Friends First, Coburn & Simpson Face Off At New Balance Indoor Grand Prix

By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2018 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

BOSTON (09-Feb) -- Emma Coburn and Jenny Simpson have been friends since the pair ran for coaches Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs at the University of Colorado in the late aughts. Coburn joined the Buffs in the fall of 2008, just months after Simpson (then Barringer) had finished eighth in the Olympic Games steeplechase in Beijing. They quickly became close friends, and Coburn took over from Simpson as the dominant collegiate steeplechaser, winning the NCAA titles in both 2011 and 2013 (Simpson had won in 2006, 2008 and 2009). Both women still live in Boulder, and Simpson even attended Coburn's wedding last fall in Kauai.

At last year's New Balance Indoor Grand Prix here, Coburn and Simpson joined forces with 2016 USA Olympic teammates Sydney McLaughlin and Brenda Martinez, and the foursome broke the world indoor record for the 4000-meter distance medley relay, clocking 10:40.31. Simpson, who rarely runs indoors, ran 4:27.66 on the anchor to cement the record.

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"My recollection of the race, the overwhelming memory, was that I was overwhelmed almost emotionally watching how all my other teammates, how hard they were working and how much they worked to keep up on pace," Simpson said at a press conference here today. "I very much felt like I can't let those people down."

But at tomorrow's edition of the meet, Coburn and Simpson will be rivals, both trying for victory in the 3000m. Despite their long association, including years as training partners, the two have rarely raced each other because Simpson gave up the steeplechase for the 1500m in 2010, the discipline in which she has won four global medals including the world title in 2011. Coburn is the reigning world champion in the steeplechase, and the 2016 Olympic bronze medalist.

In head-to-head competition Simpson has been dominant.

"I can tell you: I've never beaten Jenny," Coburn told the media. "We've only raced each other, maybe five, four or five times, ever. She's won four."

Their last two meetings were on the road at the New Balance Fifth Avenue Mile in New York City.  On both occasions, Simpson not only beat Coburn but won the race. In 2017, Simpson won in 4:16.6, tying the event record, while Coburn was ninth, despite running an excellent 4:20.8. The results were nearly identical in 2016, with Simpson winning in 4:18.3, and Coburn was also ninth in 4:23.8.

The last time they faced each other on the track was in the 1500m at the 2015 Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. Simpson won that race in 4:00.98, while Coburn finished 11th in 4:05.10.

But the two women are coming into tomorrow's race at very different points in their annual training cycles, and the distance would seem to favor Coburn who has been racing actively indoors and is coming off of a personal best 8:41.16 at last Saturday's NYRR Millrose Games in New York City. She plans to run in the USA Indoor Championships in Albuquerque next weekend in the same discipline, and should she finish in the top-2, she would accept a national team berth for the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, England, in March.

But Coburn knows better than anyone that Simpson is always tough to beat.

"I'm racing the best kicker in the world and the best middle distance runner that the U.S. has ever seen," Coburn said, looking admiringly at Simpson.  "So, I definitely hope it doesn't come down to the last 150 because we've all seen how Jenny can crush that and win medals off that.  I'm just hoping for a good race."

Simpson is a highly seasonal racer.  She doesn't typically race indoors and spends her winters at home in Boulder with husband Jason logging miles and building her endurance ahead of the outdoor season.  This will be her only indoor race of the season, and she's not really sure about her racing fitness.

"I don't know what it's doing to take (to win)," Simpson demurred. "I'm stepping away from my winter training to do just this event." She continued: "This being the only race, there is a lot more unknown to me stepping on the track."

Coburn and Simpson share a special intimacy, and both women said that would be a positive factor in tomorrow's race.

"Every possible way Emma and I have been teammates," Simpson explained. "We were college teammates, we've been teammates on professional teams, we've trained together. When I look at the starting line, I do look at her as a competitor; I want to beat everybody here and I want to do the best that I can. But the thing that's kind of special and unique about Emma is she has a lot of insight into who I am as a contender, and how I train and how I operate leading up to a race."

Coburn agreed.

"Any time you're racing a friend, you can be honest with each other, acknowledge that you want to beat each other," Coburn said. "That's healthy. But, there is a sense of calm in the call room when you see each other... just small, unspoken actions between each other. That really helps calm the nerves before the race."

The women have very similar personal bests for the distance, at least indoors.  Coburn's best of 8:42.03 matches up very closely with Simpson's 8:42.03.  However, Simpson has run much faster outdoors: 8:29.58 in 2014 and 8:34.43 in 2015.  She hasn't contested a 3000m race in two and a half years.

"I do think the meeting of the distance will be fun," Simpson concluded. "It's double my regular distance, but a distance I enjoy and am really strong in."

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