“I honestly did not see this coming”
by Than Acuff
Add world champion to the list of accomplishments by Emma Coburn, a list that includes Olympic bronze medalist and six-time national champion. Coburn battled for 2,800 meters before pulling away on the home stretch to win the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the IAAF Track and Field World Championships in London on Thursday, August 10.
Not only did she win, she set a new personal record time, a new American record time and a new world championships record time, crossing the finish line in 9:02.58.
If you haven’t seen the video of the race, put the paper down, look it up on the Internet and watch it. Simply put, it was incredible and, according to Coburn, unbelievable.
“I honestly did not see this coming,” says Coburn. “On a perfect day I thought I’d finish fourth or fifth, maybe third. Never did I think I’d run 9:02 and be a world champion.”
The past 18 months, the women’s steeplechase has caught fire, led by a group of Kenyan-born runners. While a sub-nine-minute steeplechase was last run in 2008, this past year the group of African women have been posting times at or below nine minutes, setting a new record time of 8:52.78 last year. Coburn’s fastest time heading into the world championships was 9:07.63 when she won the bronze medal at the Olympics in 2016. Suffice to say, she knew this would be the toughest race of her career to date.
“This year’s world championships was the best field ever assembled,” says Coburn. “It was a really tough group and times have just dropped dramatically.”
A couple of things were working in her favor, though. First, she switched coaches, handing the reins to fiancée Joe Bosshard.
“Once Joe started coaching, I started training as a 5k runner and, overall, I felt like a stronger runner,” says Coburn.
In addition, Bosshard and Coburn maintained a regimen that kept her fresh and healthy, another aspect of her success at the world championships.
“I’ve been totally healthy this year and had consistent training and that makes a big difference,” says Coburn.
The final key ingredient was a lack of pressure. When Coburn last went to the world championships, she was expected to medal and felt that pressure. This time around, all talk was of the Kenyan runners and Coburn felt as if she was an afterthought, with the African women slashing time at an unheard-of pace the past year.
“I don’t think people expected me to be on the podium so I didn’t have that added pressure,” says Coburn.
Remarkably, everything fell into place for Coburn when it mattered most and she just ran her race to remain in the mix and let the chips fall as they may.
The first opening for Coburn came early in the race when one of the pre-race favorites, Beatrice Chepkoech, completely missed the turn into the first water jump and had to double back.
“I glanced over and saw it happen but it didn’t really faze me,” says Coburn.
A little bit later, Coburn heard the crowd gasp, unaware of the additional carnage happening behind her, and she just stuck with her plan.
“I just stayed really focused on my game plan,” says Coburn. “Stay with the African runners, knowing that I’m the fastest in the last kilometer.”
Coburn, fellow American Courtney Frerichs and three other runners pulled away from the rest of the pack after the first 1,000 kilometers with world record holder and Olympic champion Ruth Jebet leading the charge.
As they finished the second kilometer of the race, Coburn, who admits she is obsessed with watching her split times throughout the race, finally glanced at the clock to see that she had just run the first 2,000 meters faster than ever before. Rather than obsess about the pace, she followed her gut.
“It was weird because I felt really good,” says Coburn. “It felt as comfortable as a race could feel and I just was going on how my body felt.”
With 1,000 meters to go, Jebet started to fade and Coburn remained on pace with no one making a move. A slight adjustment in her game plan the past year ultimately made the difference. Coburn says she typically starts to kick with 300 meters to go and often struggles on the final water jump. This time, she held off until there were 200 meters left before she made her move.
With three runners now in the mix, Coburn shifted gears, using the final water jump as her springboard into the lead.
“With 200 meters to go there were three of us and that’s when I thought, attack this water jump,” explains Coburn. “I just went for it and started kicking and when I cleared the last barrier I looked at the Jumbotron and saw I had a gap and was like, ‘What?’”
And the rest is history, with Coburn becoming the first American to not only medal in the event at the world championships, but also win it in what may have been one of the most exciting races of the entire world championships.
“There were lead changes, falls and drama and I just stayed chill,” says Coburn. “You never know what can happen out there—it’s a crazy event.”
The season isn’t over yet though, as Coburn will remain overseas for races in England and the Diamond League final in Zurich, Switzerland on August 24. She will return to the states for the New Balance 5k run in New York City on September 10 and then it’s wedding planning and preparation for Emma Coburn’s Elk Run 5k here in Crested Butte on September 30, a fundraiser for Living Journeys, and a chance to run with an Olympic bronze medalist and, now, a world champion.
Coburn admits it’s tough to pick between Olympic bronze and the world championship title as her personal highlights but one has a slight edge over the other.
“It’s so hard to say because winning the Olympic bronze was so special but being a world champion is something I thought I’d never achieve,” says Coburn. “It’s kind of like asking which kid do you love more, though I think the world championships is a little sweeter, but I love them both.”