Jenny Simpson runs the 1,500-meter during the IAAF Diamond League Nike Prefontaine Classic on May 31, 2014 at the Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon.
EUGENE, Ore. -- Something special has been brewing in Boulder, Colorado.
Training partners Emma Coburn and Jenny Simpson — both former University of Colorado distance standouts — each set personal records in their respective events during the 40th annual Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field on the University of Oregon campus.
Coburn, who missed most of the 2013 outdoor season with a lower back injury, finished third in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase in 9 minutes, 17.84 seconds, the second-fastest time by a U.S. woman. And Simpson, who owns that U.S. steeplechase record, placed fourth in the 1,500-meter in 3:58.28, the fourth-best mark by a U.S. woman and the top American time since 2000.
“My coach, Heather (Burroughs), gave me the very best advice before I headed out,” said Simpson, who last broke four minutes during the 2009 Prefontaine Classic, in which she set the U.S. collegiate 1,500 record in 3:59.9. “She said, ‘I’ll make this really simple: Forget all the different mantras and different plans. Get on (pacer Phoebe Wright) and run hard and you won’t regret it.’”
Although Kenyan Hellen Obiri won the 1,500 in 3:57.05, a new meet record and world-leading time, Simpson, the 2011 world champion and 2013 world silver medalist, delivered on her goal.
“Before the race, I said, ‘No matter what, through 800 meters I want to go faster than I’ve ever gone before and then hang on for dear life and see what happens,’” Simpson said. “If I end up last, or fifth, or I win, at least I’ll know what I’m capable of.”
Simpson’s standout time this weekend puts her in reach of Mary Slaney’s 31-year-old American record time of 3:57.12, the oldest individual U.S. women’s mark kept on the books by USA Track & Field.
“Anyone running the 1,500 meter as often as I am, right around that four-minute threshold, that’s in the back of my mind,” the 27-year-old Simpson said about breaking Slaney’s mark. “To see that 2:55 (time) with one lap to go, the more times I see that the more chances I have to go after the record.”
Simpson said there’s no set meet on her race calendar in which she’s aiming for the national 1,500 mark. Instead, she emphasized how important it is to be ready every race in case conditions present themselves for a record run.
“You guys watch a lot of 1,500s,” she told reporters. “There can be a pacer and a great field and they go out and the field jogs. You have to take the conditions as they come.
“The most important thing about running the American record is being fit and ready to go every race,” Simpson added. “If the pace goes, if you’re feeling it and the weather’s great, then you’re ready do it and you’re not piling everything on one opportunity. Hopefully I have four or five opportunities (to break Slaney’s record) this year.”
Coburn, 23, also is within striking distance of a new U.S. record. The youngest runner on the U.S. Olympic Team in London in 2012, Coburn has shaved almost six seconds off her steeplechase PR since the London Games, in which she made the finals and finished ninth. Following the meet in Oregon, which Ethiopian Sofia Assefa won in 9:11.39, Coburn sits a little more than five seconds back of Simpson’s U.S. record of 9:12.50.
“I’m still five seconds behind (the American record) and that’s a lot, in steeplechase especially,” said Coburn, who posted her second consecutive IAAF Diamond League podium finish after winning in Shanghai on May 18. “Obviously, that’s the goal. It’d be amazing to happen this year, but I still have a lot of work to do before that happens.”
The irony, of course, is the woman who may help push Coburn to a new American steeplechase mark is Simpson, her pal and the current U.S.-record holder. Simpson finished ninth in the Olympic debut of women’s steeplechase in 2008 before switching her focus to the 1,500.
“We’re having a really good time and getting along great,” Coburn said about her training partners in Boulder, which include fellow 2012 U.S. Olympians Shalaya Kipp (steeplechase), Kara Goucher (marathon), and Simpson (1,500). “Those are some of my closest friends. We have a great time training, and we all have a pretty high standard of excellence. … We’re always hungry for a little bit more.”
Still a bit of a newbie on the international scene after wrapping up her NCAA career with a steeplechase title last spring and then sitting out most of last professional season, Coburn said she takes away lessons from each race.
“Overall I’m feeling pretty confident,” she said. “But I can’t have the last kilometer I had today and expect to be top 10 in the world. I have to be stronger at that point in the race. I have to have a little mind over matter and continue pressing when things are a little hard.”
Both Colorado-based runners hope to mix things up as the 2014 season continues. Coburn plans on running the 1,500 at several meets.
“I’m trying to find a balance of getting enough steeplechases in to be competitive at the world level and giving my back a little bit of a break,” she said.
Simpson, meanwhile, looks to experiment with various race strategies in this non-Olympic, non-world championship season.
“I want to keep racing in different ways,” Simpson said. “I don’t want to be the person that always goes out to the front or the person that always hangs back and kicks hard. I want to try different things.”
Beau Eastes is a writer from Oregon. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.