Jenny Simpson: “I Know There’s Still Something Great Left in Me”
After missing the Olympic team for the first time in her career, America’s most-decorated 1500-meter runner is making a leap to the 10 miler on September 12.
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After she placed tenth in her marquee event, the 1500 meters, in June at the 2021 Olympic Track & Field Trials, Jenny Simpson wasn’t sure what would come next. Up until this year, she had never failed to make a U.S. team, in 14 years of competing.
The last time Simpson had watched the Olympics on television, it was 2004, she was a 17-year-old high school student, unaware that in 2016 she’d bring home the bronze in the 1500 meters, becoming the first U.S. woman to medal in the event. Along the way, she won the gold at the 2011 world championships, and a couple of silvers in 2013 and 2017.
While she was undeniably sad to not make the trip to Tokyo, Simpson, 35, was surprised that she enjoyed watching the Games from home in Boulder, Colorado.
“I wondered if I was going to be weird about it, but I loved it,” Simpson said during a phone interview on Tuesday. “I don’t remember the last time I was able to really just sit down and enjoy a track meet…the Olympics in 2021 will always be a memory for me of a time where I stood down and I watched Team USA and just got to be a total fan.”
She toyed around with a lot of ideas of what to do with herself this summer. Maybe compete on the Diamond League circuit? Or pick a couple of other track meets to race? But nothing sounded particularly fun to Simpson until her coaches Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs suggested something completely out of her element: the 10-mile U.S.road championships, held on September 12 at the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler (rescheduled from it’s usual April date because of COVID-19), in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve never done anything like it and there was something about that that just really intrigued me and sounded really exciting,” Simpson said. “It’s so funny. I mean, this is one of the most exciting things about our sport. How long have I been doing this? And I’m relatively unfamiliar with some of the most popular and beloved road races in the world.”
In preparation, Simpson has traded her track spikes for road flats and her 200-meter intervals for tempo runs. She talked with Women’s Running about what it means in the context of her career to make a move up in distance on the roads, how she coped with the fallout of the Olympic Trials, and what her expectations are for her first 10-mile road race. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Women’s Running: What’s appealing about the 10-mile race distance to you? And racing on the roads, too?
Jenny Simpson: Starting from the beginning, in middle school, there weren’t a lot of inter-school competitions, so we’d put on our cross country uniforms and run the local road races in Orlando, Florida. My first experiences with running, like most people’s introduction to the sport, was through road racing and through the community aspect of it. So the idea of taking a time of my life where I felt really disoriented and just kind of sad missing the Olympics, but also thinking, “OK, where’s my career headed?” even in the next three or five months, it felt nostalgic and familiar and inviting to return to something that I have known in the past and drew me into the sport in the first place.
Also, my husband has been running marathons for years and I’ve experienced the road racing world through him. It’s been so fun. One of the things that’s silly, but I am looking forward to, is when you’re on the track, you’re in a stadium. There’s tens of thousands of people cheering for you at one time and it’s just so exciting. With road racing, instead of having this huge crowd, you can hear individual voices and sometimes you get lucky and hear your name. It sounds small and silly but I’m looking forward to that.
WR: What are your goals or expectations for the race?
JS: Literally, I just emailed the people at the Cherry Blossom race and just said, “Hey, would you mind if I competed in the women’s elite section?” I told them that I know nothing about road racing, so to please treat me like a newbie. I mean I’ve run the Fifth Avenue Mile so many times, but are you kidding me? Ten miles? I have no idea what I’m doing. So, as far as goals? I have no idea what I’m getting into. The truth is, I don’t know. I’ve certainly run long runs, but we all know that it’s totally different. I’m taking the same approach as any other race—I’ve done the training, I know I’m ready to do it, and I know I can absolutely get myself to the finish line. I’m really looking forward to watching the mystery unveil itself live just like everybody else. I’ll learn if I have an aptitude for this or if my very best years of running I was smart to sink into the middle distances.
WR: You’re so used to knowing all your competitors on the starting line. You’re lining up with a lot of people you’ve never raced before.
JS: It’s funny because I was trying to explain to a friend who isn’t a competitive runner the difference between racing on a track and the road—it’s almost different sports. The elite sections, there’s crossover, but there’s not 100 percent crossover. And I’ve never raced in these shoes before. I’ve only done a few workouts in road racing flats in my entire life. Even the idea of what it’s going to be like running with a pack of women at that effort for that long in the middle of the road? I’ve only ever done that for a mile. I’ll be excited to see if I regret my decision at mile eight or nine.
WR: Before the Trials you had mentioned in an interview how much you had been enjoying your long runs. Do you still enjoy them now that you’re training for a longer race?
JS: My long runs haven’t changed much at all. It’s really my workouts that have changed—I don’t have to do 12 x 200 anymore. I have no plans to close the last 200 meters of a 10 miler in 29 seconds. One of the reasons I’m really looking forward to this kind of race and why I’ve enjoyed the long runs is because there’s an intensity that I bring to track sessions that has made me good for a lot of years. It’s been an important factor in my consistency and success. I could keep going and I still have a few years of good running left in my legs, even if I chose the 1500. But there’s no doubt that I’m not as young as I once was and there’s a resiliency in your legs when you’re 22 that you don’t have at 32. It’s not in the mileage or running, but in the explosiveness. In the long runs, I can mentally dial it in and for a long time I can feel really strong. That’s been an attraction to me and a meditative relief in the midst of a lot of uncertainty that we’ve all been living in.
Watching some of my workouts naturally progress to a point where it’s starting to get a little bit harder on my body, I go out on long runs and have long stretches of time where I feel really good about who I am and what I’m doing. It anchors me and reassures me that my good years of running aren’t over yet. Having experienced that in the last year is part of what made training and getting ready for the 10 mile attractive. If I’m going to compete, it’d be really fun to have an effort with a similar feel.
WR: How else has the training changed?
JS: The best thing is that now I do almost all my workouts with my husband, which is not unusual but I’ve never done it this consistently. He’s a really good marathoner so to bring him into the fold of the hardest parts of my training has been really fun. It’s also angering when we’re four miles into a hard effort and he’s still giving me training cues. I’m thinking, “This should be harder for you.” It’s fun to experience it together.
Also so much of my running career I’ve been the expert and now he has more experience than I do. It’s a flip for us. It’s fun to learn from him and defer to him. You can always learn from each other. He’s opened up a lot more about what might be useful in my training and my racing and my mental game.
I’m just doing longer intervals and I’m out of my spikes, doing more work in my road-racing flats. I haven’t put on spikes and done repeat 200s or repeat 400s in a long time. And I don’t miss it. I think this new challenge is fun—doing this in new equipment and with no pre-recorded history to compare myself to has been such a relief. I do a two-mile time trial and I have nothing to compare that to, so if I get to the end and I feel good and the time is what my coaches told me to do, then I think, “I’ve had a great day,” and I don’t compare it to anything.
WR: Has your overall mileage gone up?
JS: I’ve probably always trained more like a distance runner than a traditional middle-distance runner. In college I was probably doing 70 to 75 miles a week toward the end, my senior year. I’ve always been right around there or a little higher. It hasn’t changed much. I’m not running 100 miles a week—I have a really good foundation. I just do what my coaches say. It’s funny that training for a mile or a 10 mile, I’m doing the same mileage every week.
WR: Is this a permanent move to longer distances?
JS: I’m not ready to close the book on my track career yet. I’ve never dedicated a season to training for the 5K and I have an OK 5K PR but it’s certainly not what I think I’m capable of. I don’t think this is a permanent switch. My intention in running it is to have a fun effort. It’s dipping my toe in the deep end and see if there’s potential if I wanted it. It’s a vacation from the intensity that I’ve had for so long more than it is a career shift.
WR: I know the Trials didn’t work out the way you wanted it to, but if you’re willing to talk about it, I’d like to know how you recovered from it, emotionally?
JS: It’s fair to say that I’m still processing it to some degree. I feel like I have a lot of my mind wrapped around it but I don’t know if I’ll sound very articulate.
Leading up to the Trials, it was a tough year. But once I got there and started going through the rounds, I really felt good and I was regaining my confidence. Without sounding too arrogant, I thought that if anyone could pull it off after a less-than-perfect year, it’s me. I think you have to have that belief if you’re ever going to pull it off. You have to be irrational going into the biggest races, otherwise why are you there? I felt good. I looked good. But the rounds were 4:11, 4:09 paces. When the racing really got going in the final, my lack of fitness just showed through. I wasn’t fit enough. We had indicators through my training that it was probably the case.
When I came through and I didn’t qualify, I will say my happiness and my joy for the three New Balance women [Elle Purrier St. Pierre, Cory McGee, and Heather MacLean] who made it was genuine. I really was happy to see the results. I’ve watched all three train really hard, take the sport really seriously, and I have a lot of respect for the way they worked their way toward that week and executed.
But then I go through the mixed zone and I wasn’t chosen for drug testing, so I came out to see my husband and coaches. For the first time ever I just had to get my backpack and go home. It was so weird. I’m so used to running a victory lap, going to drug testing, going through team processing, having to manage my family and friends who want to celebrate with me. Having that experience repeated over and over for so many years, it was like falling off a cliff. The inactivity around me was the weirdest thing. I was like, “OK, I guess you just cool down and get your bag and go home.”
I wasn’t as devastated as people might expect. I did all the training so I had indicators that not making the team was a possibility. I wasn’t caught off guard. But it took two weeks or so. I was on the track doing a hard session and that was the first day I was really sad. I didn’t really know what it was for. It wasn’t for the Olympic team. I had that moment of sadness. I finished the workout, I had a good day, but it’s like grieving. You go through different stages and you don’t know how it’s going to hit you.
On the other end of that, I feel a combination of intense gratitude for how much I have and how much I’ve gotten to experience and how much I just feel in my bones is still left. I know it. I know there’s still something great left in me. I don’t know if it’s going to be on the roads or on the track. I don’t know if it’s world championships or something different, but the Olympic Trials and stepping off the track and grabbing my bag and going home is not the end of the story. I still have a few more years of great running in me.
Having time to get some distance from that experience and now, truly I wake up excited to see what’s next.
WR: Will we see Jenny Simpson on the 2024 U.S. Olympic marathon team?
JS: You’re not the first person to bring that up and I keep telling people I’m running the 10 mile, but I am absolutely not committing to running a marathon. That’s one thing I said to my coaches—if I agree to do the 10 mile and I enjoy it, I don’t want that to be a commitment to the marathon. I feel like it’s this automatic leap, but they agreed. If they’re putting together a master training plan for the marathon they’ve kept it away from me so far.
WR: I would imagine that having the 2022 world championships in Eugene, Oregon, is attractive.
JS: Absolutely. There’s still unexplored events for me on the track. I’ve never trained specifically for the 5K and I’ve never run a 10K competitively. There’s undiscovered things on the track along with the lure of the championships in Eugene.
There’s a different, more exciting ending to this story and I’m looking forward to finding out what that is. But it’s definitely not the 2021 Trials.