Emma Coburn: Steeplechase barriers will 'leave you pretty scarred'

Go behind the scenes as middle distance runner Emma Coburn poses for ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue.

This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2016. Subscribe today! And for more from the 2016 Body Issue, check out espn.com/bodyissue, and pick up a copy on newsstands starting July 8.

Four-time U.S. national steeplechase champion Emma Coburn knows a thing or two about making big leaps, so perhaps it's no surprise that she jumped at the chance to be in the 2016 Body Issue. During a short break in her Olympic training, Coburn spoke with ESPN's Morty Ain about climbing mountains, her "Game of Thrones" obsession and why you don't call them "hurdles."


So often we are celebrating statistics and medals and championships, but it's the blood, sweat and tears that go into making those performances happen within these bodies.

There was a physical and emotional benefit to growing up in a mountain town. Physically, growing up at 9,000 feet in Crested Butte, Colorado ... at a young age I had such a diverse set of sports that I was doing. When you're a kid, it's not even considered sports -- our hobbies in the summer as a family were rafting and mountain biking and climbing. I grew up snowboarding and skiing. Physically, having a diverse athletic background has helped me become a stronger runner in terms of muscular development and coordination.

Emotionally, growing up there was just about having fun. People write all the time about the benefits of not specializing in a sport too young so you don't burn out. I was happy to not really take running too seriously as my No. 1 sport until my junior year of high school.

I climbed my first "fourteener" when I was 7 years old. A 14,000-foot mountain is called a "fourteener" in Colorado. There are 60ish fourteeners, and my dad has climbed them all twice, my mom has climbed them all once and my sister and her husband are trying to make their way through them as well. I only have climbed probably three of them; I retired from that sport probably when I was 12.

We don't call them hurdles, we call them barriers, because they are 4-by-4 blocks of wood. It's not like a 100-meter hurdle where if you hit it, the hurdle falls. If you hit the barrier, you go down. It will leave you pretty scarred, so it's a bit intimidating.

Steeplechase is 3,000 meters of hurdling on a track. It's four barriers per lap that are 30 inches high for women, and then there's a water jump every lap. It's a 7.5-lap race, so you have seven water jumps. It's a 10-foot water pit and you jump up onto a 30-inch barrier and then step on the barrier and propel yourself over the 10-foot water pit. It's a fun event. I've always loved it just because it's a little bit more exciting than just the monotony of running around a track over and over and over again.

I've never had a big wipeout face-plant. I'm 5-8 and the barriers are 30 inches high, which is about the height of my hip, so being a little bit taller makes clearing the barriers easier.

How I ended up doing steeplechase was a happy accident. I was competing in a track meet out of state in Albuquerque, and I was signed up to run the 800 meters. To get to Albuquerque was about a seven- or eight-hour drive. My dad thought that was a very long way to drive to just watch two laps of running, so he looked at the schedule, and the only event that was on a different day that worked with our schedule was the steeplechase. I didn't really know anything about it, but I thought that it could be fun -- why not try it? I ended up winning my race and qualifying for the high school nationals meet. If that meet in Albuquerque had written a different schedule, I probably would have never been recruited to run in college.

Marcus Eriksson for ESPN

"The backdrop of Crested Butte and the snow and the mountains made for some really dramatic photos. The combination of the dramatic background and a naked person makes for some striking photos."

I think sometimes people lack some of the coordination needed for the blind hurdling required for the steeplechase. Often in a race, there are so many people around you that you don't even have eyes on the barrier, you have eyes on the people in front of you, and then you see their heads bump up: "OK, it's my time to go."

I run 80 miles a week. It is intense, but I'm not unique or special; I would say most female middle- to long-distance runners run 70 to 100 miles a week. It's just that the sport demands a pretty intense training load. We run seven days a week and sometimes two runs in a day, and the weight room, and 15-mile-long runs. But I have so many people around me who are doing it, it doesn't feel as taxing as it might seem.

I don't take a day off; I probably run nine times a week. I find that the best way to connect with people is to run with them. I have someone that I'm running with at least eight of those nine runs a week, if not nine of nine, so it's a great time to catch up with friends. My training partners are my friends.

I've never been self-conscious about my body. I never really thought much about it. It's just kind of the vessel that lets me do the things I like to do. It never dawned on me to think about it beyond that.

I grew up as the runt of our family's litter. I have an older brother and older sister, and I just wanted to tag along with them and kind of do everything that they were doing. My parents would bring me on these adventures just because my siblings were capable enough and old enough to do it, so my parents just said, "All right, you're coming with." For the first 10 years of my life, I was just the little kid trying to keep up.

I've always loved it just because it's a little bit more exciting than just the monotony of running around a track over and over and over again.
Emma Coburn

I was kind of an ugly baby. I was sick-skinny and I had straight hair -- I was just not a cute, cuddly, chunky baby. It turned out OK, but I was definitely kind of gangly. Both my brother and sister had beautiful, blond, ringlet hair and were gorgeous little babies, and then I was kind of the ... less cute one.

I'm not naturally the most confident athlete. But if my coaches tell me that I can run a certain time, I believe it with no question. Then that's it, that's decided, that's what I'm going to run. Any edge I have is because of the people around me.

The steeplechase is a pretty taxing event. Watch a slo-mo water-jump video and you'll see their ankles and lower legs compressing. You'll see how jarring it is on everyone's body who lands. It's so much more than anything else in any distance event.

In 2013, I had a sacral stress fracture. I was at the NCAA championships -- my last collegiate race ever. I chose to race the final anyway just because it was so important to me, and it broke during the race. So I ran the steeplechase in 2013 with a broken sacrum [lower back] which was really uncomfortable. I was on the verge of signing a contract with New Balance and trying to qualify for the world championship team two weeks later. So I had to just call New Balance and say, "I'm sorry, but I'm too hurt to compete for the U.S. title." The timing was pretty tough.

My feet are pretty gross. I have bone spurs on my heels, and bunions. Luckily, I never lose toenails, which is great. They are just not my best feature.

The nice part about being a professional athlete is so much of my job is resting and recovery in between sessions. As part of my job, I have to sit on a couch and either nap or relax. Last April or May, I binge-watched the first five seasons of "Game of Thrones" in two weeks.

Maybe I'm too into "Game of Thrones" now because they are invading my dreams. Recently in one I was climbing Mount Everest with Brienne of Tarth, except Mount Everest was actually Mount Crested Butte. Brienne of Tarth was helping me and she was in her full set of armor, and then Jaime Lannister rode in on a horse when we were near the summit and tried to kill us. It was a cliffhanger, so I don't know yet if we made it off the mountain alive or not [laughs].

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