The first time Emma Coburn broke the US steeplechase record it couldn't be ratified because there was no one around to perform a drug test. Heartbreak for Coburn, and a headache for us because we couldn't publish this story.
Luckily she ran 9:10.76 to break it for a second time at the 2016 Prefontaine Classic. Here are the ten steps that got her there.
1. Born to be wild
Growing up at an altitude of around 2,700m in the tiny mountain ski resort of Crested Butte in Colorado, Coburn was exposed to an outdoors lifestyle which gave her a robust physical foundation. Coburn would ski, snowboard, place ice hockey, mountain bike and kayak.
“It helped my development in terms of co-ordination and strength,” Coburn explains. “Also, because I was not only exposed to running, I was never burned out from the sport.
“By the time I got to college I felt fresh, excited and ready to commit all of my efforts to running. Playing multiple sports helped me physically, but it also helped me on the mental side because by the time I started the sport properly I was able to have a blast with it.”
2. Dirt off the shoulder
Coburn is best friends with her older siblings Willy and Gracie. However, the pair would play cruel games on their kid sister, though they only helped to breed a certain mental toughness in the 2014 Continental Cup-winning steeplechaser.
“We’d go on family vacation as young children and the game of ‘let’s exclude Emma’ or ‘make Emma cry’ would come out,” she admits. “It sounds awful and cruel, but it did build a little bit of resilience. I quickly learned that things are not always going to go your way.
“If I was to complain, it would fall on deaf ears as my parents had three children aged under four at that time. It did make me tougher. I think because of that it makes me more coachable because I can take a critique from a coach and it will not hurt my feelings.”
3. Someone to lean on
Coburn describes her coaching duo of Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs as “the best in the business” and says the pair have instilled in her the tools necessary to shine on the track.
“They’ve been an incredible influence not only athletically but off the track too,” explains Emma, a University of Colorado graduate.
“They have given me the confidence to execute a plan all by myself. They are both very calm and focused and that rubs off on the athlete. They know me better than I know me. They are pretty special.”
When still a student at Colorado, Coburn won the second of her four national titles to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics
4. Don't hold back
Physically very able and blessed with good co-ordination Coburn loves to jump, which has made her embrace and not shy away from the challenge of getting the 35 barriers you need to negotiate over those three energy-sapping kilometres.
“I’ve always enjoyed the jumping aspect to sport, whether that is playing basketball or volleyball – it was always fun for me,” Coburn insists.
“It has helped me develop my muscles and basic co-ordination. From day one I’ve always been fearless when it comes to the water jumps.”
5. Work, work, work, work, work
The Colorado-based steeplechaser has suffered injuries in more recent times – more of which later – but believes her career has taken an upward trajectory thanks to a consistent training programme.
“I’ve had the same programme for so many years, the only difference is we have cranked up the mileage and intensity over time,” says 25-year-old Coburn. “It is an approach which has paid dividends on the track.”
6. You got a friend
Coburn is blessed with a outstanding group of training partners, led by 2011 1500m world champion Jenny Simpson (the previous holder of the US steeple record). Being surrounded by excellence has helped raise her standards.
“We all want to be at the top of our game and we are only satisfied with perfection,” says Coburn of the attitude in the training group. “We are not going to settle for running the same times we did at college. We want to be the best.
“The first time I trained with Jenny was a big eye-opener. Seeing the bar that she set for herself opened the possibility to what expectation I should set for myself. Collectively we set high standards for what we want to achieve.”
FEARLESS: Coburn leads the field through the water jump at the 2014 Continental Cup, which she won
7. Don’t throw your love away
No major accomplishments or progression can be made without a genuine passion for the sport, according to Coburn.
“Part of the motivation of getting up each morning is to better myself and do better than I did last week,” she explains. “Not every day is going to be a perfect workout and not every race is going to go smoothly – you have to love track enough to be okay when things don’t go so well.”
8. Get through it
A persistent Achilles injury looked like it was threatening her Rio ambitions. As recently as January this year she was struggling with the problem, barely able to train for a few days in a row. Yet she refused to concede defeat. Gradually her training has improved, but it was a rough ride.
“There were some dark days this fall and winter, when I wasn’t sure I’d be ready to go,” she told the Denver Post. “It was definitely one of the hardest things I’ve been through. To get through it on the other side, feeling stronger than I ever have before, is such a blessing.”
Drug test done. #AmericanRecord— emma coburn (@emmajcoburn) May 28, 2016
9. Won’t trick me twice
In July 2014 Emma Coburn dipped under the American steeplechase record for the first time, running 9:11.42 in Glasgow – except it never was. In 2015 it was officially rubbed out as a record mark because Coburn wasn’t told she needed to take a post-competition drug test for it be declared a record.
She had no intention of repeating the error and at the 2016 Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, even arranging with the meet director to ensure a post-race drug test would be available. With that lined up, all that remained was for her to run the time.
10. Make it happen
As a natural front-runner Coburn is equipped with the attributes to chase a fast time. It is not for the 2014 world number three to fiddle around and play the role of headwaiter.
In Eugene she had to concede to the blistering pace set by Bahrain’s Ruth Jebet and Kenyan Hyvin Jepkemoi as the pair blasted two (8:59.97) and three (9:00.01) on the all-time world lists for the event.
Yet the American did not stand on ceremony. Coburn led the chasing group for much of the race, before kicking for home to take third and bag the record for the second time. Mission accomplished.
“I definitely like to make it happen for myself,” she adds. “I like to know that I gave it my all in a race.”