Q&A with Pro Runner Emma Coburn

Professional runner Emma Coburn ties her hair back in a ponytail

When it comes to track and field, Emma Coburn is a household name. The 27-year-old, Crested Butte, Colo., native is the first American ever to medal in an Olympic 3000-meter steeplechase and a World Championship race (she took home bronze and gold, respectively). Plus, she’s won the event at six out of six US Championships. This year, she plans to make it seven.

In the spirit of Women’s History Month, we sat down with Coburn to chat about training, racing, and her love affair with chocolate cake.

Your goal this year is to break nine minutes in the steeplechase. Do you feel external pressure to do that?

I’ve always just focused on myself and my goals. What other people expect doesn’t raddle me. … Having a target on my back doesn’t make me intimidated.

Instead, I put pressure on myself because I never really feel like the job is done or that I’m done improving. I always try to take lessons from races. So, I think that my desire to strive for always getting better naturally puts pressure on me. That creates positive momentum and helps to keep me accountable to work hard.

How have you learned to deal with adverse conditions on race day?

Anytime race-day conditions are challenging it creates a distraction from the goal at hand. For example, I’m a Colorado girl, so I thrive in cooler temperatures with low to no humidity. I’ve had to run hot races, though, and often the steeplechase is run in the middle of the day.

Focusing on myself by controlling what I can control and letting go of what I can’t control has helped me to deal with this. It creates fearless racing and builds confidence. It also results in more personal growth and fulfillment.

How have you learned to embrace racing fearlessly?

I visualize my races when I’m in my hotel room before a competition. I go through every second of the race and key in on how I want to feel and think and what I want to see. It helps me to calm down and feel 'in control' of my situation.

I also have a pre-race routine. It’s the same routine I’ve had for years. I think routine is a crucial recipe for race-day confidence. Three hours before my race, I eat a banana with peanut butter and a bagel. I then have a conversation with Joe, my husband and coach. He’s the last person I talk to before every race. I also make sure I’m well hydrated and that I’ve done a proper warm up. In short, I control what I can control, and I let go of what I can’t.

Racing at a high level requires learning to get comfortable amidst discomfort. How do you do this?

In short, by practicing discomfort and learning how to push. The reality is that it’s going to hurt no matter what. And, letting off of the gas will just leave you feeling disappointed in yourself. A mantra helps. Sometimes I tell myself to stay on it, stay on it, stay on it … over and over and over. Or, I’ll look at the clock and analyze my splits. I’ll think something like, OK, that was a 72. ... Now I need to run a 71 for my next lap. Or I’ll just count it down the meters from 800 to 700 to 600 and so on.

We all have different mind games we play with ourselves. But really, it’s just about practicing discomfort and going for it. Even though I'm more used to the feeling now, every time I line up in a race, I feel like I'm starting from scratch again in my head. It’s never easy, it always hurts, and it’s always a mental battle. ... But it's so worth it.

Is there a particular run or workout that you know will help you feel most confident and ready when you toe the line on race day?

It depends. Sometimes my favorite workout is also the one that’s the most painful. So, in the moment it’s not my favorite. It’s usually my last big steeple workout before I travel to a race. If the workout goes well, it gives me the confidence I need to know that I’m ready to go. It’s usually something with sets of longer reps (like 1000- to 2000-meters) over barriers.

What’s next? Do you think you’ll move onto another distance after the steeplechase?

I feel like the steeple is my home. It’s where my body thrives. It’s second nature. I hope to keep doing it for as long as I can, for as long as my body cooperates. I would have no problem doing a longer distance if I can’t run the steeple anymore. But, I’ve never raced anything longer than a 3K outside of college cross country, so I would have a lot of work to do. That being said, I am definitely in the steeplechase for the foreseeable future.

How did you decide that the steeplechase was an event you wanted to pursue?

I was in high school, and my Dad and I were traveling to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a track meet. It was an eight-hour drive, and I was only signed up to run the 800. My Dad didn’t want to drive that far for me to run just two laps around the track. So, he looked at the schedule and saw that the only event in which I could double, was the steeplechase. No matter I’d never run it before, I did that day. … And it just so happened that I qualified for high school nationals and was recruited by my college coach.

OK, enough about training and racing. … Pretend you’re publishing a memoir. What do you call it?

One of my favorite quotes is from Shel Silverstein. It's a line from a poem that ends with this: "Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”

I read the poem right before I raced in the London Olympics. And, during the race, that quote kept coming up in my head. Over and over. I don’t know that I would be allowed to use it, but it'd make a perfect title.

What is your favorite beer?

Well, I don’t drink beer while I’m training. Only in the off season. My family is a Coors Light family so, if I’m drinking a beer, it’s going to be a Coors Light.

You love baking cakes. Tell us more.

I love frosting and decorating cakes the most. And I’m also a chocolate girl at heart. I like red velvet or anything chocolate. But not chocolate on chocolate. I like chocolate cake with something like salted caramel or peanut butter frosting.