BOULDER – There’s a time in nearly every race Emma Coburn runs that finds her head on a swivel, scanning the crowd and straining to make eye contact with one particular person. The search usually isn’t too difficult; Coburn’s target is in a prearranged spot on a curve or backstretch and is expecting to briefly lock eyes with Coburn.
It’s been a race-day ritual since Coburn was a freshman at the University of Colorado and Heather Burroughs began coaching her. The short visual exchange means nearly as much to Burroughs, CU’s associate head track coach since 2011, as it does to Coburn, who enjoyed a stellar college career and last month added the USATF 3,000 meter steeplechase title to her brilliant resume.
For elite runners like Coburn, Jenny Simpson and Shalaya Kipp – the latter pair also has concluded their CU careers – Burroughs is often the match that starts the fire, the fast-forward button for a blossoming career. A former Buffs runner herself (1994-95, 1997-98) who was the school’s first three-time female All-American, Burroughs genuinely relates to her runners and brings elements of leadership and trust to Mark Wetmore’s coaching staff.
As for the eye contact thing during races, let Coburn explain:
“Heather and I make a LOT of eye contact during my races. She usually gives me splits or information about where my opponents are. One race that stands out was the NCAA Championships last year. Coming into the final I was diagnosed with a stress reaction in my sacrum and was in a lot of pain. I begged the coaches to let me race after doctors said I would be able to do it. We decided to race but the goal shifted from running fast to just making it through the race in one piece, hopefully with a win. Every lap I would look over at Heather and she would communicate to me how far ahead of second place I was. This was such a painful race, with a stress fracture and an NCAA title as the result, and seeing Heather, with her comforting me with information and supporting cheers, made me believe that I could get through the race and finish.
“More recently, at the USA Championships, in the final I wanted to run with the pack for four or five laps and then accelerate. She was there to tell me mid-race that if I felt well to keep pressing a run hard. I came away with a win (in the 3,000m steeplechase) and a meet record (9:19.72). Again, seeing her during races gives me some comfort and her instructions are very useful.”
Burroughs said Coburn, who currently is competing in Europe with Simpson, is “maybe not unique” in occasionally establishing eye contact with her coach during every race. “But she’s different in that sense because it’s a regular thing for her. She can be watching the clock in the steeplechase and almost at the same time looking for me. I make sure she knows exactly where I am in a stadium.
“She’ll run down the backstretch and we’ll have a three-second ‘conversation’ each lap. It’s really an Emma skill, it’s not mine. But she’s able to do it and I get such a kick out of it. I watch video of her races and I see her look over. Other people might wonder what she’s looking at, but I know . . . it’s usually me. She doesn’t have to look for Mark; she hears him.”
BURROUGHS OBVIOUSLY OFFERS more to the CU program than her eyes on race day. Simpson said Burroughs “brings her own perspective and ideas to the coaching of the CU athletes and in her own way makes the team better. There are times when Mark has a set plan on paper but because he values Heather's input, he's willing to take another look if she has some concerns. Just this weekend I was scheduled for a workout and after speaking with both Mark and Heather, she encouraged us to push the workout off a day so I could be better rested after a number of difficult days.
“When one coach is traveling and the athlete is racing, sometimes there are decisions like this that are obvious but we needed that third perspective to see it. There are so many seemingly small but truly significant ways that Heather makes us better: choosing good routes for training, confirming or challenging training schedules, helping outline a racing season, actually running with me and the team several days a week, having a woman to talk to, post-race feedback. The overall confidence in her and Mark's decisions make the team more confident, too.”
Coburn, of Crested Butte, calls Burroughs “the voice of reason,” which elicits a chuckle from Burroughs, a Kansas City native who earned her Bachelor of Arts degree (biology) in 1999. “I don’t think it’s inaccurate, but as for being the voice of reason . . . Mark is incredibly, methodically reasonable, a long-term thinker, a calm presence,” said Burroughs, who looks to the veteran Wetmore as a mentor. “So I try to be very reasonable with them. I still have emotions, maybe more that I have to keep in check than Mark.
“But he would probably say 20 years ago he had to work harder at it than he does now. There’s a learning curve for that. But you have to think calmly and practically with your athletes and think of what’s best for them. You can get so caught up in a good day or a bad day, then you’re not thinking about what’s coming next.”
Burroughs said Wetmore, who recently concluded his 23rd season at CU (20 as head coach), is the person she’s learned the most from over the last two decades in the areas of methodology, coaching demeanor and in pushing athletes to sustain work ethics that carry them to another level. “I’ve been very lucky to be able to learn from the best in the business,” she said. “When you look at the high school level, the collegiate level and the post-collegiate level, I don’t think there’s many who’s done what he’s done.”
But the runners Wetmore and Burroughs have coached believe the pair forms an extraordinary team. Simpson calls them “a package deal and I absolutely cannot imagine them as coaches without each other. One of the huge advantages beyond just their great collaborative effort is that since there are two of them, they can be in two places at once. They sacrifice their own weekends and summers they could spend together and instead they are on opposite sides of the country or opposite ends of the world managing both the college team and the graduates. Their schedule is so busy, and in it I can see how much they care for us.”
Wetmore often speaks of the pain and sacrifices that are inherent to being a championship runner at CU, and Burroughs says Wetmore isn’t chatting idly on those subjects: “To me, it’s the price of admission. It’s inevitable. In any difficult workout, in any well-run race, there comes a time when you’re in so much discomfort – the ‘I don’t know if I can keep going’ stage. You have to manage that psychologically and physically.”
Burroughs’ runners usually arrive at CU with the willingness to work, which helps her and Wetmore nurture the improvement needed to push themselves and win championships. “I was always willing to train pretty hard and I think most distance runners at this level – D-1, Pac-12 – are willing to work and train pretty hard,” she said. “But there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s cliché, but it’s training smart and how to live your life. Being good at coaching is like being good at distance running: it takes a lot of time and patience and a lot of days of hard work.”
In her 10 seasons on the CU staff, Burroughs has assisted with 12 conference championship teams (Big 12, Pac-12) and 44 All-America selections (a total that doesn’t include this season). She hesitates only briefly in cataloging her coaching career highlights, then settles on the year (2004) that CU won both the men’s and women’s NCAA cross country championships and the school’s debut year (2011) in the Pac-12 when both men’s and women’s teams won conference XC titles. The spring of 2009 also resonates nicely with Burroughs because of Simpson (then Barringer) “establishing herself as one of the best runners in the world – I’m really proud of that,” Burroughs said.
SIMPSON ATTRIBUTES MUCH of her success to Burroughs’ meticulous preparation, particularly in analyzing and interpreting race results. “Heather has such a breadth of knowledge when it comes to (that),” Simpson said. “She knows who the significant competitors are and from the high school level up through the ranks to professionals, she's usually able to rattle off stats for each athlete entered. She is invaluable to me when I want to know exactly what I'm facing going into a major competition.
“She not only knows who I have to race but she typically knows exactly what they're season and style of racing has been like and can make a pretty good prediction of how they will react or perform in different race scenarios. This is crucial when deciding how to apply my strengths to win a race. Especially middle distance events can be very tactical and I can make much more intelligent decisions in the middle of a race when Heather has formulated a plan with me incorporating her incredible knowledge of the field.”
Simpson said she “never steps to the line without knowing her take on my competitors and without asking her input on how I should expect the race to unfold. If you see me hold back in a race or jump right to the front or begin to kick at a specific spot; there's a 100 percent chance I've rehearsed the plan with Heather and a lot of thought has gone into it.”
In addition to aiding in Simpson’s development into a world-class athlete, Burroughs can take equal pride in that of Coburn, Kipp and a host of others. Coburn recalls her recruitment by CU and Burroughs “finding a way to make me believe that I belonged there and would be successful at the college level. As my career progressed, every step of the way Heather continued to make me believe that I belonged at higher levels than I could have dreamed of.”
Burroughs, continued Coburn, is an exemplary coach because she’s an exemplary runner. Burroughs continues to run with her athletes “on easy days,” but in Coburn’s freshman year Burroughs “would run next to me on long runs, pushing the pace,” Coburn recalled. “When I met Heather for a run, it meant we were going to work hard. It was great. Early on, she helped me cultivate a high standard for myself when doing these runs. Now, she runs again with the younger girls, helping push them to levels they weren't capable of before. Other days, she has to be there to be the voice of reason keeping us from pushing too hard.”
Burroughs’ “coach on the course” approach, said Coburn, “is huge” in the Buffs’ distance successes: “I can't tell you how many big decisions we talked through during a run. From race schedules, race plans, and training plans to school, house hunting, and friends, we sorted through a lot together on runs. We've probably logged close to 10,000 miles together in the 6 years that I've known her. Anyone who has run thousands of miles with someone over the years experiences a level of friendship, understanding and support that is unparalleled.”
Added Simpson: “Heather is STILL such an incredible athlete herself. Her own ability as a runner is no longer highlighted but she's a fit fit lady! Whether at home in Boulder, a new trail in a foreign countryside, or on busy Asian city streets, Heather is right there next to her athletes fighting the elements and navigating the roads just as well or better than us! Probably my best memories of all time with her are different runs we've shared together over the years.”
In CU’s run to the men’s and women’s Pac-12 XC titles in 2011, Burroughs did her typical pre-meet run with both teams on the day before the race. But the run ended with something that was very atypical for her. About a minute before finishing the course, Burroughs stopped both squads and assembled them around her on the Litchfield Park course in Tempe, Ariz.
“I’m kind averse to speeches, but I gave them a speech,” Burroughs recalled. “On paper we didn’t stand a chance, but I was confident our team could win and I wanted to communicate that. I called them together, which I don’t usually do. It wasn’t anything earth-shaking. I wasn’t quoting Shakespeare. It was just about the opportunities we had the next day, how we could win, what they should be feeling during the race. You have to believe there’s a chance.”
THE BUFFS OBVIOUSLY BELIEVED. They captured both XC championships in their first year in their new conference. It was a grand entrance for Wetmore & Co.
Simpson, Coburn and Kipp are three of CU’s and Burroughs’ most celebrated recent runners. Each has heard Wetmore and Burroughs espouse the total commitment required to compete at the highest levels. “I don’t know if told them directly, but I hope what they’ve learned from me, watching me or in the different things we’ve said to them over the years, they have to be totally committed but also doing it at a level they can sustain,” Burroughs said.
“Those two things are really difficult. It’s hard to be totally committed when you’re 21 or 22 to something that’s difficult; there are a lot of other really fun options, things you have to turn down. Then, there’s being so smart and consistent on a daily basis. We have people come in who are really, really impatient, and it’s hard to tell them, ‘You’re not going to be great in three months.’
“Some people are willing to train really, really hard for a year and a half, then they’re not willing to take it anymore – usually not psychologically. Those two things have been important to (Simpson’s, Coburn’s and Kipp’s) success. I, or Mark, or maybe their teammates, taught them that along the way, and it’s been incredible.”
Coburn agrees, but points to Burroughs as a catalyst for reaching her own incredible stage: “Heather has meant more to me than she'll ever know. She has played a huge part in my development as a runner and just as a person in general.”
In most things, Burroughs doesn’t like to get ahead of herself, but a decade down the road she would be content to be where she is – provided where she is is in a new office that’s part of CU’s highly anticipated and sorely needed athletic facilities expansion project. When she allows herself to daydream, here’s what she sees:
“I hope to be sitting on the fifth floor of a building where the paint isn’t chipping, the tiles aren’t falling from the ceiling and it’s not called a temporary annex . . . that would be awesome for CU; we would be taking a much-needed step forward. I’m very optimistic with the direction things are going for the department. That can have a big influence on our program and my excitement level long-term here.”
Still, even while sitting in an office that would be subpar for a double-wide trailer on a construction site, Burroughs can’t help but express deep feelings and gratitude for CU.
“This is the only place I’ve ever coached; I’ve never applied for another coaching job,” she said. “My hope is that this is it. I don’t know if that’s five years or thirty years . . . but it’s where I ran collegiately. You can be emotionally attached to a place where you didn’t run, I know that. But all that makes it a little more special to me.”
And as her runners so eagerly and gratefully acknowledge, Heather Burroughs has made it a little more special for them.