Over the weekend, Jenny Simpson added another accolade to her decorated career by shattering the American record in the two-mile with a 9:16.78 win at the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa. The previous record of 9:20.25 was set by Shannon Rowbury in 2014.
At 31 years old, Simpson is the most decorated U.S. distance runner at 1,500 meters with a gold medal from the 2011 world championships, a silver in 2013 and then a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics. She is coming off a year in which she earned another silver at last summer’s world championships in London.
Aside from Wednesday’s Diamond League opener, Simpson’s 2018 schedule is still in the works but there be a chance for her to possibly chase Rowbury’s American record of 3:56.29, which was set in 2015.
On Wednesday, SI caught up with the New Balance athlete to catch up on her goals and plans for the 2018 season and examine how she’s remained a dominant force in U.S. distance running. She will be running the 3,000 meters at the Doha Diamond League meet on Friday.
Sports Illustrated: This year is an off-year from the IAAF World Championships or Olympics. The last time it was an off-year was 2014 that’s the same year that you ran 3:57.22 (third-fastest American woman at 1,500m of all-time). You opened up your 2018 campaign with an American record in the two-mile at the Drake Relays. As a veteran, do you just naturally approach the off-year as a chance to chase fast times?
Jenny Simpson: I had not really made that connection but you’re right. In 2014, I went after that 1,500 American record with a vengeance but didn’t quite get there. I did have some really good runs along the way and obviously laid a foundation for the next few years. The way I wrap my mind around an off-year is it’s the one year out of every four when you can break out of a routine and the intense focus on one specific, regular schedule. It’s usually rust busters, getting in shape, running USAs, making the team, going on a trip to Europe, running Worlds or the Olympics and then running on fumes as long as you can or until Fifth Avenue Mile and then come home. I’ve had a set rhythm for every year and this is a chance to break out that.
SI: What went into the decision to run an American record attempt to open the season? That’s not typical. In past years, you’ve run one indoor race and then slowly worked into the outdoor season.
JS: This year has started really different because I don’t think I’ve been this fit this early in a really long time. I feel like I’m more in sync with the collegians who are getting ready for NCAAs. (Laughs) I’m not running this well this early in the season so it’s good to be back and training hard with them.
To give you a little behind the scenes on how it all came together: I knew it would be fun to run the Drake Relays again. I’ve done it a few times in the past. When I spoke with the meet director, he was really great at thinking about what could be good for me and the meet. He wanted to bring an exciting race to the fans. I’ve run the 1,500 meters and won it in the past at the Drake Relays. He proposed the idea of going after the American record in the two-mile and I have to give him credit for it. It was pretty easy to talk me into it. That’s just the type of stuff I wouldn’t be willing to do when I’m training for USAs or Worlds because anything outside of what it takes to prepare for USAs can be seen as an unnecessary distraction. I didn’t know if I had made a mistake as the race approached, the forecast was getting windier. I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. What did I agree to do?’ But it ended up being great.
This also gave me something more than just racing to get ready for. In the past two years with the medals in 2016 and 2017, I just put such an emphasis on beating the competition that shows up on the start line. This just felt different and like a breath of fresh air and not worrying about the competition but really challenging the clock.
SI: After last summer’s world championships, you ran until early September. When you had a chance to decompress, what was your assessment like of what’s to come next? For a professional, you focus on the Olympics. The world championships in the year that follow are a natural next target but the off-year is when motivation can change. What’s keeping you going now?
JS: 2017 was the first year of my career where it really felt like I was doing this for a really long time. I don’t say this to pat myself on the back but more so to put it into context, but I haven’t missed a team since 2007. In making the team every single year, I’ve been top three at the U.S. Championships since 2007. That’s just a long way to go. I was in my 11th year of trying to keep that level of racing on the track. I’ve had injuries here and there. I’ve had some disappointments here and there but I haven’t missed a year with a team.
2016 was an Olympic year and it was super important. I had an unexpected injury in December that became the focus of the year that kept me distracted from any hopes of medaling. It had me focused on working really hard. At the same time, I had this fun carrot in thinking hat I made this Olympic team, it would’ve been a decade of making teams. That was fun and having all of these little shiny things in an Olympic year.
Even though there was a world championships in 2017, it was the first year when I was thinking ‘I’ve been doing the same thing for a really long time.’ I got through the year and had some really fun highlights and raced at a high level.
I do miss and recognize that there’s some ego and aggression that I need to re-visit. You can only really get that from putting some tough things out there and holding yourself accountable to it. When you’re saying, ‘I really want to medal at the Olympic Games or the World Championships.’ There’s two things about that. First of all, everyone wants to go that so it’s not this crazy thing to put out there. There’s nothing threatening about saying that because that’s what everyone wants to do. The other thing is, when you get to the championships, it doesn’t matter how good you are in this era of 1,500 meter running. You could be fourth or fifth and have a really great run. Things could go poorly and you can have a reason in your mind to justify why it didn’t work out. I’m lucky that I didn’t have that. I still medaled and had a great run. After all these years of chasing the medals, there’s just things about it where you’re not held to the same accountability as when you say, ‘I’m going to go out on my own whether someone goes out with me to try and run 70-seconds for every lap and kick to a record.’ It’s a different kind of accountability and goal that no one is forcing on you. Switching it up in that kind of way is something that will be good for the this year.
SI: That brings a lot of what we’ve seen recently with American distance runners, women in particular, vocalizing these huge goals and making them come true. Shalane Flanagan had it with winning a major marathon. She did it in New York last year. Des Linden said she wanted to win Boston year after year. She did it this year. Gwen Jorgensen wants to win gold in the marathon in 2020. That’s a work in progress. Let’s make it clear. What’s that goal for you?
JS: Real quick to agree with what your saying. Women are really, really competitive. There’s a ferocity to the competitiveness within someone like Shalane, Desi, Gwen and myself. You’re never going to be more competitive with any other woman than you are with yourself. It doesn’t surprise me at all that if Shalane, Des, Gwen or myself puts out into the world that she is going to achieve something, you can fail to achieve at certain levels but you’re going to do anything to compete against yourself and follow through on the promises that you’ve made to yourself. That’s interesting that you see that.
For me, what’s my big thing? Hmmm…I don’t know that I have one race on the calendar this year to say ‘This is the race I’m going to do and achieve that or run a certain time.’ What I’d say about this year for me is that I’ve been doing this a long time but I know I’m still getting better. That’s what I want people to see. I’m going to have an opportunity, unlike when I’m focused on the 1,500 meters or competing at the world championships, and freedom to show off to people that I’m still getting faster. I’m over 30 and I think that I’m still going to get better. I want to run a PR in the 3,000 meters. I would love to PR in the 1,500 meters again. That’s what 2018 will be all about.
I know people say all the time that I’m a very good championship racer and that’s true. I’m proud of that. I take it as a huge compliment because it’s hard to show up when the pressure is on and be one of the best. But also, I’m really fast. I’ve been really fast in the past. I’ve consistently been really fast. I’m not someone that shows and does well when other people don’t do well. I do well even when other people are doing well. That’s what I’m excited to show this year.
SI: Real quick. Let’s discuss those tactics. You have a world championship gold and two silver medals 1,500 meters as well as an Olympic bronze medal to show for your career. Is there anyone close to you really picking your brain to dissect those races and learn from them? You just always seem to find yourself in the best position with a lap to go.
JS: (Laughs) Ben Saarel is a 1,500 meter and 5,000 meter runner for Colorado and he’s shown the most real interest in my mental game. He’s a really smart and intellectual guy who is interested in the mental side of the running. We’ve had some fun opportunities to travel and he’s raced at the U.S. Championships. We’ve had trips where we’ve discussed it over meals. He’s been the most engaged at picking my brain and asking specifically what I’m thinking as I’m going through specific processes – not just racing but practices and warm-ups. He’s the most curious, which has been fun.
Although, this year I’ve taken a more intentional role with the Colorado Buffaloes. As I described earlier, I’ve been around for a long time. Ever since I’ve come back to the team in 2013, I’ve been a volunteer assistant coach but I was also similar in age to most of the collegians. Now we’re 10 years apart and with some of the medals under my belt, I do feel more comfortable with that mentor role. I’ve kind of embraced it more and been more engaged with women on the team so that’s been a lot of fun. If there’s anyone in the running world that I’ll pour my life lessons and experience into, it would be the Colorado Buffaloes.
SI: Even after all these years, what are coaches Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs still teaching you?
JS: Mark and Heather and so much more dynamic than the team realizes. They’re always trying new things and learning new things. They have a recipe that works really well but they’re always tweaking it. I respect that a lot. They aren’t settled. The pages of Running With The Buffaloes are history. They’re not stagnant. They don’t just have one way that they’ve stuck to all of these years. In their relationship with me, what’s been fun for me to experience is the trust. Even if something is not 100%, even if I get sick the week before the Olympic Games or something isn’t quite right, if I tell them that I will do something, they believe me. They just know I’m never going to give up. You can’t know that about yourself when you’re 21. By the time you’re where I am and you’ve had every chance to quit or every legitimate reason to take it easy but don’t, that’s the thing that you can’t develop any other way except over time. We’re all in this together 100% and no one gives up.
SI: You’ve brought up this veteran voice a couple times. At the same time, the U.S. scene in the 1,500 meters is one that interestingly hasn’t changed too much. For years, it’s been you and Shannon Rowbury (American record holder) going 1-2 and a third spot. This year, Shannon is pregnant but do you foresee the gap closing on you?
JS: It’s funny that you mention that. Everyone talks about how strong American women’s middle distance and long distance running is right now. It’s very true. Just look at the steeplechase last summer and how exciting that was. But if you look at the 1,500 meter specifically and, Chris, you might have to fact check me but I’m pretty sure if you take me and Shannon out, since Morgan Uceny in 2012—no one else has made multiple teams as that third person.
SI: You’re correct.
JS: That’s surprising. I’m bad at predicting the arc of certain events. When I left the steeplechase, I ran 9:12 and I said that the pool of runners in the U.S. is only going to get larger. The talent pool is going to grow. I thought that in no time 9:12 would be nothing. That hasn’t happened until now. I thought that was going to happen a lot faster. People like Emma Coburn or the Bowerman Track Club steeplechasers would be running 9-minutes just four years ago. It didn’t happen as quick as I thought it would. I think that would be true of the 1,500 as well. That next crop needs to come up and start consistently challenging for the U.S. spots. (Laughs) I don’t want to motivate them too much because I still want to make the teams.
SI: Who is on your Mt. Rushmore of Colorado Buffalo runners all-time? You can take into consideration their collegiate and professional accomplishments. I’ve asked this to Dathan Ritzenhein before and you were on his. There’s only four spots.
JS: Oh man…
SI: You can put yourself on there.
JS: I won’t. This is tough. My husband, Jason, and I have a friend named Clint Wells that I could on there for the heck of it. For me, Jorge Torres is underrated but I don’t want him to hear me say something super nice about him but those 2-3 years that he was on the team, he was on fire. His cross country championship win was incredible. Dathan Ritzenhein would make it…but, it’s tough because he’s a jerk for not staying the entire time so he doesn’t have a deeper Colorado resume. Adam Goucher was kind of the original star. Kara Goucher won a championship but Sara Slattery ran 15:24.97 as a sophomore in college. People don’t understand how good that was. Then there’s also Emma Coburn (2017 world championship gold medalist in the steeplechase). Adam and Kara would have to share a spot so the perfect combination of them is their son, Colt. On my Mt. Rushmore is going to be Colt, Emma, Jorge and Dathan.