When Emma Coburn runs a steeple in the United States, you expect her to control the race. Even though she does not hold the American Record in the event, she is, without a doubt, the greatest U.S. runner to ever race the event. She is a nine-time U.S. champion, an Olympic bronze medalist, and a world champion in the event. So, when she races in the U.S., you expect her to control the race.
That usually means Coburn goes to the front of race, dictates the pace, and then powers away from the field over the final kilometer or lap or whichever distance she chooses to make a move from.
Which is why the start of the women’s steeplechase at the 2020 Olympic Trials was a bit of a surprise.
When the gun went off, Coburn, all the way on the outside of the track, stood there in the starting position for a moment as the field burst from the line. She let them go, and once they were about a yard in front of her, she bounded across the track towards the inside lane—10 seconds into the race, she was in second to last place.
And the thing is, she was still in control.
In the steeplechase—like any race, but amped up to 11—anything can happen; a clipped hurdle, a runner in front of you falling, a bad water jump. The chances are even higher when you’re in a pack. And yet, Coburn chose to put herself in the thick of it. Those first 10 seconds set the tone for the rest of the race. She decided she would be the one chasing. I have not seen a runner dictate a race from the pack many times, but I did in the women’s steeplechase.
From there, from those 10 seconds, Coburn did what was expected of her. She maneuvered her way through the pack, often sitting on the inside line. She stalked the leaders, watching their moves from a short distance, and answered them when she needed. Then, she took control from the front, and it was, as it was before the gun went off, over. Coburn ran an Olympic Trials record of 9 minutes, 9.41 seconds.
She was in control the entire way.