Emma Coburn snatched the US steeplechase record from her training partner Jenny Simpson in Glasgow last weekend. They tell SPIKES about their relationship as training buddies and friends.
How did you first meet?
EC: "I started out at the University of Colorado from 2008 and Jenny was at the University of Colorado from 2005 until 2009-2010, so we overlapped for a while and we trained together a little bit then. Jenny moved on to train elsewhere before coming back."
What were your initial thoughts on one another?
JS: "Emma was an outgoing, fun and confident young freshman. Even though I was several years older I roomed with her a lot. I think I saw a lot of promise in her and I thought I could be a good influence on her. Emma wanted to do steeplechase from the beginning so we were grouped together [Jenny is a former steeplechaser]. We also have really compatible personalities."
In what way are you similar?
EC: "We are both very focused and driven athletes. When we come to practise we are ready to work really hard, but then when practise is done or our race is over we are normal people not robotic crazies. Jenny is a great person to have a conversation with or to go shopping with or to have a coffee with and that is what drew me to her off the track."
JS: "Yes, Boulder has a really awesome breakfast scene, So Emma and I will go out to brunch or breakfast quite a lot. Emma tends to order something really sweet. I think how can you order something sugary so soon after practise?"
If you could pick a quality from each other that you don’t possess, what would it be and why?
EC: "One quality that Jenny has is she gets things done. She’s a doer. On the track and is not afraid to leads in these huge races. She also organises the whole group’s travel arrangements for the whole year. She is a very organised, methodical person who gets stuff done, which I appreciate and benefit from."
JS: "If I could have a quality of Emma’s it is that two minutes after practise she has her normal clothes on and it looks like she is ready to go to the shopping mall. It would take me an hour after practise to get ready in the same way!"
How often do you train together?
JS: "Five or six days a week."
EC: "We are probably running next to each other doing exactly the same thing on three or four days a week. Then on workout days Jenn might have a faster assignment than me on the track or on long run days she might go a bit ahead of me."
What are the main benefits of training together?
EC: "I benefit the most because I am slower, so I always have someone to chase. I don’t have to do all the work. I’m kind of spoiled."
JS: "For what I‘m trying to accomplish I think it is good that I have to run from the front during practise and have to carry the workout. If I had a training partner that was leading every single workout I don’t think my 1500m would be as strong. I’m used to pushing the pace in workouts by myself. We both benefit from training together, but in different ways."
Are you competitive together in training?
EC: "I’m far enough behind Jenny in most workouts that it is not at all competitive. If I ran a 1500m in 4:03 I’d be really pleased, but Jenny is trying to run 3:57 or 3:56 - that’s a big difference."
JS: "Often in training groups there is a really established hierarchy, but in ours it is less of a caste system because Emma and I get to take a real ownership of our events. On the US team she is as good at the steeple as I am the 1500m. The second element is our coaches [Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs] do an amazing job managing both egos in the group.
"It is naive to think it is rainbows all the time. There are times when one person is doing a great workout and the other isn’t. The coaches do a really great job managing who needs the encouragement or who needs the tough love and accommodating the two stars of the group."
Coburn: "I would watch Jenn go over the barriers and I got the benefit of watching her."
Do you think your friendship would be tested if you competed in the same event?
EC: "Maybe, if in five years I did the 1500m and if something changed, but I’m planning on being a steeplechaser long-term and I don’t think Jenny plans on converting back to the steeplechase."
JS: "It definitely would be more challenging with two people in the same event, but again that’s when you go back to groups and their hierarchy. We talk among the group about the pecking order of people. If you are being blunt about the group - you have two stars trying to do two things and managing that is an important thing. We have two different missions and two events."
Emma, you set a US steeplechase record of 9:11.42 in Glasgow and Jenny you recorded a stunning personal best time of 3:57.22 for the1500m in Paris earlier this month. Has your satisfaction been enhanced by your training partner’s success?
EC: "We just feed off one another. When your training partner is aiming to win medals at a World Championships or Olympic Games it helps drive up standards. Experiencing her do that - makes the season a lot more fun."
JS: "Watching Emma run well, say an hour or so ahead of when I‘m due to race, makes me feel like I‘ll probably have a good race. If I ever waver then I can look at what she is doing and gain confidence from that. So I root for Emma because I want her to do well and I also root for her because if she does well, I know that I’ll do well as well because we do the same workouts. It is a unique pleasure training with her every day."
Jenny, what was your reaction when Emma broke your national steeplechase record in Glasgow?
JS: "My genuine emotion was I was pissed I wasn’t there to see it. I’ve never heard before of an amicable situation where one training partner has held the record and then the other training partner broke it, but it is amicable. It has been so rewarding and so much fun watching her.
"Maybe, if Emma had broken the record one year after I set it they might have been a bit more sting to it, but it was more than five years ago when I set it. Standing on the sidelines - part of you at least hopes it was really hard for that person to break it."
As Jenn is an ex-steeplechaser have you felt the benefit of her advice on the event?
EC: "When I first got to college I would watch her go over the water jumps and the barriers and I got the benefit of watching her. Back then I was a naive 18-year-old, but seeing a normal person finish fifth at the World Championships [which Jenn did in 2009] in an event that I ran, may have set the bar really high, but it showed me what was possible."
Do you have a favourite anecdote of training together?
EC: "Yes, I remember doing this hard workout which is typically a good indicator of where we are at. Jenny just kept on repeating how hard the session is going to be. Even during the warm up Jenny says ‘this is going to be so hard.’ Jenny and I both hit our times during the session [1km repeats] and Jenny celebrates. I was inconsolable. I started crying. Our coach comes over and says ‘are you okay, you hit your times’. I said ‘Jenny made me so upset’. Since that day on she has never upset me and I’ve also not let my opponents emotions get to me."
Simpson used to be a successful steeplechaser before turning to the 1500m
Jenny, why do you feel a need to vocalise your concerns?
JS: "It’s my way of coping with stress. Both of our coaches said afterwards don’t project that on to Emma and remind her ten times how hard the workout is going to be. However, they added, 'if that is part of who you are, then Emma needs to learn to deal with that. Just maybe scale it back a little bit in terms of talking about her workout’."
Emma, what was your reaction to Jenny’s constant reminders?
EC: "Don’t remind me [laughs]. That was a year-and-a half ago, but we’ve done a very good job of balancing each other since then."