Over the last seven years Shannon Rowbury has been one of the USA's most consistent middle distance performers. In 2015 she proved herself as one of the best the country has ever produced. We speak to the American 1500m record holder about the fastest year of her career.
Shannon Rowbury is happy to be back training. SPIKES speaks to the American shortly after her return from a short end of season break. It was deserved. Back in April she tied the knot with her husband, Pablo Solares, but it wasn’t until the end of the track season that they were able to escape for their honeymoon.
“[It was a] good mix of relaxing, and we’d gone hiking and we were doing adventures,” she chimes. “So I came home feeling like ‘OK let’s go!’”
And there was no hanging around. In October, just a few weeks back into training, she ran the Nike Women's Half Marathon San Francisco. Rowbury is not changing distances; she trains with Alberto Salazar’s Oregon Project near Portland, but her heart is in San Francisco, her hometown. “I have a strong connection,” she says, reeling off stories of her Irish ancestors’ weekly keighleys and her great uncle’s role in towing the steel used to build the Golden Gate Bridge.
Irish blood runs thick, and before she took up running, Rowbury’s childhood passion was Irish dancing. She even pulled out the pumps for a round of riverdance at her wedding reception. It was “to please my mother mostly,” she insists.
In her first full year as a pro, Rowbury won the USATF Olympic Trials and finished seventh in Beijing 2008
But 2015 was more than just knot tying and toe tapping for Rowbury. A speedy indoor season – she ran PBs over 1000m (2:40.25), 1500m (4:05.08), the mile (4:22.66) and two miles (9:43.94) – hinted at the highs that would follow later in the year.
“Alberto really values having a full indoor season. I seem to be responding well to that system,” she says. “I feel that I’m benefiting now from this two peaks cycle. And it’s just challenging me and stimulating me, and I think it seems to be helping me in improving each little mini-season.”
Rowbury says she’s always been “a more strength oriented 1500m runner”. Under Salazar, whom she joined at the end of 2013, there has been an increasing focus “on that top end speed, just to see where he could get me”.
It got her in good shape, and her form outdoors lived up to her indoor performances. She was part of the USA team that broke the distance medley relay world record at the World Relays in May. In late June she was second at USAs in the 1500m (to maintain a streak of making every team she’s tried out for since 2008 – “I’m really proud of that,” she says) and in early July finished fourth over 800m at the Lausanne Diamond League. The sharpness was there.
Things came to a head in Monte Carlo. 2015 was a good year for women’s 1500m running: for only the third time this century eight women dipped under the 4-minute mark. There has been a gradual improvement globally in recent years that reached a nadir at the Monaco Diamond League, where Genzebe Dibaba broke the 22-year-old world record. Behind her, Rowbury ran an American record 3:56.29 for third, more than three seconds faster than she had ever run before.
Robury (second left) won world champs 1500m bronze in Berlin 2009
That ranked her third fastest in the world going into the final of the 1500m at the Beijing World Championships. In a tactical affair, things took off at the half way stage, spearheaded by a Dibaba surge that took the race away from Rowbury. She finished seventh.
“I was really disappointed,” she admits. Beijing was a fourth major champs 1500m final for Rowbury, who turned 31 in September. Her experience has taught her to accept that it just wasn’t her day.
“For the women to run basically the world leading time in the 800m to close out the 1500m just shows how strong the field is, and unfortunately I wasn’t capable that day of doing that.” Experience also allows her to appreciate finishing another year healthy and running better than ever.
“When I got over my little pity party and took a step back and looked at the year as a whole, from January through to September 13th. I’m really, really proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’m so fortunate to have had such a successful year.
“I’ve been in the sport long enough to know that those kind of years are sometimes hard to come by. So really I have gratitude for those moments where everything came together. All the athletes in the sport, we work so hard to do what we’re doing, and it really takes the right combination of being healthy, getting in the right race, the timing being right, just the whole combination of factors. So I’m happy that I was able to put together such a good string of races.”
AMERICAN RECORD: "I have gratitude for those moments where everything came together"
Yet there is a part of Rowbury that remains unsatisfied. She has a world champs bronze medal from Berlin 2009. But memories of London 2012, where she was only half a second off the medals, still “haunt” her. She crossed the line sixth and is now officially fifth.
Rio 2016 looms on every athlete’s horizon, and Rowbury will have a chance to tune up indoors in her new hometown of Portland, which will host the world championships in March. Her achievements in 2015 – which she ended with an 800m PB 2:00.03 – only underline her next set of targets.
“Ever since I was little when I first started running I just wanted to be the best on the team. Then it was best in the league, then the section, the state, and so forth. And I know it sounds kind of silly, but that’s been a way to keep it manageable. I think for me having achieved the American record, suddenly I’m taking the blinders off a bit and realizing, like, wow I’ve put myself in a new category and I have what it takes to be on that podium.”