“I’m still just so competitive”
By Than Acuff
Emma Coburn’s prolific run of national steeplechase titles ended at 10 total as she placed second at the U.S. Track and Field National Championships in Eugene, Oregon on Saturday, July 8. Her result qualified her for the Track and Field World Championships in Budapest, Hungary August 19–27, and she will now spend the next six weeks both here in Crested Butte and in Europe preparing and focused on bringing home some hardware from Hungary.
Coburn admits she is less than happy with the result and chalks it up to a slight strategy error toward the end of the race.
“I was irritated to not win,” says Coburn. “I felt good, I just timed my kick poorly. Tactically, I messed up.”
She had a tough start to her pro, also known as the Diamond League, steeplechase season this year, falling in both of her first two races prior to the national championships. One came as the result of a fellow competitor colliding with Coburn and another occurred when her spikes slipped out from under her on the water barrier.
“It was bad luck in both of those,” says Coburn.
That said, this is her 13th year racing professionally in the steeplechase, a unique feat among professional track and field athletes no matter what the event. Over those 13 years she racked up both a gold and silver medal at the World Championships as well as an Olympic bronze medal, not to mention her 10 national titles and being named the winner of the prestigious Jackie Joyner-Kersee Award given annually by USATF to the top female athlete of the year.
“There’s not many athletes that can remain healthy year after year,” says Coburn. “That’s something I’m really proud of. People come and go in the sport. There are not many people I race that were born in 1990.”
Coburn chalks up her longevity to a couple of things. For starters, growing up in Crested Butte allowed her to participate in all different sports building a foundation of stamina, strength and balance.
“So much of my longevity comes from growing up here and being able to do all of these different things like play in the woods, volleyball, basketball, cross-country and skiing that challenged my body,” says Coburn.
Second, she and her coach/husband Joe Bosshard made a conscious decision several years ago to avoid overtraining.
“I still train very, very hard but Joe and I are very careful with our training,” says Coburn. “We’d rather be 98% fit and 100% healthy. If you’re not healthy there’s no point chasing fitness. I’ve had years I’ve overtrained and gone into races tired and that’s no fun. That’s a mistake young people make. Once you get in that cycle of injury, it’s hard to get out of it.”
And even with all the training and racing steeplechase around the world the past 13 years, the race remains as exciting as when she first charged onto the world steeplechase scene.
“It doesn’t get boring,” says Coburn. “There are still those same nerves before the race. It stays challenging and exciting.”
Having a competitive mindset helps too.
“I’m still just so competitive,” says Coburn. “I’m not eager to step away. I want another medal.”
That quest for more hardware is well underway right now. While there is a Diamond League race in London this week, Coburn opted to remain in Crested Butte for three weeks of training.
“Focusing on strength and getting altitude training is really good for me right now,” says Coburn.
She will then head to St. Moritz, Switzerland for an additional three weeks of training leading up to the World Championships.
“Chasing races is the priority when you’re younger to get that experience but your perspective changes a little bit,” says Coburn. “From 2011 to 2014 I did as many Diamond League races as I could. Now it’s a lot more calculated. You definitely have to be a bit more picky and what your goals are which, for me, is Worlds.”
The goal is simple—to bring home a medal. And to do that Coburn is well aware of what is needed. While she ran a time of 9:13.60 at the national championships, her best steeplechase time is 9:02.35 and she knows she needs to reach close to that time once again.
“Not winning at nationals makes us analyze a little bit so we can fill those cracks,” says Coburn. “Low nine minutes is the place you need to be. I run under 9:10 a lot but to run 9:05 is a little bit more rare, but it’s where I need to be if I want to be in the mix in Budapest.”
Once the World Championships are over, Coburn will be back in Crested Butte to host the seventh edition of the Emma Coburn Elk Run 5k on Saturday, September 30. Proceeds from the race benefit Living Journeys, a Gunnison Valley nonprofit that provides financial assistance, emotional support and enrichment programs to Gunnison Valley residents affected by cancer. Furthermore, this year’s Elk Run 5k will be run in honor of Coburn’s mom Annie who passed away in January of 2023 after a three-year battle with cancer. Registration is currently open for both the in-person and the virtual race at elkrun5k.com.