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Jenny Simpson Talks About Fleeing Colorado Wildfires and Helping Her Community Rebuild

Jenny Simpson’s historic Marshall, Colorado, schoolhouse home still stands, but escaping the fire was harrowing.

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On December 30, Jenny Simpson and her husband, Jason, happened to be outside trying to secure the materials in the yard intended for a construction project. The winds that day, ranging from 60 to 100 miles per hour, were outrageous—and dangerous—on the Front Range near Boulder, Colorado.

Jason soon said he smelled smoke. The couple looked up from their futile attempt to secure their supplies. The gusts were so intense that they didn’t spot a plume that’s typical of the start of a wildfire—instead they saw smoke that was staying lower to the ground and coming toward their property.

Their home, a registered historic property on Cherryvale Road in Marshall, is an old schoolhouse, built in 1900 to educate miners’ children. About 15 minutes southeast of downtown Boulder, it sits in the middle of an acre of prairie grass, with views of Eldorado Canyon, Devil’s Thumb, and the Flatirons.

“Jason and I immediately sprung into action and thought, ‘If there is a fire on a day like today, our house will be in trouble,’” said Simpson, the 1500-meter bronze medalist at the 2016 Olympics. “We plugged in the hoses and started watering down the things immediately around our house that would be the hottest fuel—the fencing, the siding, the things around our house that are combustible. You want to give yourself every chance possible.”

The Marshall Fire on December 30 was the most destructive in Colorado’s history, forcing 35,000 people to evacuate, destroying more than 1,000 homes, and burning 6,200 acres.

Landscape of Boulder Flatirons in the background and burned trees in the foreground
The view facing west from Jenny Simpson’s property after the Marshall wildfire. (Photo: Hannah DeWitt)

Simpson, 35, recently spoke with Women’s Running by phone from her home, where she and Jason were visiting for the afternoon in mid-February—though the house survived the fire, they are temporarily displaced, living in an apartment, while smoke remediation and repairs to attic damage are being completed. Simpson described their escape from the fire in December, how their Marshall community is coming together in the aftermath, and the new role that running plays in her life.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

RELATED: “I Have a Million and One Reasons to be Grateful to Jenny Simpson”

Women’s Running: You’re not living in your home right now. Why don’t you start by describing the current situation in the six weeks since the fire?

Jenny Simpson: If you drive by on the road, you’d look at our house and think it’s a miracle it’s totally fine. I would say that now, a month and a half out, we are 98 percent totally fine and in short order we will be 100 percent back to fully restored as far as the structure of the home. But there are some fire damage things we have to do, like remediate the smoke and other things that are boring to explain, but are not fine. That’s what I’m discovering that’s maybe a parallel to trauma: everything looks OK on the outside but on the inside, things are not OK. It’s an appropriate parallel to the emotional toll of this as well—outside, day to day, we see our neighbors and people are going to work and starting to clean up and going back to their normal life, as would be expected. The world continues to spin, but internally, this entire community has a lot to heal from.

WR: I know that thinking about the events of that day is very difficult. I don’t want to cause a lot of emotional distress for you, so please let me know if I’m asking questions you’d rather not talk about.

JS: To put you at ease, one of the reasons I haven’t done interviews until now and talked about it is because we did protect that space. We needed enough time and space away from it to be able to talk about it in a way that is appropriate and reasonable.

WR: I feel like wildfires for those of us living in the western U.S., especially, are always a big concern.

JS: We were a little bit lucky that we moved here two years ago and our home is in the middle of a prairie. We’re surrounded by open space. I think the threat of fire and what it could possibly do to our home was something that was on our minds as we purchased the place and started to make it our home. I feel for a lot of these neighborhoods that had this inconceivable threat come and consume their homes. For us, the possibility of that danger threatening our home was something we had thought about before, so we had a little bit of an advantage.

[My husband] took pictures from the first early smoke to when we were driving away—they’re time stamped and … it all happened in seven minutes. If we didn’t have those time stamps on his phone, I would have never in my life thought it was seven minutes. We had no time.

WR: Take me through what happened that day after Jason smelled the smoke and you started hosing things down.

JS: We have a huge view of the grass prairie in our backyard. I think we had always imagined that we would see a fire coming. It was strange because the fire spread more through the trees than through the grass. In the southwest corner of our acre, we have a little thicket of trees. That caught fire and the fire approached in a way that we couldn’t see until it was already in the yard. The smoke was getting more intense, so I ran inside to put the dog in a place where I knew where he was.

I always thought if we were leaving our house for a fire, we were leaving for the last time. I never thought we’d come back. I had a little emotional advantage in thinking that we needed to grab the things that we couldn’t do without. I had our keys, our wallets, our computers. Many years ago I inherited my great grandmother’s Bible, and Jason has carvings from his family, so I grabbed a few of those. I remember in that moment, running around the house grabbing these one-off meaningful items and suddenly had this choked-up feeling. Am I really doing this? Are we really maybe leaving this house for the last time?

So I grabbed these things and threw them at the front door, then I went out back to join Jason and assess what was happening. That’s the first time I saw the flames in our little forest area. I thought we were actually really in trouble. There’s something in your survival brain that shifts dramatically when it goes from smoke to flames.

WR: So, it was definitely time to leave the property?

JS: I yelled at Jason and I went back in the house to grab the dog and start putting things in the car. When I opened the front door, which is like six steps from the back door, our entire front yard was on fire and the fire was climbing the hillside across the road from our house. It was so crazy because in six steps I went from seeing the trees in the back and thinking, “Oh no, the house might really be in trouble,” to seeing the front yard and thinking, “Oh, we might really be in trouble.” That is a second, very traumatic shift in your brain, from thinking your belongings are in trouble to thinking your dog and your husband and my own life might be in trouble.

WR: How were you able to get to the car?

JS: I picked up the dog, got one bag—I only had one chance to run to the car, so I didn’t bring all the stuff I had collected at the front door—I ran to the car and ran through flames in the yard to get to the driveway, to get to the car. I threw the dog in, started the car, and by then a sheriff’s deputy had driven in to find out if anybody was there and get them out. It’s crazy how quickly the smoke enveloped everything. It’s really hard to see where the police vehicle was or where the road was. Am I going to get hit by another car?

Jason didn’t realize I had the keys to the car and the entire area is now on fire. He opened the garage door and one of the huge tarps from construction flew out and took out the police officer and threw her down on the ground. It was a really dramatic scene. It was really scary. Everybody was doing the right thing, it was just it was the nature of a frightening event. Anyway, the officer grabs Jason and says, “You have to leave, you have to leave,” so he jumped in and we took off down the street.

WR: Where did you go?

JS: We went to a rangers’ station to sit in the parking lot. My coaches Mark [Wetmore] and Heather [Burroughs] met us there. We sat there watching the fire move and it was just unbelievable how quickly the fire was spreading along acres of our favorite running trails. We’re watching our neighbors’ houses be totally consumed in flames. We sat there for 20 minutes or so and I said to Jason, “I can’t just sit here and watch this.”

WR: Do you have any estimate of how quickly everything unfolded at your house?

JS: Jason took pictures from the first early smoke to when we were driving away—they’re time stamped and it’s interesting, it all happened in seven minutes. If we didn’t have those time stamps on his phone, I would have never in my life thought it was seven minutes. We had no time. It’s strange—we had a really different experience from a lot of people.

burned bricks on the ground after the wildfire at Jenny Simpson's property
(Photo: Hannah DeWitt)

WR: What have been the biggest challenges since then?

JS: Every individual we’ve talked to has had very unique challenges. The consensus among everybody that the hardest part, at least initially, was the uncertainty. A lot of people didn’t know how their house was for a long time. We couldn’t get into our house for a long time, because there was a hard closure. There was an overwhelming sense of not knowing how things are, where you’re going to live, if your favorite neighbors are going to stay and rebuild. What is going to happen to us? That’s been universally difficult to varying degrees.

WR: How is your community coming together?

JS: It’s been really interesting to me, our community of Marshall just really wanted to be together. There was a sense of shared experience—the combination of the fire and wind that day created this unspoken sense that no one could really understand unless they’d been there. Certainly for me and Jason, there’s been a sense of wanting to share this with people who lived here and were here. For example, my parents love me and want to be here for me, but it was hard to share the experience with them the same way I could with people who live down the road.

We’re lucky because we have a house. Our life, when you really pare it down to the essentials, is really simple. My heart totally breaks for the people who have kids and the people who have elderly parents or people they have to care for. Jason and I are not just fortunate that our house survived and didn’t burn to the ground, but we’re also lucky that we have minimal needs and are able to soldier on—we’re young, we have a lot of energy, and we don’t have dependents in our lives. It frees us up to get our own feet back on the ground.

WR: What’s the largest damage to your home?

JS: It’s the attic area. If you’re talking about what physically has to happen for us to get back into the house, somebody has to come in and take out the insulation because there was a lot of soot and ash that got into the attic area. We’ve done smoke remediation. The displacement and uncertainty is the hardest thing. For us, we have this beautiful, historic home that is meaningful to us, but it’s really part of a history that belongs here.

WR: You’ve talked a little bit about how you are stewards of that history. What does that mean to you?

JS: First of all, a lot of history was literally burned to the ground around us. There are so many buildings or relics of Old Marshall that are gone forever. We really feel for us, our mission is that if the schoolhouse survived, it should serve a purpose in helping the community survive. Our mission is to do whatever we can to help resource and facilitate whatever is needed for our neighbors to be able to stay here.

My process my whole life and in my career—because, you know everything has to be compared to running because that’s what I know best—has been to go to practice, train yourself up, be as prepared as possible, and then when it matters most you’re ready to execute a plan that you know well. This is the first time in my life that I’m facing something really hard, a different type of race-day intensity. There’s no time or know-how to know what the plan is. We’re just putting ourselves out there, we’ll try different things and see what works. About four weeks after the fire, we saw a need that people just wanted to get together and talk about rebuilding efforts as a community. We just put a day on the calendar and said that anybody who wants to come and gather at our house, it’s open. We thought maybe five people would come, but we had between 40 and 50 neighbors who came. It served a lot of purposes—it connected neighbors and it was the easiest way to pass around information.

How can we be in it with them for the long haul? They’re going to need resources and encouragement six months from now and years from now. That’s going to be a lot of our mission in the next few years.

Jenny Simpson holds burned wood from the Marshall wildfire that swept through her property
(Photo: Hannah DeWitt)

WR: You’ve experienced some huge moments in your career, at the world championships and the Olympics, for example, but this experience probably puts so much of your life in a different perspective.

JS: It’s amazing to me that in my few years on this precious planet I’ve been able to be attached to so many things that are bigger than me. We moved into this schoolhouse thinking, “Oh, what a fun thing for us to be the caretakers of something that’s been around for 120 years.” The idea that this place has been around so much longer than we were ever around and that a lot of the families that ran through the school rooms in this house still have a presence in this community, that really drew us to this place. And now it’s still a symbol of this community trying to hang on and exist. It meets its purpose again.

I’m again drawn to what is bigger than myself, whether that’s wearing a Team USA uniform at the Olympic Games or being part of a long and significant Colorado legacy, I feel really privileged that I get to be a part of something bigger than me. We’re just drawn to the idea that if this schoolhouse made it through the fire, then it should continue serving a bigger purpose than just being our home.

WR: You’ve had so much on your plate already this year. Has running been helpful? Or has it been added stress?

JS: People talk a lot about how running has been a refuge for them or an escape, where they can sort out problems. That’s never completely resonated with me, because running has always in some form been my ambition. I don’t know that I could ever feel like I’m escaping when it’s where I’m putting in my blood, sweat, and tears. I love it. I love that running is my job. I don’t want it to be a place where I check out. I want to dial in and find out what is the hardest I can work and the best that I can be. This is the first stretch of my life where training has really been that refuge for me.

I’m a thoughtful and reflective person, but not a highly emotional person. For a month, the feeling like I might be on the verge of crying just felt really close to the surface for a really long time. That was really hard because it’s so unlike me. There’s nothing wrong with being that way, it’s just not my normal state of being. It was really uncomfortable to feel so vulnerable all the time. Running was really a place where I could escape that sense of feeling so unsettled. In a way I’ve had this new relationship with training and a new relationship with running that gives me a more complete picture of how people experience the sport that I really love.

Almost always for most of my life, my run has been the hardest part of my day—in a good way. It’s where I pour in the majority of my energy and definitely through the month of January 2022, my workout and training was the easiest and happiest part of my day.

WR: How has it impacted any plans to race?

JS: I’ve never taken a pause from racing in my life and I’ve taken a pause. Where I’m going to race next is just TBD for a while.

WR: I saw that you’ve started a “Crossover Into Business” program at Harvard, though?

JS: It’s a funny thing to have woven into this period of my life. I applied in December, thinking I’m not going to be busy in January, February, or March. It’s the perfect time. Little do you know what’s coming around the corner. We were here at our property meeting with the insurance adjuster in January and I got the acceptance email into the program. I was so happy.

It’s a semester-long program, one class. It’s an executive MBA program, not a degree-seeking program. I have two second-year MBA students who are mentoring me through the case studies and classes. It’s been valuable. I love working hard and it’s so fun to prepare for something that’s really difficult. It’s focused on my future, not the fire, which feels really good. The idea is to take professional athletes and give them the opportunity to study business. The class is sports and entertainment, so we work through a set of case studies in the Harvard style discussions and debates. It’s great, because you’re in sports long enough as an athlete and you are in close proximity to a lot of the business of sport, so to put some education behind some of those life lessons learned along the way has been really fun.

WR: When you stop competing, is that where your interest lies?

JS: I think it’s important to try new things and I don’t do a lot of that. I have been laser focused on goals I knew I wanted to chase after. So this is an effort to try new things. I never ever thought I’d go back to school and this is me testing that water. What executive-level programs are worth the time and energy to really equip myself for the next chapter? This is me dipping my toe into the possibilities and asking, “What do I really want to do next?”