By Jonathan Gault
April 28, 2019
LONDON — America has a new star marathoner, and her name is Emily Sisson, who clocked 2:23:08 for sixth place at the 2019 London Marathon, missing Jordan Hasay’s US debut record by just eight seconds. Sisson is now the seventh-fastest American woman ever and a serious contender for a spot on the 2020 Olympic team.
The last few years have represented a golden age in American women’s marathoning. Three women in the top 10 at the Olympics — a feat never before accomplished by the US — in 2016. A World Championship medal by Amy Cragg and a New York City victory for Shalane Flanagan in 2017. A Boston Marathon victory by Des Linden in 2018. But those three are closer to 40 than 30. Cragg and Linden are both 35. Flanagan is 37 and just underwent knee surgery. The cupboard needed to be restocked soon.
Based on the last two weeks, however, fans of American distance running have nothing to worry about. Jordan Hasay, 27, returned from an injury-plagued 2018 to run 2:25:20 to finish third in Boston on April 15. And today Sisson, also 27, capitalized on the vast potential she flashed after running a 67:30 half marathon in Houston in January.
Sisson’s time was fast, if not totally unexpected — she said on Wednesday her goal was to run in the low-2:20s. But Sisson’s poise, not her endurance or speed, was her most important quality today. A successful marathoner has to be adaptable, and Sisson was tested almost immediately when top women — expected to take off at 2:17:00 pace — hung back and let the top group of pacemakers run away from them. The result was one huge group of 15 women (and one pacemaker) passing through five kilometers in 16:56 (2:22:54 pace).
“There’s always something unexpected with the marathon,” Sisson said. “Like that’s, I think, the biggest lesson. There’s just so many variables, so many things that can happen…Our race plan, how we expected it to go, went totally out the window. We weren’t going to try to lead that whole group so we just had to adjust…It was good practice to just be out there and know the race plan might not go exactly how you think and you need to adjust.”
Indeed it was. Sisson was content to stay tucked into the lead pack through the 20k mark, at which point eventual winner Brigid Kosgei began to string things out with her long push to the finish line. Kosgei, who ran her second half in 66:42 to win in 2:18:20, was far too good for Sisson — and everyone else today.
As a result, Sisson hit halfway in 1:11:49 in 10th place — 49 seconds off the pace she had planned to come through ahead of the race — but step for step with fellow American Molly Huddle, who, like Sisson, is coached by Ray Treacy.
Soon, however, they would split. Sisson ran the 5k from 20k to 25k in 16:36, her fastest of the race, leaving Huddle nine seconds adrift. Sisson remained 10th, a step behind Ethiopia’s Haftamnesh Tesfay, but would run mostly alone the rest of the way — much of it in the wind — gradually moving her way up the field. She was 8th at 30k, 7th at 35k, and reached her eventual finishing position of 6th by 40k.
“I had to really just buckle down and grind it out,” Sisson said. “…I think once I got to like 24 miles, I was like, oh, okay, I’m ready for the finish line.”
Sisson’s time was also an American record for a women’s-only race — an admittedly strained statistic, since there have been 11 faster performances by American women that did not satisfy the record criteria.
As good as today went, Sisson believes that she still has room for improvement. She said that she felt she may have gone a little too fast, too early, in dropping that 16:36 5k from 20k to 25k — which may have cost her the American debut record — but was happy with her pacing overall. And now that she’s been through a full buildup, she can reflect back on what worked and what didn’t, making tweaks to ensure her next buildup goes even better.
“It’s my first one,” Sisson said. “I’m learning. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement, which is nice.”
Inevitably, the question of what’s next came up for Sisson, and she has some options. She would be a strong bet to make the US team in either the 10k or marathon, and said that she will consider all options: the marathon trials, the track trials, or, if necessary, both (the double at the Olympics is not really feasible, with the 10k coming just six days after the marathon).
“I feel like for 2020, I can maybe look at the marathon and the 10k or either or,” Sisson said.
Sunday did not go as smoothly for the other top American running London. Huddle did scratch out a small personal best of 2:26:33, improving upon her time from New York last fall by 11 seconds, to finish 12th, but she didn’t feel good early on and struggled late, felling well short of her pre-race goal of 2:21-2:23. Her last two full 5k splits, from 30k to 35k and 35k to 40k, were 18:06 and 18:20.
“I felt rough from 10k on,” Huddle said. “My legs are just really achy today, I don’t know. I just didn’t feel good. [It] didn’t feel easy when we were running 5:30s.”
Huddle was at a loss to explain why that was.
“Sometimes you have bad days in the marathon,” Huddle said.
Huddle knew that once Sisson began to push after halfway, she needed to start running her own race.
“[Treacy] said, you’ll probably separate at some point, just do your own thing after that, don’t go over your line trying to chase each other,” Huddle said. “So I just had to back off.”
Huddle’s bad day could have turned even worse had she given into the urge to drop out, which she admitted she felt as she began to slow. But it was important for Huddle to finish, particularly because by dropping out she would forfeit any chance of hitting the 2020 Olympic standard (she got it easily in the end, by almost three minutes).
So four races in, what do we make of Molly Huddle, marathoner? Ahead of London, Huddle told me “I kind of feel like I’m still proving myself,” adding that she felt that a fast time or another top-five finish in a major would help in that respect. She came close to neither today, and remains 14th on the US all-time list. There is still work to do.
And yet, Huddle has two top-fours in majors (New York in 2016 and 2018) and knows she is capable of running faster than she has shown.
“I think my New Yorks were good. I think my times in New York, I was fitter than obviously 2:26 when I ran 2:26 in New York. So 3rd and 4th there is good. Finishing with 2:20 women there is good. Today just wasn’t good.”
With America’s depth in the marathon, Huddle will have to do a lot better in Atlanta in February if she is to make the team to Tokyo, but for now, she’s going back to her roots: she’ll run the 10,000 at USAs in July, where she’ll go for her fifth straight national title in that event, and hopes to follow that up with the 10,000 at Worlds and a half marathon this fall.
The story today, however, was Sisson, finally moving out of Huddle’s shadow to assert herself as — at least on this day — the superior marathoner of the two. Her emergence, along with Hasay’s return, means that it will be a battle of old vs. new in Atlanta next year, the young guns Sisson and Hasay battling it out as the old guard tries to hold on and make one last Olympic team. Sparks will fly.
“We need to all race each other on the same day, I think,” Huddle says. “The Trials will be a good decider.”
Video interviews with Huddle and Sisson: