Jenny Simpson makes it clear: “Leading the race was not planned.” Sometimes, though, things happen. “A funny combination of events,” as she puts it. An armchair coach–or even this author–might have said only a fool would lead a World Championship final when Abeba Aregawi seemed unbeatable in the months leading in. Simpson, though, is anything but a fool.
She had surprised the world by winning the title in Daegu two years earlier. She followed that with a considerably less happy Olympic year (she didn’t make the final in London). So at the end of 2012, she returned to her college coach, Mark Wetmore, who had guided her to a U.S. steeplechase record and a 3:59.90 for the Buffs. A hard winter of training put her in amazing shape for her title defense. Her slowest time leading up to Moscow, 4:03.35 at Drake, was faster than anything she ran the previous year. “I knew I’d made a real significant gain in physical ability and in confidence.”
Yet the competition loomed much larger than before. Abeba Aregawi, the Ethiopian-born Swede, had finished 5th in London and ran undefeated at 1500 prior to Moscow. Hellen Obiri had run 3:58.58 to win at the Prefontaine Classic. Faith Kipyegon, just a teenager, had pushed Aregawi to the line in Doha, clocking 3:56.98 to the Swede’s world leading 3:56.60. Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia had run 3:57.54 at Doha and also seemed like a creditable threat.
In planning the race with her coaches, Simpson refused to discuss the final until she had safely made it through the semis. She felt snakebit from the previous season: “I’m a little bit superstitious, and I know I don’t want to just have the final in my mind and have it taken away again.”
When they did sit down to plan, Simpson remembers, “We talked about the most serious competition–or the most prepared competition–and we talked about how being fast was better than the race being slow for me.
“Then I woke up the morning before my final. And we saw that I had been randomly drawn in lane one for the start of the race. I think that for most distance people, lane one is the worst lane you can possibly get, because you’re starting out so fast, the tempo of the race is truly set in the first 200 and 300, and nobody wants to lead. And yet you are the person that everyone is going be collapsing in on. Lane one is horrible. I definitely was not happy when I saw that.”
Then came the delay of the start, as the officials wanted to give Bohdan Bondarenko the stage for a world record attempt in the high jump. “So they held us. They didn’t start the race until quite a bit after when they said it was going to begin. People got really nervous and amped up. We had been standing out there for so long and we were way beyond warmed up and ready to go. I think that all that just got me really quickly off the starting line.”
When the gun fired, Simpson shot to the lead. Teenager Mary Cain came in from the outside and the two bumped elbows a little before Cain dropped back behind her. Obiri moved to a stalking position a half-stride behind Simpson’s shoulder. Likewise, Aregawi put herself just off Obiri’s shoulder. Simpson led the crowded pack–running up to four wide–through the 400 in 65.76. Behind her, the places shuffled a bit. Zoe Buckman of Australia edged ahead of Cain on the inside and put herself behind Obiri, as Aregawi kept her options open on the outside. “When I found myself in the lead,” says Simpson, “I remember thinking, ‘This is a safer place. And I feel like I can handle this, and I don’t want to give it up.’
“I thought, ‘I need to control this race. I don’t necessarily have to go out and be crazy and run it as fast as I can. But if I’m going to be in the lead, I have to keep it, and I need to control the race from here. I think that mentality kept me from making a huge mistake. I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t too fast, it isn’t too slow. This is really comfortable. I know I can run the whole way this way, and so there is no reason to give up the lead,’ So I had a lot of conviction. I just felt like if I was in this position, I better own it and I need to run smart and hard the whole way and not give it up until I have to.”
After 600m, Dibaba made her move to join the leaders, but in the space of the homestretch she slipped back again as Moroccan Siham Hilali brought herself nearly even with Simpson and Aregawi. At 800 to go, the Swede made a move to edge ahead of Simpson into the lead before the turn. Simpson responded and calmly held her off. “At that point I had so much invested in the race, I already had 700m of leading. I thought, ‘I can’t give it up and give other people hope,’ I had just done just a lot of the work.” She passed through 800 in 2:13.95, a 68.19 lap. “I wasn’t leading the race so that people could take over and sprint past me and it would be a free-for-all at the end.”
Around the next turn, Aregawi ran just off Simpson’s shoulder, as Dibaba again made a bid to join them at the front. Simpson started to increase the pace with 500 to go. “One of the horrible things about being the leader is that you can’t see and you can’t sense very much of what is going on behind you. So I didn’t want be caught off guard. I needed to be the first person to start winding it up. If I didn’t do that all of a sudden three people would be passing me. And then I would have absolutely no control over what happens over the last 400m. I’d be just like everybody else vying for position.” At the bell, Simpson (3:03.75) still led by half a stride over Aregawi, Yekaterina Sharmina of Russia, and Buckman. Rather than fold under the pressure of their kicks, Simpson again upped the ante at the front.
Aregawi edged ahead at 1200 (3:18.97). Simpson’s third lap took 65.04. Thirty meters later, when Obiri tried to pass Simpson as well, she responded with another gear change.” I definitely wanted to stay in contact with [Aregawi]. I definitely was still fighting to win the race. But at the same time on the very top of the final curve, when Helen came up on me, I’m bridging the gap between wanting to win and fight for the win, and still protecting the silver medal. There is a very short period of time on the top of the turn where I really had to defend my space.”
Coming off the turn, the gains Aregawi made became apparent. She sprinted for gold. Simpson, however, rather than folding after carrying the lead for so long, decisively outstripped Obiri and Kipyegon to grab the silver a stride behind the Swede. Her last lap took 59.24. Afterwards, Aregawi, who finished in 58.84, said, “Today, the race suited me perfectly.”
Simpson looks back on it thoughtfully: “I think in that instant that I was focused on defending my second-place position, Abeba Aregawi got just the ground on me that I wasn’t able to make up the last hundred meters. I don’t know, looking back, do I think there’s anything I could’ve done to still win it? I don’t know. I definitely was running as hard as I could.”
As for taking the gamble of leading a championship, Simpson says, “I think sometimes the reason that people get eaten alive when they’re leading, is the entire time, they don’t want to lead. They don’t want it. They have been forced into that position and they’re hating every single second of it. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m kind of a positive person. Or maybe I have a screw loose or something. But I think once I was in the lead it hearkened a little back to my steeplechasing days when I led a lot of races, I said to myself, ‘I’m comfortable here, I’m safe here,’ It’s so much less likely that you will fall when you’re in the lead. And I was really happy to have that position. And then I didn’t want to give it up.”
Results (8/15/2013): 1. Abeba Aregawi (Sweden) 4:02.67; 2. Jenny Simpson (US) 4:02.99; 3. Hellen Obiri (Kenya) 4:03.86; 4. Hannah England (GB) 4:04.98; 5. Faith Kipyegon (Kenya) 4:05.08; 6. Yekaterina Sharmina (Russia) 4:05.49; 7. Zoe Buckman (Australia) 4:05.77; 8. Genzebe Dibaba (Ethiopia) 4:05.99; 9. Nancy Langat (Kenya) 4:06.01; 10. Mary Cain (US) 4:07.19; 11. Siham Hilali (Morocco) 4:09.16; 12. Yelena Korobkina (Russia) 4:10.18.
Acknowledgements due to Track & Field News for the correct, detailed splits. Photo: USATF.