Brace Yourself: Strengthen Your Mental Fitness with This Lesson from Jenny Barringer Simpson


In his fascinating new book How Bad Do You Want It?, coach Matt Fitzgerald examines more than a dozen pivotal races to discover the surprising ways elite athletes strengthen their mental toughness. Each chapter of How Bad Do You Want It? explores the how and why of an elite athlete’s transformative moment, revealing powerful new psychobiological principles you can practice to strengthen your own mental fitness.

In this chapter from the book, the entire running world expects University of Colorado cross-country running champion Jenny Barringer to win another NCAA title—including Jenny herself. But there’s one problem: Jenny has perhaps forgotten how hard it is to win.

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Chapter Two: Brace Yourself

On November 20, 2009, associate editor Sean McKeon sat down at his desk amid a maze of cubicles stretching across a warehouse-like office building in San Diego, opened a Word file, and began to write a preview of the NCAA Cross Country Championships, then three days away. He had no trouble picking a winner for the women’s race.

“Why don’t we just give Jenny Barringer the trophy, spare the field the embarrassment, and let the other women race for the lesser positions?” he wrote. “All right, that may be an exaggeration,” McKeon amended, “but in my mind it’s not a matter of if the Colorado senior is going to win, it’s by how much.”

McKeon’s confidence in Jenny was well placed. She was already the most decorated female college runner in history. She’d come to the University of Colorado on a full athletic scholarship after having won eight high school state championship titles and set state records at four distances in her native Florida. As a freshman, Jenny won an NCAA championship title in the 3000-meter steeplechase. The next year, competing against professionals, she won the same event at the U.S. national championships and qualified for the world championships in Osaka. After her junior season, Jenny earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team and finished ninth in the steeplechase at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

If Jenny had achieved no more than all of this before the 2009 NCAA Cross Country Championships, she would have come into the race as a prohibitive favorite. But she was just getting started. After redshirting her senior cross country season, Jenny returned to competition in the winter, setting new NCAA records for 3000 meters and 5000 meters indoors. In the spring, she broke three more records, for 1500 meters, the 3000-meter steeplechase, and 5000 meters. In June, Jenny won her second elite national title in the steeplechase. Her momentum continued through the summer, during which she set an American record of 9:12.50 in the steeplechase at the world championships in Berlin, where she finished fifth.

Having skipped her senior cross country season, Jenny was eligible to return to Boulder and compete for the Lady Buffaloes in the fall of 2009. Despite the big payday awaiting her when she turned pro, she chose to exercise the option, citing grounds of loyalty.

“I cannot repay this university what they’ve given me, the resources and just the gift of the four years here,” Jenny said when she announced her decision. “The closest I can come is to fulfill the promise I made four years ago [to exhaust my eligibility]. I’m definitely staying.”

Besides, she had unfinished business. When Jenny had first arrived at the University of Colorado as an 18-year-old, she had told coach Mark Wetmore that her top ambition for her collegiate career was to win an NCAA title in cross country. Five years later, this ambition remained unfulfilled, despite everything else she had achieved. She’d come close in 2007, finishing second to Kenya’s Sally Kipyego, who had since graduated. Jenny didn’t mind letting her professional career wait a few more months while she completed her mission.

She opened her final season of collegiate running on the third of October at the Rocky Mountain Shootout, a large meet held on the Buffaloes’ home course. Jenny won the 5.8-km race by 58 seconds, smashing a nine-year-old course record in the process. Jenny’s next  race was pre-nationals, held October 14 in Terre Haute, Indiana, site of the following month’s national championships. There Jenny went head-to-head against Florida State’s Susan Kuijken (pronounced kykin), considered Jenny’s biggest threat for the NCAA title. Jenny beat her by 30 seconds.

Two weeks later, Jenny traveled with her teammates to Columbia, Missouri, for the Big 12 Championship. An almost apologetic smile spread across her face as she glided away from the 96 overmatched runners trailing behind her to win by 46 seconds. Afterward, coach Mark Wetmore admitted the obvious to CU’s assistant sports information director, Linda Sprouse. “She was cruising,” he said. “It was an easy run for her and she was having fun the whole way.”

On November 14, Jenny got in one last competitive tune-up at the NCAA Mountain West Conference Championships in Albuquerque. This time, for kicks, Jenny paced her teammate Allie McLaughlin through the first 4 km and then eased ahead to win by 12 seconds.

With all of this information as background, Sean McKeon was merely stating a fact when, in his NCAA Cross Country Championships preview, he wrote, “If she doesn’t win, it will be the biggest upset in NCAA history, bar none.” He was also right—more right than he knew—to add that nothing short of an “epic collapse” would prevent her from winning the title she coveted.

The Lavern Gibson Championship Cross Country course is enfolded in 280 grassy acres east of Terre Haute. Race day brought nearly ideal running weather to the site—mild and dry. The sun emerged from behind a layer of clouds at half past noon, as the men’s race was wrapping up and Jenny and her teammates were getting ready for their turn on the course. The air temperature climbed into the mid-50s, above average for late November, prompting runners to peel off gloves and arm sleeves and stuff them into gear bags.

While jogging around the perimeter of the grounds with her teammates, Jenny became lightheaded. The feeling persisted as she completed her warm-up with mobility exercises and stride-outs. The team then gathered with their coaches to hear a few final words of instruction. Jenny thought about mentioning her wooziness to assistant coach Heather Burroughs, but decided against it. She knew it was probably a symptom of nerves, nothing more, and already it had begun to dissipate.

At 12:35, the racers were called to the start line. They arranged themselves three deep along a chalk line stretching seemingly forever across a vast expanse of freshly mowed turf. A pistol popped and the last vestiges of Jenny’s nerves vanished instantly as she broke from the line. Two hundred and fifty-four women rumbled across a 900-meter opening straightaway, gradually coming together in the shape of a squat teardrop with Jenny (who else?) at its pointy end. Susan Kuijken, who had started 25 feet to the left of Jenny, quickly found her shoulder. Despite the beatdown Jenny had laid on her at pre-nationals, the Florida State senior still hoped to win. Her plan was to hang with Jenny if she could and otherwise to keep her in range and try to chase her down at the end.

As she settled into a rhythm, Jenny checked in on her body and discovered that she felt good—strong and relaxed—as indeed she had all season long. There was no reason she should have felt otherwise. Her training in recent weeks had gone almost perfectly. In the lead-up to the Mountain West Conference Championships, she had notched her best times ever in benchmark workouts. After that race, Mark Wetmore had dialed her training way back and her legs had responded with a whole new bounce. Jenny had also managed to avoid the cold virus that had been making its way around the CU campus. She had never been more physically ready to race, and her body’s inner gauges confirmed it. That brief dizzy spell was just a blip.

Jenny drifted toward the right edge of the straightaway, close to the fencing that kept spectators out of the way, in anticipation of making the first bend on the circuitous course. The field remained closely bunched behind her, with Kuijken, Kendra Schaff of Washington, and Angela Bizzarri of Illinois marking her closest.

Rounding the bend, Jenny subtly increased her speed, gaining immediate separation from her chasers. Kuijken made a split-second decision to respond and quickly closed the gap. She stayed a deferential half-step behind Jenny, however, lest she tempt the odds-on favorite to pick up the pace even more. The Norwegian’s long, golden ponytail bounced in synchrony with Jenny’s honey-colored mane as the pair put more and more empty grass between themselves and the other racers. They passed the 1-km mark of the 6-km race at 3:04. Jenny noted the split with approval. She had come to Terre Haute with a secondary goal of eclipsing Sally Kipyego’s course record of 19:28, and she was on track to do so.

Jenny charged up the first hill. She ran with her trademark gladiatorial style, her jutting chin, forward-tilted torso, wide elbows, and fisted hands communicating confidence and aggression. Yet something in her eyes seemed to express impatience also, as Kuijken, who had claimed to have no fear of Jenny in pre-race interviews, continued to tailgate her.

After topping the hill, the leaders negotiated a tight bend to the left, passing within inches of shouting spectators pressed against the chain-link boundary fencing. A plurality of the cheers were for Jenny, who in addition to having many schoolmates, friends, and family members present, had a national fan base.

Jenny and her flaxen shadow hit the 1-mile mark at 5:02. Kipyego had recorded the same split in her record-setting run two years before. Jenny still looked in charge, but her brow was uncharacteristically furrowed.

Six strides back, Kendra Schaff ran alone, having pulled away from the lead chase pack in a bid to hunt down the leaders. She’d committed to the gamble after recognizing that Jenny’s pace wasn’t quite as severe as she’d expected. Ten meters behind Schaff, Angela Bizzarri was making a slightly different calculation at the head of the main field. Her plan had been to run her own race and hope that anyone who tried to run with Jenny—if not Jenny herself—would wear herself out and come back to her eventually. That plan still felt right.

Jenny spotted another time clock ahead, this one at the 2-km mark, and locked her eyes on it: 6:15, 6:16, 6:17. . . She had slowed a little, but not much, and the pace was still a lot faster than Kuijken had ever run for a race of this distance. All Jenny had to do was hold steady and her pesky challenger would eventually crack.

They started up another hill. Kuijken remained glued to Jenny’s right shoulder. The distance between the two women and Schaff, and between Schaff and Bizzarri’s group, had ceased to expand. A pleading tone entered the shouts directed Jenny’s way by fans lining the course.

At the midpoint of the race, which was reached at 9:38, Kuijken noticed that she no longer felt Jenny pulling her along. In fact, she was coasting a bit, running slightly slower than she might be if she were alone. So she put a little more juice in her stride and immediately drew even with Jenny, who flinchingly sped up to reassert a half-step advantage. Moments later, Kuijken was again crowding Jenny from the back, getting increasingly antsy.

Jenny’s head began to bob. It was subtle at first, then not so subtle. The bob turned into a wobble. The wobble descended into her shoulders, trunk, and hips, until Jenny was lurching like a swollen-eyed prizefighter fumbling for his corner. Her speed dropped precipitously and Kuijken pranced away, hardly believing her luck. Jenny now appeared to be speaking to herself, her mouth making sloppy movements as she stumbled ahead. Her eyelids drooped to half-mast.

Kendra Schaff, Angela Bizzarri, and Sheila Reid of Villanova passed Jenny in a merciless single file. Seconds later, the main field caught her. Villanova’s Amanda Marino overtook Jenny with ease. Then came Florida State’s Pasca Cheruiyot and Jenny’s own freshman teammate Allie McLaughlin, who offered Jenny a baffled word of encouragement.

Jenny was a lost calf caught in a stampede of angry steer. She dropped to 10th place, 20th, 30th. Jenny’s former high school rival Erin Bedell, now a senior at Baylor, came upon her and was moved to help.

“Run with me!” Bedell called.

Jenny obeyed, but another crushing wave of heaviness quickly overwhelmed her. The wobble returned. With each successive stride, Jenny’s movements became more inexact, less integrated. Her head bent forward and stayed there, as though she were looking for a lost ring. She felt oddly distant from the sights and sounds around her. Am I dreaming? she wondered. Her jog became a shuffle, her shuffle a walk. She took three last tottering steps and dropped to the ground like a sniper’s target. Spectators watched in stunned silence as runners passed Jenny’s crumpled body by the dozen.

The stillness of Jenny’s prostrate form suggested she would rise neither soon nor without assistance. But after just a few seconds, Jenny stirred, as if trying to beat a 10-count. She got back on her feet in three slow stages—all fours to half-kneel to loosely vertical—steadied herself, and broke into a stiff jog. Runners continued to overtake her, but not as whizzingly as before. Emma Coburn, another of Jenny’s teammates, came up beside her and Jenny, now fully lucid and mortified, thought (“insanely,” she told Flotrack afterward), I hope she doesn’t see me!

Little by little, Jenny’s stride smoothed out and her pace quickened. The trickle of runners overtaking her became a drip. By the time Jenny rounded a wide bend that dumped her onto a 400-meter straightaway to the finish line, she was matching the pace of the thickly bunched runners around her.

Before the race, Jenny had told her teammates to keep an eye out for runners wearing the uniforms of Villanova, Washington, and West Virginia. These were the schools most likely to stand in the way of Colorado’s winning the team title. Jenny now saw a runner in the purple and gold of Washington ahead of her. She picked up her pace and reeled her in, passing a number of other runners along the way.

With the finish banner looming, Jenny spied another Washington runner in front of her. She got up onto her toes, drove her arms, and rocketed ahead, slaloming expertly between runners who had only recently passed her, eyes fixed on her prey. Her form looked  beautiful. There was absolutely nothing wrong with her. Six feet from the finish, Jenny blasted by Washington’s Kayla Evans, a freshman whose best 3000-meter time was 93 seconds slower than Jenny’s. The greatest female college runner in history crossed the finish line 163rd in her last collegiate race.

The 2009 NCAA Cross Country Championships were covered live on the Versus cable television network. A camera crew awaited Jenny Barringer 30 feet beyond the finish line. She was still recovering her breath when reporter Cat Andersen stuck a microphone in her face and asked her what had happened.

“I didn’t feel so good halfway into it,” she answered tearfully.

The next day, Jenny recorded a 24-minute video interview for Flotrack from her hotel room in Terre Haute. Very little was added to her understated first explanation of the meltdown.

“It was a wave,” she said. “It was all of a sudden: ‘I don’t know if I can run. I don’t know if I can stand up.’”

More revealing, perhaps, than what Jenny did say about her unraveling was what she did not say. She did not say that she had pulled a hamstring, or suffered an asthma attack, or was struck by an agonizing abdominal cramp caused by a floating rib jabbing her diaphragm (which is what happened to Susan Kuijken, who finished in third place). Rather, Jenny’s terse description of her implosion seemed to suggest she had been brought down not by anything physical but by a feeling.

Is this explanation even plausible? According to the psychobiological model of endurance performance, it is.

In endurance races, athletes pace themselves largely by feel. External feedback in the form of time splits and the relative positions of other racers may influence pacing, but it’s an internal sense of the appropriateness of one’s pace from moment to moment that has the first and final say in determining whether an athlete chooses to speed up, hold steady, slow down, or collapse into a lifeless heap. The scientific name for this pacing mechanism is anticipatory regulation. Its output is a continuously refreshed, intuition-like feeling for how to adjust one’s effort in order to get to the finish line as quickly as possible. Its inputs are perception of effort, motivation, knowledge of the distance left to be covered, and past experience.

In an overview of Samuele Marcora’s psychobiological model of endurance performance published in 2013, Brazilian exercise physiologists wrote that “perception of effort is the conscious awareness of the central motor command sent to the active muscles.” In other words, perception of effort is the feeling of activity in the brain that stimulates muscle work; it is not the feeling of muscle work itself. Except in the case of reflex actions, all muscle work begins with an act of conscious willing. This command originates in the brain’s motor cortex and supplementary motor area. Scientists are able to measure the intensity of these commands, and this measurement is referred to as movement-related cortical potential (MRCP). Marcora has shown that MRCP and perception of effort are high when subjects exercise at maximum intensity and also that they increase covariantly when exercise of lower intensity is performed for a long period of time. This is compelling evidence that perceived effort is indeed related to brain activity, not muscle activity.

When experienced endurance athletes race at a familiar distance, perceived effort tends to increase linearly until it reaches a maximal level near the finish line. But perceived effort is subjective, and for this reason, what is considered maximal changes by circumstance. When athletes really want it, they are able to tolerate a higher level of perceived effort than when they are comparatively unmotivated. As a consequence, their pacing strategy changes. The same level of perceived effort that causes them to hold steady at a given point in a race for which they are unmotivated might cause them to speed up at an equivalent point in a race that matters more to them.

The athlete’s conscious awareness of how far away the finish line sits also affects how a given level of perceived effort is interpreted and used. A runner who experiences a certain level of effort at the  4-km mark of a 10-km race might panic and slow down, whereas a runner who experiences the same effort level at the 7-km point of a 10-km race might get a shot of confidence and speed up.

These calculations, in turn, are strongly influenced by past experience. Through experience, athletes learn how they should feel at various points in a race of a given distance. An experienced athlete enters each race with preprogrammed expectations about how she can expect to feel at various points. Any mismatch between how she expects to feel and how she actually feels will cause her to adjust her pace accordingly. For example, an athlete who consumes dietary nitrates before a time trial is likely to feel better than expected and thus go faster than normal, while an athlete who is infused with Interleuken-6 (a cell-signaling compound linked to fatigue) before a time trial is likely to feel worse than expected and consequently go slower than normal.

Perceived effort actually has two layers. The first layer is how the athlete feels. The second layer is how the athlete feels about how she feels. The first layer is strictly physiological, whereas the second is emotional, or affective. Crudely put, an athlete can have either a good attitude or a bad attitude about any given level of discomfort. If she has a good attitude, she will be less bothered by the feeling and will likely push harder. Research has shown that when athletes feel worse than expected during a race, they tend to develop a bad attitude about their discomfort and as a result they slow down even more than they need to. (Of course, from a strictly physiological perspective, they don’t need to slow down at all.)

In 2005, Alan St. Clair Gibson studied the effect of thwarted expectations on perception of effort in a group of 16 well-trained runners. The experiment had two parts. In one part the subjects were required to run at a steady pace for 20 minutes on a treadmill. At the end of each minute, they were asked to rate their perception of effort as well as their “positive affect,” or enjoyment level. In the other part of the experiment, the subjects were asked to run for just 10 minutes at the same pace, but at the end of the 10th minute they were told  they had to run 10 minutes longer. So the second run was in fact identical to the first, but the subjects expected it to be shorter and hence easier. (The actual order of the two runs was randomized.)

When he reviewed the data he’d collected, St. Clair Gibson found that the runners’ perceived effort ratings spiked and their positive affect scores nosedived right after they were informed that they would have to run 10 minutes longer than they’d expected to. The runners did not feel worse on a purely physical level, but they developed a bad attitude about how they felt, so in effect they did feel worse.

Research on the psychology of pain has produced similar findings. A number of studies have compared the effects of two contrasting anticipatory attitudes—acceptance and suppression—on pain perception. Some people have a natural tendency to look ahead to the repetition of a familiar pain stimulus with acceptance. They tell themselves, “This is going to hurt, but no worse than before.” Other people try to cope with the same situation through suppression, a form of denial. They tell themselves, in effect, “I really hope this doesn’t hurt as much as it did the last time.” Psychologists have generally found that, compared to suppression, acceptance reduces the unpleasantness of pain without reducing the pain itself. For this reason, it is a more effective coping skill.

The same skill also reduces perceived effort. In a 2014 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, psychologist Elena Ivanova looked at the effects of a certain type of psychotherapy called acceptance and commitment therapy on endurance performance in a group of nonathletic women. Acceptance and commitment therapy entails learning to accept unpleasant feelings as unavoidable features of certain experiences—in this case exercise. Ivanova found that the therapy reduced perceived effort at a high intensity of exercise by 55 percent and increased time to exhaustion at that same intensity by 15 percent.

In common language, this attitude of acceptance toward an impending disagreeable experience is called “bracing yourself.” Many of us use this coping skill instinctively to reduce the unpleasantness of everyday trials such as a trip to the dentist’s office. “Indeed,” observed psychologists Jeff Galak and Tom Meyvis in a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, “people often choose to expect the worst of an upcoming experience in hopes of creating a more favorable contrast between their expectations and reality.”

In the context of endurance competition, this “favorable contrast” can enhance performance. The more discomfort an athlete expects, the more she can tolerate, and the more discomfort she can tolerate, the faster she can go. It’s no wonder, then, that champion endurance athletes habitually brace themselves for important races. The great British runner Mo Farah told a reporter for The Daily Mirror ahead of his first marathon, “This will be the hardest race of my life.” He wasn’t being negative; he was bracing himself.

You never know how much your next race is going to hurt. Perception of effort is mysterious. You can push yourself equally hard in two separate races and yet somehow feel “on top of” your suffering in one race and overwhelmed by it in the other. Because you never know exactly what you’ll find inside that black box until you open it, there is a temptation to hope—perhaps not quite consciously—that your next race won’t be one of those grinding affairs. This hope is a poor coping skill. Bracing yourself—always expecting your next race to be your hardest yet—is a much more mature and effective way to prepare mentally for competition.

Jenny Barringer failed to brace herself for the discomfort she should have anticipated in the 2009 NCAA Cross Country Championships, and it doomed her. Her first mistake was looking past the race to the future. The meet in Terre Haute was to be her final encore as an amateur runner. Soon afterward, she would hire an agent, sign a big shoe contract, and embark on a career as a professional athlete. Although Jenny had chosen to return to Colorado for the 2009 cross country season to fulfill a promise and a dream, she was ready to move on—and in a crucial sense she already had moved on before her nightmarish last competition in a Buffaloes uniform.

She told Flotrack’s Ryan Fenton the day after the catastrophe, “A month or two before the race, I started saying, ‘I can’t wait for nationals to be over.’ I’ve never been like that before. I’ve always really looked forward to these events.”

In addition to looking past the race itself, Jenny looked past her competition. “That’s another mistake,” she said to Fenton. “I didn’t go out yesterday just to win. I had to break Sally’s course record and win by 30 seconds.”

No matter how much an athlete pushes herself in a race, to win by 30 seconds is to win easily. Jenny’s goals reflected an expectation of winning the race comfortably, in both senses of the word. This expectation was not unreasonable, as she had won every preceding event of the season without being challenged. But as a consequence of all this cakewalking, Jenny not only stopped expecting to suffer against college competition, but she also fell a bit out of practice with it.

It’s easy for experienced athletes to lose their appreciation for just how intense the suffering felt in races really is. They get used to it, which is a good thing, because getting used to suffering calluses them to it. But this tolerance only holds up when an athlete is properly braced. Any athlete who experienced race-level effort completely out of context would instantly regain full respect for its awfulness. If a runner were to suddenly experience the same level of effort she felt during the last mile of her hardest marathon while climbing a flight of steps at home, for example, she would probably fall to the floor and call for help, believing she was dying.

Granted, Jenny Barringer was not caught quite so off guard by the suffering she experienced in the 2009 NCAA Cross Country Championships. But Susan Kuijken’s challenge and the discomfort that it provoked in Jenny were surprising enough to make her panic. To be sure, certain elements of her “epic collapse” (to borrow Sean McKeon’s prophetic phrase) were bizarre. The suddenness of her “feeling not so good” and the completeness of her post-collapse recovery had no precedent. We may never understand fully why it all went down  the way it did. Nevertheless, the only explanation that makes any sense is Jenny’s own.

“It’s something I set myself up for,” she said.

On December 3, 2009, just a few weeks after Terre Haute, Jenny Barringer hired track and field super agent Ray Flynn to represent her professional interests. Flynn quickly orchestrated an intense bidding war among the major running shoe brands. Jenny’s crumbling at the NCAAs had not dulled her luster in the eyes of their marketing executives. In January, Jenny signed a multiyear endorsement contract with New Balance. Three weeks later, she hired a new coach, entrusting her fitness to Juli Benson, a former Olympic middle-distance runner now coaching cross country and track at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Benson and Jenny agreed that she should take an extended break from competition to recharge her mental and physical batteries and focus on training. Her first race as a professional was the Payton Jordan Invitational 1500 meters, held at Stanford University on May 1, 2010. She had sworn emphatically in her morning-after interview for Flotrack that nothing like her debacle in Terre Haute would ever happen again, but as her pro debut approached, the memory weighed heavily on her mind. Despite her anxiety, she won handily. After she crossed the finish line, Jenny celebrated as though she had just won an Olympic gold medal. A few days later, I had an opportunity to ask Jenny if her elation had anything to do with the trauma of her last race.

“The excitement I expressed at the end of my race was really a triumph over that,” she told me. “Just getting through the first race was a mental victory.”

With the monkey off her back, Jenny was able to focus on her greater ambition of winning on the world stage. In February 2011, now married and bearing the last name Simpson, she won the mile and the 3000 meters at the USA Track and Field Indoor Championships.

Four months later, she finished second to Morgan Uceny in the 1500 meters at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, qualifying for the world championships in Daegu, South Korea. In Daegu, Jenny successfully advanced from the first round to the semifinal to the final.

The 12-woman final was staged under the lights of Daegu Stadium on the night of September 1. At 8:55 p.m., the world’s best female milers crouched over a curvilinear mark, Jenny standing farthest from the inside rail. She looked nervous, and she was—as nervous as she had been on the start line of the 2009 NCAA Cross Country Championship some 21 months ago. But her thoughts were of a different nature.

Jenny’s first thought was that 25 percent of the women in this race would take home a medal—pretty good odds. Her next thought was that she really didn’t want to rely on chance; she wanted to fight for a place in the top three. Her last thought was that if she won the race, the national anthem of the United States would be played in her honor and the ceremony would later be seen and heard by her sister Emily, who had just joined the Army. Beating all 11 of the women to her left would be harder than anything Jenny had done before—it would demand her absolute best effort, and perhaps even that would not be enough. But she was determined to try for nothing less.

The gun cracked and the runners dashed ahead over the Smurfblue track surface in search of a tactically advantageous position, everyone wanting to be near but not at the front. Jenny was slow off the mark and hit the first turn with only one runner behind her.

As so often happens in championship 1500-meter finals, the field bogged down quickly after the initial mad dash for position. Exploiting the slackening pace, Jenny swung wide and charged to the head of the field, settling on the right hip of early leader Mimi Belete of Bahrain. Maryam Jamal, also of Bahrain, thought Jenny had a pretty good idea and replicated it. She moved up, placed herself directly in front of Jenny, and then slowed down, forcing the rookie pro back one place.

Moments later, Kenya’s Hellen Obiri executed the same maneuver. Turkey’s Tugba Karakaya followed suit. One by one, runners at the back slung themselves to the front until the field had inverted itself, with Jenny relegated again to the rear.

Belete held onto pole position, however, and led the field through 400 meters in a very slow time of 1:08.78. The strong kickers in the race, especially Spain’s Natalia Rodriguez, could not have been happier. If the dawdling continued, these fast closers would be well set up to steal the race in the last half-lap.

It was in everyone else’s interest to make the race honest, yet no one dared to seize the burden of leading from Belete, who herself lifted the pace modestly but not enough to put anyone under pressure. The tight bunching of the racers brought many elbows into contact with ribs, and spikes with shins.

Belete hit 800 meters at 2:13.94. With only 300 meters left before the bell lap, the athletes’ jockeying intensified. Runners caught behind pressed forward. Those boxed in at the rail forced their way outside. Women already in good position fought to hold their ground. Jenny gained one place, sliding up from 12th to 11th, where she was at least out of range of the elbows and spikes.

Rodriguez was first to challenge Belete’s lead. Her move set off a chain reaction. Everyone vaulted ahead at once in an effort to ride the Spaniard’s coattails. Obiri clipped Rodriguez’s heel from behind and the Kenyan sprawled to the track. Morgan Uceny could not react in time and went down as well. Jenny found a narrow pathway between the felled runners. The melee among the surviving athletes only worsened, with athletes moving into the third and fourth lanes in their panic to reach the front, while those trapped inside tried to run over those in front of them.

As the bell lap started, Jenny held the rearmost position in a lead pack of eight with a struggling Jamal—who had nearly fallen— immediately to her right. Jenny had to move up, and to move up she had to get away from the rail. She slowed down just enough to put Jamal a stride ahead of her, shifted right, and surged past Jamal and  Karakaya, while the new leader, Rodriguez, led the pack out of turn two and onto the back straight.

The pace continued to wind up on the approach to turn three. Jenny was now only a stride back from Rodriguez but, stuck behind Norway’s Ingvill Bovim in lane 2, had to cover extra distance.

Entering the final straightaway, Jenny strayed even wider, into lane 3. Rodriguez now had separation from her closest pursuer, Ethiopia’s Kalkidan Gezahegne.

Driving her arms, Jenny bulleted past Bovim. Each galloping stride swallowed up twice as much track, it seemed, as Rodriguez’s tightening steps. Forty meters from the finish line, Jenny burst into the lead. Great Britain’s Hannah England was charging hard behind her, but with 20 meters left in the race, she stopped gaining ground. Jenny hit the line first at 4:05.40. She was the new 1500-meter world champion.

Jenny placed her hands on top of her head and shook it from side to side in ecstatic disbelief. She laughed and wept simultaneously. She jumped up and down with her fists in the air, tucking her knees like a cheerleader at the apex of each leap. In an interview conducted minutes later, Jenny would confess to the truth that this sequence of peculiar behavior had already made plain: She truly had not expected this. She had expected only to run harder than ever and to face the fight of her life in her bid to stand where she now stood— which is precisely what had gotten her there.

Jenny was rescued from her immediate post-race delirium by the arrival of a big American flag, which she wrapped around herself like a cape as she set out on a victory lap.

In less than two years, Jenny Barringer (Simpson) had gone from 163rd place in a collegiate championship race to first place in a world championship final. She had fallen. But she’d gotten back up—and learned that, no matter how gifted and successful an athlete may be, she must always brace for the worst to race her best.

In his fascinating new book How Bad Do You Want It?, coach Matt Fitzgerald examines more than a dozen pivotal races to discover the surprising ways elite athletes strengthen their mental toughness. Each chapter of How Bad Do You Want It? explores the how and why of an elite athlete’s transformative moment, revealing powerful new psychobiological principles you can practice to strengthen your own mental fitness.

Pre photo courtesy of Jeff Johnson