World champion. Olympic medalist. Seven-time national champion.
For nearly a decade, American steeplechaser Emma Coburn has rocked the top of the steeplechase scene, solidifying her place in track history as one of the best ever in the 3,000-meter event.
Although she has achieved enormous success, the 28-year-old from Crested Butte, Colorado, continues to push herself—and later this year, she will pursue her second consecutive world title in the 3000m steeplechase. It will be an enormous undertaking, with Coburn facing strong competition from fellow American Courtney Frerichs, as well as the Kenyan competitors who have redemption on their minds. Last summer, Frerichs broke Coburn’s U.S. steeplechase record when she ran 9:00.85 in Monaco, beating Coburn, who finished in 9:05.06. At the last world championships in 2017, Frerichs was runner-up to Coburn.
“I don’t necessarily feel more pressure just because I am the reigning world champion,” Coburn told Women’s Running during a recent phone interview. “I already have high expectations for myself.”
Those high expectations include not only defending her world title but also finally cracking nine minutes—a goal that, unlike many others, has floated just out of her reach. Despite the disappointment, Coburn, who is coached by her husband, Joe Bosshard, remains cool-headed and confident.
“I think my training last year was super valuable and is still going to be beneficial,” she says. “I don’t have to re-invent the wheel or anything because I didn’t break nine last year. I just have to keep doing what I am doing.” That includes lining up to race during the indoor track season. Racing indoors is not essential for Coburn’s steeple training, but it does give her a mental boost. “For me, it’s mainly breaking up the monotony of winter training (in Colorado) and challenging myself in disciplines I don’t do regularly,” she says.
On Saturday, Coburn will return to the New York Road Runners Millrose Games in New York City to run the women’s 3,000m for the second year in a row. On a 200m oval and without water jumps and barriers, it’s a much different race for Coburn. At last year’s Millrose, she proved she was up to the task. Along with her training partner and friend Aisha Praught-Leer, the pair delivered one of the most exciting races of the day. Coburn finished in second place, a tiny sliver behind Leer, and well exceeded her goal to run under 8:50.
Coburn and Leer, who competes for Jamaica in the steeplechase, will battle it out again on Saturday. If they both feel strong, they plan to work together again during the race—but they are still competitors. “In the later stages of the race, it’s whoever is better on that day and making it happen for yourself,” Coburn says. She is comfortable being both fiercely competitive and friendly with her rivals, even when they take away a beloved record, as Frerichs did. “She’s been a big competitor or mine for years now,” Cobrun says, but “we have a good friendship through it, too. I respect her a lot. She’s a really great athlete.”
Frerichs is a member of the Bowerman Track Club, which adoringly refers to its elite women’s team as the “Bowerman Babes,” a group that includes big names such as Shalane Flanagan and Shelby Houlihan.
Coburn has her own squad, too. Coached by Bosshard, the “#BossLadies,” as they call themselves, include Praught-Leer, 800m star Kaela Edwards and Laura Thweatt, a standout in the marathon. Having teammates with diverse talent is a major benefit, Coburn says, noting that she can jump into a speed workout with Edwards or partner with Thweatt for an endurance session. “I’ve always had really strong female training partners—that’s just what I know,” she says. “ I thrive in that setting, and I think most women thrive in that setting.” They push each other’s limits, but also offer support when someone is having a bad day. Over time, genuine friendships form. “Distance running is really hard,” Coburn says. “You are going through a journey together and you are making each other better.”
Coburn also believes in making the world around her better. In 2017, she and Bosshard started the Elk Run 5K. The annual road race is held in her hometown of Crested Butte and raises money for Living Journeys, a cancer support nonprofit in the area. “Growing up in a small town, it’s such an intimate experience,” she says. “You are raised by a whole town. Everyone knows you, and you know everyone. I was at a point in my career where I felt it was my duty to give back to the community that gave me so much.”
But this year, the September event will have to be held as a virtual run, Coburn says. She will be thousands of miles away at the IAAF World Championships in Qatar, chasing yet another victory.