For nearly a decade and a half, the story of women’s 1500-meter running in the United States has had a dominant lead character. Jenny Simpson has made three Olympic and five world championships appearances, winning bronze in Rio in 2016 and three world championships medals, including gold in 2011.
But the past 18 months has brought a series of plot twists. First, the pandemic, which stalled professional racing, delayed the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials and the Olympics, and left Simpson struggling with the notion that the sport she loved had an uncertain future.
“It was a really challenging thing for me to face, that what we love to do together will be harder to do together, for maybe years,” Simpson told Runner’s World by phone last week.
When the Trials finally arrived, Simpson placed tenth in the 1500-meter final (won by Elle Purrier St. Pierre), missing her chance to race in Tokyo. Upon reflection, Simpson believes that in a shortened season that also included injuries and other setbacks, she just didn’t plan her peak correctly. But it took her time to reach that conclusion.
“I did have this moment thinking, maybe this is it,” she said. “You think, ‘Oh, it’s not just COVID, it’s not just timing. I just turned 35.’ You start to doubt yourself and think, maybe this is how it ends.”
Her coaches, Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs, urged her to redefine the narrative. “We collectively decided this is not going to be the end of the story,” she said. “My career has been too fun, it’s been too joy-filled, it’s been too exciting. We’ve had too many mountaintops to say, well, when it gets hard, we’re gonna give up.”
To rebound from the disappointment, Simpson wrote herself a new role: long-distance runner. In an entirely new challenge, she competed on Sunday, September 12 in the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run in Washington, D.C., which doubled as the USATF Ten Mile Championships. Simpson finished in 52:16, second behind Nell Rojas, who outkicked Simpson in the final 400 meters to win in 52:13.
Simpson knows she’s not alone in her post-pandemic struggles. Whether you’re moving up in distance, trying a fast mile for the first time, or otherwise looking to shake yourself out of a running rut with a new adventure, here’s what you can learn from her transition.
Use fun as your guide, and enjoy freedom from expectations
Although she’d put in a significant effort ahead of the Trials, Simpson knew she didn’t want to take a break after her disappointing result.
“Sometimes when your work is the hardest, the best thing to do is keep working until your environment looks different,” she said. “Then you can kind of say, ‘Okay, I didn’t quit when I was at the lowest low.’”
However, the thought of heading back to the track to compete—or even to the 5th Avenue Mile, which she won seven consecutive times from 2013 to 2019—held little appeal. “I didn’t want to do something that I would kind of quietly inside think, ‘Three years ago, I was so much better at this,’” she said. When Wetmore and Burroughs suggested going completely outside her comfort zone to a longer distance, that sounded far more pleasurable.
In another call the afternoon after the race, Simpson called the race “a blast.” A snapshot her husband Jason took of her just before heading to the starting line that encapsulated her mood, she said: She’s looking at him with a big, goofy smile, far more relaxed and happy than she can remember being pre-race.
“If you’re trying something new, take advantage of being a total novice and really enjoy being the person with no pressure and only everything to learn,” she said. “Be happy when you get to the start and be proud of yourself when you make it to the finish.”
Pivot from the familiar
For as novel as the distance was, Simpson kept some aspects of her training and racing consistent. “Having one foot in the familiar and one foot in the mysterious, unknown deeper end of the pool,” she said, gave her an extra boost of confidence in uncharted territory.
She already runs more mileage than many middle-distance athletes, up to 80 miles per week. During the pandemic, she’d extended her already-lengthy long runs to between 13 and 15 miles, so she kept them around the same distance and intensity as she prepared for the 10-miler. Though her workouts shifted from shorter intervals (think 400 meters to 500 meters) to mostly longer ones (a mile or more), “the fundamental structure of my week has really stayed the same.”
The timing of the race also kept her season in a familiar rhythm. In the past, she’d take a break after the 5th Avenue Mile. Since the pandemic caused organizers to reschedule the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run, usually held in April, to September, “this gets me back on my normal schedule,” she said.
The time of day, however, was more of a struggle. Simpson is decidedly not a morning person: “There’s no lark in me, not even hiding,” she said. On the track, she often toes the line as late as 9 p.m. So being ready for a major effort at 7:18 Eastern time—that’s 5:18 a.m. in Boulder, where she lives and trains—didn’t come naturally. To be as prepared as possible, Simpson shifted more of her training to the early hours.
Find experienced helpers, and learn by example
The pain of setting an early-morning alarm was just one lesson Simpson had to learn in her buildup; she also needed to practice skills like patience. In addition to expert guidance from her coaches, she had a built-in training partner to show her the ropes: Her husband Jason, an Olympic Trials-qualifying marathoner with a personal best of 2:18:44.
The couple usually runs together once or twice a week. This time, they did nearly all their miles together, though Jason elected to spectate rather than run the race himself. In deference to his distance expertise, she focused on following his lead on everything from fueling to gear to how to navigate the shifting terrain of an open road.
“What I probably get the most from him is just being able to mimic his calm state,” she said. “He’s not ready for a fight at the starting line, which is so new to me. He’s ready for a long grind.”
Before and during the race, Simpson also studied her competitors, carefully observing everything from the way they warmed up to the tactics they employed on the course. One of the most unexpected elements for Simpson was how easy the effort felt when she stuck with the pack.
“When I would look at the clock and see that we’d run 5:07 or 5:10 for the mile, it felt like a magic trick to me, that we could all run together and feel pretty comfortable and run that fast,” she said.
Switch up your equipment (in time to adjust to it)
Different distances and surfaces may require a switch in clothing or footwear. Simpson’s biggest change was trading her track spikes for New Balance’s FuelCell RC Elite v2. She’s even worn these road racing shoes during track workouts, an experience she likened to “going out in summer in a heavy coat.”
Not only are spikes lighter and grippier, they’re built on different lasts, or shapes. “They’re meant to put you up on your toes, so they position you for a faster running stance,” she said. “Different parts of my lower legs are having to adapt, and they’re sore in different ways.”
Despite that minor discomfort, Simpson has viewed the shift as part of the overall refresh to her career the new challenge has provided—she even appreciated the fact that she has to run differently, and harder, to clock the same time around the oval. “Anything new right now, I’m just really grateful for and embracing,” she said.
Set benchmarks and mini-goals along the way
While Simpson enjoyed having less pressure and fewer expectations, she’s still a professional athlete striving to do her best. So, she made sure to build in tests of her increasing endurance along the way.
Most significantly, Simpson completed a 10K time trial on the roads in mid-August. She’s coy about the time—plus, since it was at elevation, it wouldn’t have been a precise conversion to her times at sea level—but she said it went well enough to give her confidence, and a solid idea of a pace range she could target.
“I feel like there's kind of a before and after. I was really hesitant to project that this would go really well,” she said. “Once I did six-plus miles on the road, I could really wrap my mind around what 10 miles might be.”
Embrace all the ups and downs
Especially when you’re moving up in distance, you might not always feel great—but that doesn’t mean you’re on a downward spiral. Simpson found herself amazed at the way rough patches resolved if she just rode them out.
“I remember having this lucid thought in the middle of the race that by the time the race gets hard, for everything I’ve ever done, it doesn’t have enough time to get better again,” she said. “If it gets hard even in a 5K, it just stays hard till the end and unravels.”
A few times—most notably, just past the 10K mark—Simpson felt fatigued, unsure she could maintain the same effort, and briefly dropped off the pack. But each time, she made the decision to push hard and regained contact. She relished these mini-victories: “When you try hard and it works, it’s a little reward in the middle of the race,” she said. “I was like, okay, I did it, I did it, I’m here. That encouraged me for a little bit longer.”
Soak up good vibes from the crowd
When Simpson enters a stadium full of 60,000 spectators, she envisions them all cheering for her. In reality, she said, it’s nearly impossible to pick out any one voice from the roar. And although spectators line 5th Avenue in New York City for the mile, it’s tough to spot individual supporters when you’re traveling at such a fast pace.
On Sunday, for just over 52 minutes, she heard loved ones and strangers alike call her name along the course. “The best moments in my career, where I’ve been the most courageous in my life, has been where I’ve been doing it for more than me,” she said. “When I hear my name out there, I think, I can be tough for for the people that are rooting for me.”
Indeed, when she neared the finish line of the 10-miler, she could distinctly hear Jason and Buroughs screaming for her (in fact, she said with a laugh, she was almost embarrassed by Jason’s exuberance).
“Their enthusiasm when I still had some work to do—it just made me feel so happy, like they’re getting a lot of joy out of this too,” she said.
Even before she hit the starting line, Simpson has been touched by how many people showed interest in her effort. “It’s obvious that doing something new for me, after something familiar went so poorly, has been inspiring to me,” she said. The calls from journalists and encouragement from fans showed her that others felt that way, too.
Use the results—good or bad—to plot your next move
From the time she announced her 10-mile debut, Simpson was emphatic that this wasn’t a permanent career change. She isn’t completely shifting to longer distances, or ruling out future track goals, such as aiming for the 2022 World Athletics Championships to be held in Eugene, Oregon.
But she did approach the race as data collection, a fact-finding mission. In addition to the time and placement, her metrics included whether she found the challenge exciting and motivating. If she did well, but hated the experience, that might steer her away from longer distances in the future.
“Success in this is getting to the other side of 10 miles and still having a lot of joy in what I do,” she said. “That’s been what this last few months has really been about. It’s like with anything you work at in life, it’s not really about what you’re doing, it’s about who you’re becoming.”
Simpson did have fun, and surprised herself with how strong she stayed for the bulk of the distance. She also sees irony in the fact that Rojas won in a kick, something Simpson’s famous for unleashing. After nine and a half miles of pounding, “you don’t have these dramatic shifts like you can on the track,” she said. “I expected that I would have that the last 400 meters, and it felt like my brain was just not connected with my legs.”
That experience gives her a specific element to work on in training, should she choose to try again over a similar distance. And although she won’t make any solid decisions about next moves until after a few weeks off, she does see more possibilities than she might have considered a few months ago.
“The best-case scenario would be to win. But the next best scenario is to finish a little hungry,” she said. “And I think second [place] really does that for me.”