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I watched the women’s steeplechase final at worlds with seemingly one of Emma Coburn’s biggest fans. When I arrived a few minutes before the gun, she was wearing a “Go Emma” T-shirt and an Elk Run 5K hat, talking on the phone and shoveling popcorn into her mouth. “I’m stress eating,” she announced without saying hello.
The gun fired and Coburn went straight to the front, on the shoulder of the leader, arguably a perfect position. “Oh my God. I don’t think I can watch. I’m gonna throw up,” the fan said 17 seconds into the race.
The pace was fast and set by Norah Jeruto of Kazakhstan and Winfred Mutile Yavi of Bahrain. Coburn, right behind them, was running under 3 minutes per kilometer—well under PR pace and much faster than anything she’s run this year.
“My plan was to not get stressed about the clock or how I feel and just commit to going with the pace until 2K,” she said. “That’s what I did in London.” Coburn was the world champion there and ran 9:02.
“Usually when she goes out fast she struggles,” the fan chirped in my ear, citing a Diamond League race from 2019 where Coburn ran 2:53 over the first kilometer and then faded hard to a 9:11. “9:11 isn’t even that bad,” I said, reminding the fan that 9:10 is the fastest time Coburn has run all year. “She’s a world champion. She didn’t come here to run 9:11,” the fan said.
Coburn was right on the leaders and appeared strong for about a mile. Then she started to slip. She fell into fourth; 200 meters later it was fifth, then it was sixth. “From 2,000 to 2,400 meters is where the race changed pretty dramatically for me,” Coburn said after the race. She was hurting. You could see it in her instinctual head movement, this mechanical bobble back and forth that matched the rhythm of her cadence. She was in over her head.
“The last 600 I was fighting as much as I could, but I don’t want to know what my last 1K split was,” Coburn said, indirectly saying she tanked. “3:16 is like a jog in training.” She ran a 2:57 opening kilometer. Then a 3:05. Then 3:14. Run a hard start to the race, and you carry it with you the rest of the way.
Coburn finished eighth in 9:16.49. “This isn’t even what I imagined could be the worst case scenario,” she said. “It’s still a better outcome than Tokyo last year, so it’s a step in the right direction, but that’s not how I view myself as a runner.”
Coburn was passed by Courtney Frerichs, her friend and rival, over the last lap. Frerichs, who got silver at the Tokyo Olympics, went on to finish sixth in 9:10.59.
“I’m really starting to feel like myself,” Frerichs said about her season’s fastest performance. “The last few weeks after USAs have been great, but I’d be lying if I said it’s been a smooth year.”
Jeruto won the race in 8:53.02, the fastest time ever run at a World Championships and the third fastest time ever. Jeruto is the first Kazakh to ever be entered in the steeplechase, and she’s the first Kazakh to win a gold medal at a World Championships.
Werkura Getachew of Ethiopia finished second in 8:54.61, a national record. Mekides Abebe, also of Ethiopia, finished third in 8:56.08.
Coburn’s biggest fan had talked the whole race. She commented on her form, her position, alluded to past races, even poked fun at her competitors. But when the race finished, she was silent for the first time. After a few minutes, she finally spoke: “She’ll be back.”