every year I’ve been able to increase my mileage by about 10 miles a week. This year was more like five miles, because I’m starting to get into that 85 range. I think me now vs. when I was competing in cross in college, I’m just a much stronger runner now because of the time and miles that I’ve put in. Going into it aerobically, I thought I’d be okay.

And on the mental side of it, having last year and being really able to switch my mental game around and be able to put myself in those races and see how long I can hang. And have more confidence in myself. That’s been a huge thing for me in the past year.

Do you have any desire to run a 10K on the track?

I do. I wouldn’t mind doing a 10k on the track. I don’t think it would be for awhile, which is fine with me. At some point when I do inevitably do that, I will be excited for it.

When you were younger and competing in the NCAA, did you enjoy cross country? Or were you always ready to do shorter track races again?

I did enjoy cross country. When I started running when I was 5, I started in cross country. I didn’t start track until I was in seventh grade, so I’ve actually been doing cross country a lot longer. I don’t really mind whether it’s on the grass or on the track, I ultimately like to race—so whatever that is, is good with me.

Are there any elements of cross country that help you tactically on the track?

For me, my race strategy going into it was just staying in the front and not panicking. I knew that if I could stay calm the whole time and stay in the top part of the race through about 9K, I would be okay. I think the biggest part in those lengthy races is staying mentally in it and not doubting yourself throughout.

There’s a lot of time where negative thoughts can creep in and you start doubting if you’re fit or if you’re good enough. The biggest part was not thinking about anything, just focusing on staying right where I needed to be and nothing else.

I know from what I noticed we were running really fast on the downhills. I was just going with what the pace was, I didn’t dictate too much. But I noticed Molly and Aliphine were really running the downhills and gapped me a bit, then I would catch back up on the uphills. I think being good at hills is a great strength if you’re doing road races or cross country, and we’re doing hills all fall. I think that really played into my strengths, being able to get up the hills better than the other girls.

What do you gain from racing cross country?

I raced against some people I’ve never raced before. I think doing different things and challenging yourself in different ways can be helpful. The more you race, regardless of what it is, is just knowledge you can take and apply to different races. That’s probably the biggest thing I was able to gain.

Did you think about racing Millrose?

No, that had never been in the picture at all. It was mostly just doing cross and turning around and doing U.S. Indoors, [where] I’ll race the mile and two mile.

Going for the double again!

I feel like I have to at this point!

Shelby Houlihan at the IAAF World Indoor Championships. || Photo Credit: Justin Britton

That was the start of your big rise last year. Do you feel any emotion going back to U.S. Indoors for that reason?

A little bit, I feel a little nervous, honestly. I guess I have been able to win both the mile or two mile or 1500m/3K for the last two years, so I feel a little pressure to come back and do it again. I do think I’m very fit right now but at the same time, we haven’t done a ton of specific [speed] stuff because right now, it doesn’t really matter. We need to be ready towards the end of the season.

I do feel a little pressure and I think mostly that’s pressure on myself. But I am excited to get back on the track. I love indoors. 200m tracks kind of play into my strengths a little bit with my 5-foot-3 height. I can get around it pretty quick.

What do you feel like is your best event?

I probably would say the 1500m right now. I feel like I have a better feel for it, I’ve been doing it longer than the 5K. I can get in it and instincts take over and I respond to what my gut is telling me.

The 5K, I don’t feel as confident in that. I miss some key moves at times—not that I don’t in the 15, either—but I feel a lot more new to the 5K and I feel like I have a lot more to learn.

Are you thinking about doing both the 1500m and 5K at worlds?

Right now, I don’t think the worlds schedule allows for it but I heard they are trying to petition that. If the schedule did allow for it, I think Jerry and I would definitely talk about it.

I don’t know if he would want me to because it’s a lot of racing, but I don’t think they really overlap at all so I would be down to double.

Are you thinking about the American record in the 1500m?

Yeah, I really wanted to get it last year and it didn’t end up happening. That would probably be one of my big goals for this year is trying to get that American record.

Was that on your radar before last year?

It has been on my radar, it just wasn’t as in the forefront of my mind. Last year I actually could get the record, whereas before, I was a little ways off. Last year, I think I could have run a little faster than what I did run. It just didn’t end up happening.

Photo: Shutterstock

After an “off year” in 2018, how do you feel about having the World and Olympic Championships coming up the next two years?

I do feel a lot more excited about this year and the next year. You want to have those [breakout years] in championship years, but at the same time, I think it was a good year for me to make those steps because I didn’t have any pressure. I didn’t feel like I had to medal at a championship race, which really just allowed me to see how fast I could run and build my confidence.

I did end up making some mistakes at the Diamond League and the Continental Cup. Making mistakes there and learning from them last year will hopefully help me not make those mistakes again in a championship setting.

Do you feel like this cycle is your cycle? Age-wise, you’re 26 now and you’ll be 27 for the Olympics next year. Do you think about age?

I feel like age definitely does play a factor in running in general. The last Olympics, I was 23, so I was just happy to be at the Olympics and a little terrified at the same time. That was my first year as a pro, as well.

Having that experience racing at the world level and knowing the different runners and how they race and having more miles and hours of training under my belt… I feel I have a better grip on things this year, and that will only get better as I get older—to a certain extent.

What’s the group dynamic like at Bowerman? Every year, does the dynamic change a little bit with new people coming in? How does it change?

I think everyone brings their own unique personality into the group, so, obviously, that has changed with every person we’ve added. It has a little bit of that college feel of, we’re all working together and working for the same goals. These are some of my best friends, but at the same time, it is individually oriented. No one is holding you accountable to go do all your work, go run, do core, eat healthy. Being in the group makes it easier to do all those things, especially when we’re at altitude camp, and that was one of the draws for me to join this group—to learn how to be a professional runner.

The older people are showing the younger people how to do it and do it right. Having Shalane and Amy helps a ton—getting to learn from them has been tremendous.

Does it ever get too competitive, in a negative way?

I wouldn’t say it does in a negative way. There are times in workouts where we compete a little bit, and maybe it isn’t the right time to compete… but usually, it’s pretty positive—for me, at least.

It helps me going into races. For cross, I had four other teammates with me so it made it more fun. Mentally, I’m going into it like, we’re just going out for a 10K tempo. Putting that spin on it going into races helps me a lot.

I did the same thing when I went for the American record in the 5K.

I just thought, ‘[Shalane]’s gonna lead the first two miles and I’m gonna lead the last one.’

That helps me stay in it and stay calm. Obviously, I am sure it could be negative for people as an intimidation factor but I think everyone in the group handles it well. At the end of the day, we want everyone in the group to do well and we’re all each other’s biggest fans.

Shalane has told the media that she’s interested in moving into a coaching role eventually. Has she taken on any coaching duties with you?

At the [USATF] cross country championships, she was driving us around in the minivan, she was one of the coaches. Having her there for advice and [as] someone to look up to, is a great thing to have. Other than that, I haven’t had a ton of experience with her in the coaching role. She’s started to come to practice and help time and little things like that. Right now, she’s a little injured so it’s hard to fall into that role right now.

Photo: Justin Britton / ARunnersEye

Can you describe your training right now?

We do a lot of strength stuff, like mile repeats and tempos and repeat 200s and 300s and obviously a long run. We haven’t really gotten into specific 1500m work yet.

I’ve been running 85 [miles per week]. Last year, it was 80.

It wasn’t a huge step up. I’ve been increasing about 10 miles each year since my freshman year of college and five last year.

If you get too greedy with mileage, you can break. I’ve been able to stay healthy my whole career by staying patient and knowing that in years to come, it will finally pay off and it has. Last year wasn’t really totally out of the blue. I had been working toward that point for several years. I’ve always had the speed but [was] never strong enough.

Do you let yourself think about things like winning the Olympics?

It’s not on the forefront of my mind. If you let it, it can kind of drive you crazy. Ever since I started running, it’s definitely been on my mind. There are times when I do visualize that. It’s something I’m working towards.

What’s the proudest moment of your career so far?

I think the last Olympic Trials, making the Olympic team. I have a lot of them but that had to be the best one, that was a lot of work and everything coming together on the day and one dream being accomplished. It was a really cool experience.

In early January you made an instagram post about going through a tough breakup. How does that affect your running and why did you choose to post that on social media?

I think I try to be as me as I can be on my social media. I think sharing your struggles also can be a good way to connect with people. I think it’s important to show people it’s not always easy. It doesn’t always feel like this awesome dream. I do have real life problems.

It’s allowed me to just say, ‘screw it, I’m just gonna focus on running now,’ [which] kind of helped me throughout January to just focus on the everyday and focus on running. It helped being at altitude camp, too, having my friends around me every day.

I had a lot of people comment on it and I had a few people message me. It helped some people feel better and those are the responses that you want to hear.