By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2023 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
(11-Jan) — On Sunday, 2011 World Athletics 1500m champion Jenny Simpson will make her half-marathon debut at the Aramco Houston Half-Marathon. For Simpson, 36, it will be the longest race of her life.
She has previously run two 10-mile races, the 2021 Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10-Mile (52:16) and the 2022 Army Ten-Miler (54:16). If she breaks 1:12:00 she will qualify for the 2024 USA Olympic Team Trials Marathon in Orlando.
Simpson spent nearly her entire professional career sponsored by New Balance, but that came to an end last December. She is now sponsored by Puma.
Race Results Weekly spoke to her on Monday from her home in Boulder, Colorado. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Race Results Weekly: At the end of 2021 you decided to hang up your track spikes and commit to longer distances on the roads. What’s the journey been like so far?
Jenny Simpson: It’s a new journey. At the very onset of it I had an idea of how it would go. I guess it’s probably fair to say that I really mentally and emotionally made this shift at the beginning of 2022, that I’m dedicating my next training stretch to longer distances.
Things immediately did not go to plan, and I had a year of a lot of interruptions, injury and setbacks. So, I think it’s been such an interesting path for me. I wanted something different, and I’ve gotten something way more different than I knew I was signing up for.
RRW: How has it been different?
JS: It’s different in two ways. The first is my running career up to 2022 was so specifically planned and dialed-in. I didn’t have trouble overcoming difficulties along the way, sticking to the plan. The fact that my plan has kind of been derailed in so many different ways, and I’ve had to stick it out, that’s been new for me.
You know, not running a track season, not running the U.S. Championships. All of that has been really different.
And the other way that it’s been really difficult is I said from the beginning that going to the roads and doing longer stuff would be like taking on a new sport. And I think I kind of said that without full awareness of how true that would be. The last year has really taught me that I have a lot to learn. It’s not just that I have to learn a new way of training, and trust my coaches and do things differently.
I also have to accept that it’s going to feel really different. So, conceding to that has been more difficult than the intellectual journey of saying, OK, the mileage is going to go up, the workouts are going to be different. So, kind of emotionally conceding to this that it’s not going to feel like getting ready for the 1500 anymore has been more difficult than I thought it would be.
RRW: Why did you decide to move up to the half-marathon now?
JS: You asked, ‘why Houston, why now?’ I could give you a really good answer every single time I toed the line in the 1500. Like, this is the objective, this is what we’re doing, this is the exact build-up to get me to these goals for this race.
This feels a lot more –this half-marathon in Houston– feels a lot more to me, like, you can’t wait forever. You just have to get out there and do it. So, I don’t have the experience, yet, to build-up the way I did for middle distance races. I don’t have the experience to be able to walk into that half-marathon and say, this is exactly what I want to accomplish at these different mile markers, and exactly how I want to feel, and I know what I’m capable of.
So, in a way I’m racing Houston because so many people have great things to say about the race itself, the organization. The course is flat and favorable for a lot of people, and it’s just time. I need to get my butt out there and start racing again and start doing what I made a commitment to do which is longer stuff.
I can’t make a living off of running ten-mile races, so I need to start doing standard distances again.
RRW: How has your training gone under your coaches Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs?
JS: I’ve had a good build up; I’ve had good training. But, I’m surprised for myself how frightening it feels to not really know what I’m capable of headed to the starting line.
RRW: So, it’s a race of exploration?
JS: Yes. Beautifully said, because I thought it would be kind of a training journey of exploration. So, I think one thing I didn’t give racing enough credit was that even toeing the start line and getting to those first few longer distance races is also going to be part of a journey of discovery and exploration. I don’t know if I have fully emotionally embraced that reality yet when I made this commitment.
RRW: There will be a lot of people trying to run fast in Houston on Sunday. Are you worried at all about getting sucked out too fast? Since your husband Jason is running with you, are you counting on him to help you manage your pace?
JS: The beautiful thing is that we’re both very competitive, and Jason can be just as susceptible as me [laughs]. In training that’s a real positive because we can both egg each other on and get something out of ourselves that we wouldn’t be able to accomplish just on our own. But, Jason is definitely there to bridge the experience. I have a lot of experience in being mentally tough, carrying a lot of pressure.
But I have to carry that pressure through a warm-up and then a four-minute race, you know? So, that I have to be reasonable and metered at the beginning of the race is definitely a place where Jason’s experience is going to bridge my lack of experience, but with the understanding that it’s not 100% on him. He can get excited in races just as much as anyone. So, it wouldn’t be out of the question that I tap him on the shoulder at mile one and say, “this is a little hot for the first mile of 13.”
RRW: Your absolute potential for the half-marathon would be very high, but since you’re feeling your way along do you have a goal time-wise in mind?
JS: You know, I don’t have a goal. The reason I don’t have a goal is because I was disappointed in that I didn’t race fast in the 10 mile at Army [last October, 54:16, equivalent to a 1:12:17 half-marathon]. I really thought I was ready for something closer to 5:20 pace [53:18]. I was tired, I was working hard, I was coming back from an injury, and coming back from years and years of top-level 1500-meter running. All of that’s in my legs, in my heart and in my mind. But, I am coming back from an injury which is a weird part of this journey.
So, I think that Mark and Heather want to take some of the pressure off and say, be smart. Let’s start out somewhere around where you were racing at Army and you can certainly pick it up from there. So, I don’t necessarily really have a big time goal. This is really about me getting past the finish line and saying, this is not as scary as I’ve made it up to be.
RRW: It could be scary, especially because of all of the disruptions you had in 2022.
JS: At the beginning of this commitment I was healthy, and happy, and sponsored [by New Balance], and had this idea of how everything was going to go. I really thought this is going to be such an exciting, smooth and strong transition into something new. And, I carried a lot more baggage into this than I had envisioned. Not baggage, but just, like, challenges. I carried more challenges to this journey than I expected I had to. It’s so hard for me to take a deep breath and say, being in the top-3 does not have to be the meter of success every single time, and really measuring me against myself again. This has been really humbling and really difficult. For me as a human, not me as a racer, I think there’s a lot of growth that’s happening, character-wise with that kind of challenge.
RRW: So, qualifying for the Olympic Trials Marathon would be a sub-72:00. Is that on your radar?
JS: It IS on the radar. I think I can run sub-72:00. I do. I can confidently say I think I’m capable of that, and I would like to do that. I guess it would be really nice to check that box and say, OK, I’m going into the year if I want to run the marathon in Orlando that I at least have an invitation to go. I guess the reason that my mind isn’t obsessed with that goal in particular is because the idea of running a marathon still seems so big.
I just want to get through this half first. The idea of running 26.2 miles, it seemed big a year ago and as I got into the training it got bigger. I didn’t seem more attainable; it seemed less attainable [laughs]. That’s kind of the beauty of something that’s really difficult. I imagine that somebody stands at base camp and looks at the top of Everest and they have all this hope and all this ambition to climb this mountain. Standing at the base is not when the mountain seems the biggest. I mean, it must be when you’re exhausted and your part way up. I guess that’s how I kind of feel right now.
RRW: The marathon must seem awfully far at this point…
JS: You start thinking about 26 [miles] and you don’t know what that is. You’ve never done it, even in training. When would I have run 26 miles in my life? I don’t think I’ve ever run 26 miles in a single day. Yeah, that to me is the difference: the half-marathon is a short Sunday run and the full marathon is something I’ve never done before in my life.
RRW: What was the injury you were dealing with in 2022?
JS: So, I had a stress reaction in my pubic bone that really lingered for a long time, and we had a hard time cross-training through that and it caused a sports hernia. That ended up being even harder to kind of heal from and recover from.
It’s like a lot of things. One thing cascaded into a lot of things. I just really appreciate the support I got from the staff at the Olympic Training Center [in Colorado Springs]. It took months to sort out. It took a long time [but no surgery]. I’m totally healthy, totally pain-free. It was a long and bumpy and annoying road.
RRW: You also had to deal with the Marshall Fire in early 2022 which forced you and Jason to evacuate your home in Boulder, and although it didn’t burn there was a lot of damage from ash and soot.
JS: We just crossed over the one-year mark; it was December 30th that it happened a year ago. I look back on the year and I’m amazed at how close we’ve come to our community. Jason and I really cared, in the aftermath of the fire, to be community builders, people who were really there to support other people best as we could.
But, we were also displaced. We were out of our house for three months and there was a lot of work that had to be done right here on our property. It was just bigger than running. It was bigger than your career. It was bigger than any one individual life and family. It was really really exhausting stretch of life for us. That mixed with having an injury, those things kind of ended up going hand-in-hand, kind of one stress fed the other. But, oh my gosh, praise God that we’re kind of beyond the worst of that experience.
RRW: How did you even go about the remediation work? Did you get any help navigating the insurance aspect of it?
JS: Shout-out to how incredible the running community is. There’s a coach in Iowa, his name is Mike Austin, and he’s an independent insurance adjuster. He just reached out to me over Twitter and said, ‘I’m an insurance adjuster. I kind of have seen these things around the country and if you have any questions if you need some support, feel free to reach out.’
He was a total stranger, but he’s a high school coach. I was on the phone with him for hours for points throughout the process, just getting great guidance and great advice. I look back and I think, oh my gosh, he was such a godsend at a time when we didn’t know the first few steps.
RRW: When were you able to get back into your home?
JS: We moved back in the first week of April.
RRW: That must have been an incredibly emotional day.
JS: We were in the house less than a week and there was another fire just a few miles west of us. So, it’s funny, I don’t really remember the joy of moving back in because within a few days there was another really frightening fire really nearby. The proximity and the look of it was just really similar to the Marshall Fire, and thank God it stayed really small. The fire department did a great job and put it out, and no homes were burned. But, I couldn’t believe that the weekend we moved home, we had to relive that fear again.
RRW: That’s really sobering.
JS: I have a better understanding how incredibly helpless you feel as an individual when these natural disasters make a home around your home. You know, when they settle in place around you –whether it’s a flood, or a fire, or a terrible snow storm– you just ride it out. Yeah, I have a better connection to just how powerless you are in the midst of when it’s going on.
PHOTO: Jenny Simpson on a training run last October in Colorado (photo courtesy of Puma Running)