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June 24, 2018

Breaking Down Shelby Houlihan’s Incredible Double

Shelby Houlihan pulled off a historic achievement on Sunday by becoming just the second woman to ever win both the 1500 meters and 5000 meters at a single USA Outdoor Championships.

The only other woman to ever pull off the same feat was Regina Jacobs in 1999 and 2000, though her career is universally considered tainted by a later doping ban.

A couple things to address about Houlihan’s accomplishment:

First, the dominant fashion she did it in. Houlihan demolished Jenny Simpson over the final meters of the 1500 final, putting 0.73 seconds on her. That’s the same Jenny Simpson who’s the greatest U.S. middle distance runner of her generation. In the 5k, Houlihan still had company with Rachel Schneider on her heels with 100 meters to go but was able to seemingly change gears twice to ultimately win by 10 meters.

The term “strength is speed” really rings true in Houlihan’s case. The 5k training she’s focused on in the past two years has given her the aerobic stamina to not be as fatigued as her competitors at the end of races. Once they get to that point, it’s game over as Houlihan the best top-end speed of anyone in the field.

Second, one can only hope Houlihan, who is the best she’s ever been, can build upon this success in years to come and not have a magical season go to “waste” in a non-championship year. We saw a fellow Jerry Schumacher athlete Chris Solinsky have a career season in 2010, also an off year. While we all look back with awe at what Solinsky accomplished that season (first American under 27 minutes for 10k and three sub 13 minute 5k’s), he didn’t get the chance to prove himself at a major global championship while at peak fitness. At 25 years of age and in her third season as a pro, all indications are Houlihan is nowhere near the top of her game yet.

Third, this has to make you wonder what event Houlihan focuses on in years to come. To me, it’s a no brainer – she should run the 1500 meters at major championships.

While it would be easier for Houlihan to win U.S. 5000 meter titles in what’s a less competitive talent pool domestically, the 1500 meters has proven to be wide open on the international level and more favorable to American runners.

In the last ten years, U.S. women have made the finals of 5000 global championships more often than in the 1500, but when it comes to winning medals, the count is 5-0 in favor of the 1500 runners. In fact, the highest finish in the 5000 was Molly Huddle’s sixth place finish in 2013.

The reason for this? East African 5k runners often run brutally fast final stretches of races (often under 2:50 for the final kilometer) that Americans have simply been unable to hang on to. Though Houlihan is certainly capable of breaking through the U.S. glass ceiling in the 5k, it is simply more difficult than the 1500.

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