Emma Coburn (Mktg’13) is just like you. She dreads the treadmill and enjoys a summer afternoon spent on the patio with friends. But this former Buff, who traces her love of CU to her grandfather, William E. Coburn (CivEngr’49), also ran in the 2012 Olympics in London. In July, she’ll race the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the U.S. Olympic Trials with her sights set on an appearance in Rio.
Did you enjoy the steeplechase the first time you ran it?
Running is so hard. Anyone who runs can attest to that. It’s often not a very fun sport. … The steeplechase was the first time that I thought track was fun. It was exciting to me. Immediately I felt comfortable doing it. I was never scared or never intimidated. It was love at first sight.
What’s the best part of the steeplechase?
I think it’s the water jump. That’s where a lot of the action happens. Good or bad. It’s where a lot of races are won or lost. It really is what makes the event unique.
So what’s the hardest part?
That it’s so physically taxing and you still have to jump over things, even when you’re at your limit. In other events you can get to your limit and kind of zone out. In the steeplechase, you always have to be engaged and the pain in the steeplechase comes at you kind of exponentially. It starts out really comfortable and then it’s kind of unlike any other event I’ve ever been in. It skyrockets. Other events that I’ve run in, whether it’s the mile or even cross country, it’s a gradual pain train.
You run 75-85 miles a week. Do you ever find yourself on a treadmill dreading a long run?
Most people know (treadmills) were designed as torture devices, that actually is their history. So they are torture sometimes. But when it’s really snowy, if I’m up in Crested Butte for the holidays, I have to (use one). There’s literally not one patch of dry, there’s no creek path that’s plowed. Luckily if you’re streaming a good show on Netflix or listing to a good podcast, it can make it go by. Last winter (2014-15), I discovered Serial and then was listening to that on the treadmill and I was like, ‘I don’t even care, I’ll run on here for hours.’
What was the best part of your London Olympic experience?
The first was walking in the Opening Ceremonies with Shalaya Kipp (IntPhy, Psych’14) who was also a student at the time. … It was the first time Shalaya and I got to look around and realize, ‘Wow, this isn’t just another race, this isn’t just another meet.’ I walked in and got goose bumps. It was unreal.
Also, being in the final and looking down the starting line and being like, ‘Wow, I made it to this level and I’m racing in the finals of the Olympics and that was kind of a moment. (I realized) I belong here, I’m not just a fan. These are my peers.’
How did London prepare you for Rio?
It gave me good insight into what the competition looks like in Olympic years. Everyone is ready and everyone comes to win.
Are you thinking podium or gold at the Olympics, or can you even think that way?
It’s hard because the Olympic Trials are so competitive. It’s hard to look beyond that. I think definitely top 5 is still a goal and eventually in my career I want a global medal. I’m so focused on just making the team and seeing how my season shapes up that it’s hard to really commit to a goal other than continuing to be in the top five. Anything beyond that would be a really great day.
You set the American women’s record for the steeplechase in 2014, but it’s not ratified because you weren’t drug tested after the race. Is getting that record officially a goal?
Last year I thought I would break it. The plan was to break it. I unfortunately got sick before my two attempts to at it. It was a bummer last year to not break it.
The record is 9:12 and I run 9:11. Me running under 9:12 is a necessity to do well on a global level. It’s definitely something I hope to achieve again and of course take a drug test, request a drug test, say I need one.
[Update: Coburn officially broke the American record Saturday, May 28 at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. Coburn’s time of 9:10.76 was enough for a third-place finish in the steeplechase and the American record, previously held by her training partner Jenny Simpson (Econ, PolSci’09). After the record-setting race, Coburn made sure to take a drug test and tweeted, “Drug test done. #AmericanRecord."]
Is there something that people might not know about you, that they should?
What you see is what you get. But I think what’s so valuable to my core is my friends and family and where I grew up. My childhood in Crested Butte and being a Colorado person has been so crucial in my athletic development and my happiness.
My grandpa went to Colorado, my parents, my uncles and my brother and sister, too. My Colorado roots are really important to me.
You obviously have to eat healthy, but do you have an ultimate cheat food?
I like to eat healthy and I do eat healthy. A lot of fruits and vegetables and a lot of red meat for its iron content. But every day I want chocolate and most days I’ll have some. If I had a really tough day or I’m celebrating something or a really hard workout or whatever the extremes are that I’m emotionally hungry, a Rio margarita with a steak burrito with spicy green chili is one of my favorites. But it has to be summertime, sitting on the rooftop, with my friends and family and then it’s not the food, it’s the happiness of being with friends in the sun, having a margarita and spicy burrito.
Condensed and edited.
Photo by Casey A. Cass