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Road to Tokyo

It’s not the Olympics Molly Seidel expected, but the marathoner is grateful she’ll be in Tokyo at all

Molly Seidel finished second in the US Olympic marathon trials.
Molly Seidel finished second in the US Olympic marathon trials.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Molly Seidel likely won’t even see Tokyo. She’ll be residing and competing more than 500 miles north in Sapporo, where the Winter Games were held half a century ago.

It’s unclear whether any spectators will be lining the streets for the women’s marathon, but it’s certain that none of them will be foreigners. She’ll live in a five-ringed bubble, compete at 7 a.m. on a Sunday, and head home within two days. No opening ceremonies, no touristy stuff.

“The Olympics comes with a lot of pomp and circumstance around it,” said Seidel, who’ll be making her Olympic debut after qualifying for the US team 16 months ago. “One of the realities of hosting the Olympics in a pandemic is that we won’t get to experience that. It’s definitely a disappointment, more so that my family won’t get to be there. But I recognize that just getting to hold the Games right now is a privilege. It’s not a right.”

What Seidel has learned since the Olympics were postponed for the first time in history is the importance of adaptability.

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“More than anything the pandemic taught a lot of us about taking advantage of every opportunity that you can get,” said the 26-year-old Cambridge resident. “Not letting things pass by, because you never know when you’re going to get another chance. In pro running we look at our year, we have set dates on the calendar. Then last year all of that went to hell in a handbasket so quickly.”

So Seidel adopted an approach of “embracing the chaos,” which is what she did when she accepted a short-notice entry for the London Marathon, which had been deferred from April to October, and ended up placing sixth in only her second attempt at the distance.

“I could have looked at it as, this is going to be the worst thing in the world,” said Seidel. “I have only seven weeks to prepare and this is so different from what a normal marathon would be. Instead, I chose to look at it as, pretty much no one in the world gets this opportunity right now. It might not be the most ideal thing, but by God I’m going to make the most of it because this is the only thing I’ve got.”

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Jon Green, her coach, told Seidel that she had nothing to prove by going to London, that she’d already collected her Olympic ticket.

“But I still had this sense that a lot of people did not expect me to make the team and that after the postponement happened a lot of people wanted the team to be rechosen,” she said. “I struggled for a long time with this inadequacy. Do I deserve to be on this team? Have I earned my spot? Was it just kind of a fluke?”

‘It might not be the most ideal thing, but by God I’m going to make the most of it because this is the only thing I’ve got.’

Molly Siedel on the unorthodox training required for the 2021 Olympics

Racing in London came with higher expectations, though. Nobody had expected her to make the Olympic team. Now Seidel was viewed as one of the top American marathoners and she was up against the likes of world record-holder Brigid Kosgei and global champion Ruth Chepngetich amid extraordinary circumstances. Seidel wasn’t sure whether she would be allowed even to enter the country until her plane landed. She lived and trained in a quarantined compound in Windsor, 20-plus miles west of London, where her movement was monitored, meal times were staggered, and she ate alone.

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The traditional course around the Thames had been changed to 19 mile-and-a-third laps around St. James’s Park and Seidel didn’t see the layout until the morning of the race. Instead of spectators, cardboard cutouts lined the route.

“It was crazy, but at the same time I was approaching the whole thing with this enormous sense of gratitude,” she said. “I got this opportunity to race a major marathon at a time when there were no races happening. It was an odd experience, but it was really cool and productive.”

The unorthodox course for the 2020 London Marathon meant Molly Seidel ran 19 laps around St. James's Park.
The unorthodox course for the 2020 London Marathon meant Molly Seidel ran 19 laps around St. James's Park.Pool/Getty

Running through Storm Alex’s chilly rain on a day when only 18 women finished, Seidel bettered her trials time by more than two minutes in 2 hours, 25 minutes, and 13 seconds. “London was big for me because it reinforced in my mind, ‘You deserve to be here with the top marathoners in the world,’ " she said. “ ‘You can go out and compete even when the conditions aren’t optimal. You’re ready for this.’ "

Her performance also was a significant personal breakthrough that came only a year after Seidel had planned on quitting the sport after years of dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety, as well as injuries related to overtraining and nutrition.

Seidel, a Wisconsin native who was a national track and cross-country champion at Notre Dame, had bypassed the 2016 Olympic trials because of a sacral stress fracture and checked into an intensive recovery program for eating disorders. When she still was struggling in 2019 she texted Matt Sparks, her Notre Dame coach, questioning whether she could keep running.

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Sparks, Green, her sister Isabel, and others assured her that she could.

“I’m grateful for a lot of people around me who believed in me more than I believed in myself,” said Seidel, who’d been making ends meet as a coffee shop barista and a babysitter.

Making the Olympic team in an event that she’d never run was a moonshot, thought Seidel, who reckoned that she’d place somewhere in the teens. But on a cold and windy day on a hilly Atlanta course she found herself up with the leaders. With 6 miles to go she and Aliphine Tuliamuk broke loose and ran as a tandem the rest of the way. Either she would make the team, Seidel said, “or spectacularly go down in flames.”

Molly Seidel (left) celebrates her second-place finish in the Olympic marathon trials in Atlanta in February 2020, alongside winner Aliphine Tuliamuk and third-place finisher Sally Kipyego.
Molly Seidel (left) celebrates her second-place finish in the Olympic marathon trials in Atlanta in February 2020, alongside winner Aliphine Tuliamuk and third-place finisher Sally Kipyego.John Amis

She was second to Tuliamuk by eight seconds in 2:27:31 and more than a minute ahead of Sally Kipyego. But delight gave way to disappointment less than a month later when the Games were put off until this summer.

“You have this major cornerstone in your life taken away,” Seidel said. “But we reformatted it and looked at it as, OK, now we get an entire extra year to prepare for this race. We were in a unique position. Most other people still had to qualify for the Games, but the six of us on the marathon team knew we had our spots.”

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Now the challenge was to continue her evolution as a marathoner, both physically and psychologically. What Seidel found was that fewer races and more training suited her.

“My body responds better to that longer, slower tempo rather than all-out track intervals,” she said. “Track is catabolic for my system. I like being able to lock into my training and focus on the long-term of something. I love a marathon build over 15 weeks rather than looking to what’s next.”

Her distance training over the past year she likens to stacking bricks. “Nothing fancy,” Seidel said. “Just basic workouts. But if you stack enough of them atop each other you can do pretty amazing things.”

She is in a different and healthier place than she was two years ago with a new shoe contract (Puma) and a house that she bought in Flagstaff, Ariz., where Seidel trains at altitude.

“The past year has been a breakthrough in the sense of learning to enjoy the present moment for what it is and realizing that at the end of the day none of us can control anything,” she said. “All we can do is adapt to our circumstances. It’s given me a much more mature approach to the sport. I get to do something that’s incredible and special that I love doing. Even if I can’t plan out what the next day or week or month is going to be I’m still enjoying what I’m doing in the moment.”

Her race schedule before the Games is deliberately light — just next weekend’s New York Mini 10K. Seidel had contemplated running in the Olympic track and field trials in Oregon later this month but thought better of it.

“My coach and I decided that it wasn’t worth risking injury or extra burnout trying to gear up for a race that I didn’t need to be doing,” she said. “It would have been fun, it would have been a cool bonus. I’ll go to the trials for my team processing and I’ll have a lot of fun watching my friends.”

Then it’s off to Japan for training and a place at the starting line on Aug. 7. Touring Tokyo and racing there can wait while Seidel runs last year’s Olympics.

“We make the most of the situation that we’re given,” she said. “I’m enormously grateful that the Games are happening. That’s what I’m there for. I’m there to race.”