Jenny Simpson has run hundreds of races in the past 20 years, from her first mile in elementary school to winning New York City's Fifth Avenue Mile for the fourth time in September. She's also earned four NCAA titles at the University of Colorado, won two world championship medals and competed in two Olympics.
Simpson finishes first so often, in part, because she's an expert at managing the start. "I really have a lot of peace at the starting line," she says. "That's a place where I feel pretty good about myself."
How is that possible? Here's what she thinks about while she's waiting for the gun.
I'm at home. "I've definitely had to learn how to cope with nerves, but the starting line is not when I'm nervous," Simpson, 29, says. "I think a lot of it goes back to my favorite sports movie of all time: 'Hoosiers.'"
There's one scene in particular: When a team of small-town Indiana basketball players make it to the state championship, they arrive at the big arena. Before the first practice, the coach takes out a measuring tape and measures from the free throw line to the basket. Then he measures from the hoop to the ground. He asks the players to tell him the measurements and says, "This is exactly like the court at home."
"That has always stuck with me," Simpson says. "When I step onto the track -- whether it's the Olympic final [or not] -- ultimately, it has lanes, it's 400 meters, it's the same track. This is home."
I don't have to be perfect to win. If Simpson's warm-up doesn't go exactly as she hopes, "Then I think: I won the world championships when I wasn't at my best. You don't have to be at the best of your life to win a race; you just have to be the best on that day. In 2011, I won the world championships in 4:05. I've now run 3:57."
"Every athlete is going to have a race where you're not 100 percent at the starting line. Having to work under less-than-perfect conditions is just life. So I think about that all the time: I don't have to be perfect to do really, really well."
It's good to be me. "I would rather be me than anyone else in this race," Simpson says. "I know how hard I've worked to get here, and what I know about myself is very real. Anything I assume about my competitors is speculation. If I think that she's totally ready for this race, I'm speculating. I don't know that. She could have twisted her ankle in the warm-up or on the way here."
"So I always think: I'd rather be me than anybody else in the race because I know what I'm ready for."
Look like I want to be there. "Sometimes I'm introduced on the starting line. That can be really scary. You're in the finals of a world championship, the gun's about to go off, and the camera's very, very much in your face. Sometimes people look scared -- and I'm guilty of this -- because you're thinking about the task at hand. I'll never forget my coach Mark Wetmore once told me, kind of jokingly, 'At least look like you want to be there.'"
"Now it's actually a little moment of levity for me. If I'm ever introduced and there's a camera in front of my face, I always think of my coach sitting at home. (One coach is usually with me and one is usually at home.) I always kind of laugh -- like Mark's in Boulder watching this on TV, and I should make him think for 30 seconds that I'm happy to be here."
Doubt is okay -- but only a little. "Doubt is an ever-present thing, whether you're the best in the world or a developing athlete. I think it's something everyone should admit and learn to deal with. If anyone tells me that they don't doubt themselves, they're totally lying. It's not a shameful thing. You shouldn't be ashamed of working really, really hard and then being worried that it's not going to work.
"I don't have one specific mantra [to cope with it]. There's not one thing I'm always afraid of or doubtful of. It's different things on different days."
"So when I get to the starting line or I get to the beginning of the season, I say it's okay to have doubt as long as the doubt is a lot smaller than the amount of conviction you have in your training and who you are.
And when the gun goes off... "That second that we're no longer in an even line, I feel totally in my element and I really, really enjoy it. Then ... I get eager. Sometimes in the first 100 meters, I have to remember that the person that gets to the curve first doesn't win. It's that little kid that runs out way too hard in elementary school in their first mile race; there's a piece of that still inside me. Even with all the stress and adversity and success that I've experienced, it's still there, and that's the element that reminds me that I'm far from the end of my career."
"So yeah, when the gun goes off, I have a blast. It's hard to get to that point. But once I get there, I love it."