By Jonathan Gault
September 14, 2020
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If it had been any race other than the US Olympic Marathon Trials, Molly Huddle probably wouldn’t have been on the start line in Atlanta on February 29. A nagging ankle injury cut into her buildup, and the hilly Trials course only compounded the issue, chewing up her body during the race. Huddle battled on, running with the leaders through 20 miles, but once Aliphine Tuliamuk and Molly Seidel began to separate during mile 21, Huddle knew her Olympic chances had vanished. She made the decision to drop out, hoping to save what was left of her legs and refocus on the Track Trials in June.
Just three weeks later, however, those Track Trials were postponed to 2021 as the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world. As a result, Huddle took the longest break of her career — almost a month — to heal up. Though she hadn’t completed 26.2 miles in Atlanta, her body had still taken a beating. Everything was sore.
Huddle says she felt “terrible — like, so bad. I got sick right after the Trials and then just felt really rough coming back.”
Mentally, her DNF at the Trials was tough to take as well. After running the 5,000 at the Olympics in 2012 and the 10,000 in 2016, making the marathon team in 2020 seemed a natural progression. Instead, Huddle had to deal with a double blow — falling short in the marathon and having to wait an extra year for a chance to redeem herself on the track.
“That was hard, because I kept thinking, if you had made the team, you’d be a lot less anxious right now,” Huddle says. “Because you’d just know you’re on the Olympic team, no matter what happens.”
Huddle’s path to Tokyo 2021 resumed on August 22nd with her first race since the Trials, a low-key 3,000 in Providence (she ran 8:59). She took another step forward a week ago, running 15:20 for 5,000 to win the Labor Day Showdown in Newton, Mass.
Undoubtedly one of the favorites to make the Olympic team at 10,000 meters, Huddle will enter next year’s Trials as the five-time defending US 10,000 champion. Additionally, she currently one of just three Americans with the 31:25 Olympic standard in that event (Emily Sisson and Marielle Hall are the others). But Huddle is not taking her spot in Tokyo for granted, and for good reason. Hall beat Huddle at Worlds last year; Sisson was only five seconds back. Hall’s Bowerman Track Club teammate Emily Infeld beat Huddle to finish 6th at Worlds in 2017, and while Infeld is prone to injuries, she did run 14:51 for 5,000 in February. Kellyn Taylor just ran 31:07.
“If I make the 10k team, I’m going to have to be in good shape,” Huddle says. “We have 31:00 girls, girls that have proven they’re in sub-31:00 shape probably on the Bowerman team.”
As Huddle shifts her focus back, once more, to the track, it’s as good a time as any to take stock of where she’s been the last few years — and where her career could end up. When Huddle made her marathon debut in New York in November 2016, no American in history appeared more prepared at face value to make the transition to 26.2 miles. She had broken national records in the 5,000 and 10,000, run 67:41 in the half, racked up 20 national titles, and dominated the US road scene for years. And she had done it, most often, by grinding her opponents into submission from the front of the pack. From the outside, Huddle had all the makings of a future marathon star.
But four years on from that debut, Huddle’s marathon career hasn’t quite gone to plan. She’s hardly been a failure — she was 3rd in New York in 2016 and 4th (in a quicker time against a deeper field) in 2018. But her pb of 2:26:33 ranks her just 16th on the all-time US list, and she has yet to produce a signature marathon performance.
There are several reasons for that. At the Trials, Huddle wasn’t fully healthy. And the race for which Huddle put in her best buildup — 2018 Boston — turned into a survival test featuring pouring rain and bone-chilling winds.
“Everything had gone right and it was just one of those days, the weather was so bad,” says Ray Treacy, who has coached Huddle since 2007. “She was so fit.”
But according to Treacy, it may have been more than just bad luck that has prevented Huddle from putting up a signature great marathon performance. Huddle has always been a monster in long interval sessions on the track — anything from 800 to 2k repeats — but hasn’t taken to longer tempos as easily.
“I always thought [the marathon] would be difficult for her,” Treacy says. “[She’s] just so good on the track. She’s really good in certain types of workouts and not as good as you would hope she would be for marathon-type training. Tempo running is not a strong suit for her, which is really important for the marathon.”
Another issue is the mileage. The consistent 100-mile weeks required for marathon training sapped Huddle’s speed and wore on her imbalances.
“I didn’t feel bad (physically) until I started marathoning,” Huddle says. “And I now feel bad. I want to get that freshness back, and I think this year will help. I think it’s all biomechanical. I just have to straighten things up and strengthen some things that the mileage is kind of deadening. And we’ve been working on that. Maybe a year of not going over 100 miles per week will be good for that.
“I think I’m just more natural on the track. I think I can do [the marathon]; I think it’s just for us, we can’t go back-to-back-to-back. I think we have to space them out and pick our spots.”
Huddle, quietly, turned 36 on August 31. 36 used to be an age at which, if you were lucky enough to still be running professionally, you’d usually be considering how long you have left. Huddle admits frankly that she does not know, but points out that these days it’s not uncommon to see athletes excelling up to and into their 40s. American Shalane Flanagan won NYC at 36. Kenya’s Edna Kiplagat won Boston at age 37. Romania’s Constantina Dita won the 2008 Olympic marathon at 38.
“You just don’t know what model you are, so you keep going and see where you end up,” Huddle says.
Treacy believes Huddle has taken excellent care of her body throughout her career — she hasn’t had a major injury in the last 10 years, in part because she’s always stayed on top of the minor ones. If something is acting up, she won’t hesitate to hop on a flight to Phoenix to visit mobility guru John Ball to get it straightened out.
“I think she has a few more really good years in her because of that,” Treacy says. “Some people don’t take good care of themselves and you know that their longevity is limited because of that. People have to realize when you’re in your 20s, you have to be looking after your body so that you have longevity. Molly has always done that.”
Huddle has no plans to retire anytime soon. Huddle wants to run her favorite marathon, New York, again, and wants another crack at a fast course — both she and Treacy believe she has another PB in her. Fitting those two goals around her pursuit of an Olympic 10,000 berth next year mean that Huddle will likely compete through at least 2022.
“I think that’s a lot to fit in the next couple years,” Huddle says. “And if I’m lucky enough to be in the mix for the marathon team in 2024, I’ll show up.”
Huddle knows she has work to do between now and the Track Trials next June. Her 15:20 last Monday was a solid effort, but she wanted to be closer to 15:10. Part of the reason is that, with no immediate target race in mind, she hasn’t been hitting it quite as hard in practice. Another is one of the few areas in which Treacy has noticed slippage from Huddle, an issue familiar to any aging athlete: it takes a little bit longer for her speed to come back around. As usual, though, Huddle is working to address it, and has more races planned.
“You need races to check on your training and progress your training,” Huddle says. “You train to race anyway, so these are good benchmarks.”
With track meets limited and road races almost nonexistent during the age of COVID, Huddle’s next competition will likely come at a meet she and husband Kurt Benninger will stage themselves in Providence next month. Huddle says the distance could range from anywhere from 1500 meters to an attempt at the American one-hour record; Treacy regards the latter as the more likely option.
Should Huddle attempt it, the record will almost certainly fall: the current mark stands at 16,632 meters, set in 2015 by Katie Misuraca. That comes out to 5:48 pace for 10.33 miles — or 1:16 half marathon pace, almost 10 minutes slower than Huddle’s pb.
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