DES MOINES, Iowa – “Not yet!”
That’s what Shelby Houlihan thought as she ran the last two laps of the women’s 5,000-meter Sunday at the USATF Outdoor Championships.
Her coach had instructed her not to take the lead until after the bell, but waiting was hard.
“Until about 200 to go, I kind of just wanted to take it,” said Houlihan, the defending champion and a 2016 Olympian in the event.
But she bided her time, letting Karissa Schweizer set the pace in the lead. Houlihan moved up to second with two laps left with Rachel Schneider on her heels at Drake Stadium.
“I know Rachel has some wheels, so I was trying to get away from her,” Houlihan said, “but I think with racing, it’s good to have patience in that way – to be the last one to show your cards.”
Well, she’d actually shown her cards the night before. Houlihan roared past Jenny Simpson on the homestretch to win the 1,500-meter, denying her fellow Iowan a fifth straight title at the meet, which is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
Houlihan, 25, knew she had another kick in her thanks to the slow pace of the 5,000. She listened to the music playing over the public-address system to get into a rhythm and told herself, “I feel really good. Just stay calm.”
And, of course, “Not yet!”
With a little more than half a lap to go, it was time. Houlihan overtook Schweizer and powered down the straightaway, pulling away with every stride. Her last lap was under 63 seconds.
“I just always feel easier as I go,” Houlihan said.
She finished in 15 minutes, 31.03 seconds, with Schneider second in 15:32.71. Schweizer, the six-time NCAA champion from Missouri, placed third in her pro debut in 15:34.31.
“My speed has always been there,” Houlihan said. “It’s all coming together – lucky Year 7, working on mileage. It’s kind of exciting to see how much I’ve improved. I feel like I keep improving.”
Houlihan pulled off a rare double. Not only was she the only athlete to win two events at nationals, she is the only woman to win the 1,500 and 5,000 in the same year besides Regina Jacobs, who did it in 1999 and again in 2000. Simpson won both, but in different years – the 5,000 in 2013 and then a string of four straight 1,500s that ended Saturday.
Houlihan also accomplished the even rarer quadruple. She won the 1,500 and 3,000 indoors in February, equaling Jacobs’ feat in 2003.
“It’s always cool to come out and win a national title,” Houlihan said, “and to do it twice and on top of that to do it back in Iowa is also awesome because my family is here.”
She had about 20 friends and family members in the stands. Of the two victories, she said the 1,500 was more meaningful.
“It’s just because Jenny’s been someone I’ve looked up to since high school,” Houlihan said. “Being from Iowa, they’ve always talked about her, so she’s always been someone that I’ve kind of kept my eye on, like ‘I want to be her when I grow up’ kind of thing.”
Or beat her. Houlihan defeated Simpson in the 1,500 at the Prefontaine Classic in May, which spurred her coach, Jerry Schumacher, to enter her in both events at nationals.
Houlihan has made an art of recovery after tough races, but she did feel the effects of the 1,500 on her legs as she toed the starting line for the 5,000.
“But since we were going so slow in the 5K, I didn’t really feel that tired,” she said. “If we would have started hammering, I definitely would have felt it. I think I could have probably still hung on, but it definitely would have been a little harder.
“I like the way it played out.”
Although Houlihan made the 2016 Olympic team (finishing 11th) and 2017 world championships team (finishing 13th) in the 5,000, she believes she may have more success internationally in the 1,500.
“I just feel a lot more confident in that race,” said Houlihan, the 2014 NCAA champion in the 1,500 for Arizona State. “I’ve raced it a lot more. I raced it all through college and I’m just a lot more comfortable tactically knowing how to race that race. I feel like in the 5K I’m still a huge rookie and I just have no idea how to run it yet.”
She said she will focus on the 1,500 the rest of this year, with one 5,000 in which she hopes to set a personal best.
“Mostly focusing on getting stronger for the 5,000 has really helped my 1,500,” Houlihan said.
And someday, she said, she might be open to following her parents into the marathon. Her mother, Connie Prince Houlihan, was a professional marathoner and her father, Bob, also ran the 26.2-mile distance.
Her uncle, Bob Prince, was an NCAA champion, and her sister Shayla was a pro steeplechaser.
“It definitely runs in the family,” said Houlihan. “I remember growing up following my mom around with my dad. We were in the car just giving her water on her long runs and it was always something that I was attracted to and I saw how much she loved it.
“It kind of showed me how to love it as well, so as I’ve gotten older I’ve taken it more seriously and it’s really been something that I just genuinely love. I wouldn’t be opposed to doing a marathon at some point, but definitely not in the near future. If my coach thinks I can get a medal in the marathon, then I’m all for that. Right now it’s just the 1,500/5,000.”
And that’s paying off for now.