TOKYO — Molly Seidel actually won her Olympic marathon medal last October when she went to London on short notice for a rescheduled race without enough training, lived in quarantine, then ran against a world-class field in a chilly downpour on a course that she hadn’t seen until that morning and still finished sixth.
What the Wisconsin native, Notre Dame alumna, and Cambridge resident learned about herself that day were two priceless things: That she belonged on the global stage with the world’s best; and that “embracing the chaos” was the secret to success.
No Olympic marathon has been more chaotic than this one. It was postponed for a year. It was moved 500 miles north to Sapporo, a former Winter Games site. The starting time, originally 7 a.m. on Saturday, abruptly was moved up an hour in the hope that it would make an appreciable difference in the weather conditions, which have been wet-sauna wretched for two weeks.
“Everything about getting to the start line in this race has been crazy,” observed Seidel, who said that her jaw dropped when she found out about the new time at dinner on Friday night. “That was just another little bit of crazy thrown in there.”
So when the day dawned hot and windy, Seidel was delighted. “Truthfully, I wanted it as hard as possible,” she said after she’d taken the bronze medal behind a brace of Kenyans, becoming only the third American woman to make the podium. Joan Benoit won gold in the inaugural 1984 race in Los Angeles and Deena Kastor took bronze in 2004 in Athens. Benoit already had won Boston three times and set the world record. Kastor went on to establish the American mark that has stood for 15 years.
Seidel is a cross-country and track runner who still is transitioning to the road. This was only her third marathon. She surprised herself and others by making the US team and by making a splash in London. She didn’t figure to be a contender here, not in a crowd that included Kenyan world record-holder Brigid Kosgei and countrywoman Ruth Chepngetich, the global champion, plus several top Ethiopians.
Which was absolutely fine with Seidel, who enjoys being the random woman in the lead pack. “I try not to have too many expectations,” she said. “It is just to go out, stick your nose where it doesn’t belong, and try and make some people angry. My goal today was just to go in and for people to think, who the hell is this girl?”
Seidel surveyed the scene for the first 5 kilometers and eventually moved up among the leaders. “We didn’t go out super fast and I kept it very controlled at the beginning,” she said. “After halfway, rather than follow I wanted to make moves and be aggressive. These races are tactical so I wanted to be a little bit of a bulldog and not let people walk all over me.”
Seidel was second at 15 miles and third at 18 and maintained her medal position until the end. Up front Peres Jepchirchir and Kosgei were running shoulder to shoulder, helping each other, sharing water in the Kenyan way. “I figured if I could stick with these girls, who are the best in the world, something good would come of it,” Seidel said.
If she had a good day, Seidel reckoned, she could crack the top five — but the top 10 was a more realistic outcome. Then they fired the starting gun and the actual reality of the day took over. As the miles clicked past and Seidel remained in contention what she told herself after London was reaffirmed: “You deserve to be here.”
There was a time after the Games were postponed when she wondered about that. Some people were calling for the marathon trials to be held again this year. That was one reason why Seidel went to London, to show that she’d earned her Tokyo ticket. Had the Games been held as scheduled, it’s unlikely that she would have made the podium. She still was new to the distance and to its unique training regimen, with its heavy mileage and its long and slow build to an event that the elites can run — at most — three times a year.
And she also had never run 26.2 miles against the Africans who’ve owned the distance for decades now. She did that in London where she was up against Kosgei and Chepngetich and Ethiopia’s Ashete Bekere, women who’d won majors. So she was ready for an Olympian challenge with the world tuned in. “I was a little bit starstruck,” she said. “I look up to these girls a lot.”
But Seidel stuck her nose in and out-bulldogged all but two of them while more than a dozen competitors dropped out, including Chepngetich. Jepchirchir and Kosgei won gold and silver, the first time the Kenyans had managed that.
And Seidel, who has dealt with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety throughout her career, was able to validate again her new attitude about competition. “At the end of the day none of us can control anything,” she said this spring. “All we can do is adapt to our circumstances.”
In this most unpredictable and uncontrollable of all Games, Seidel found a way to embrace the chaos, to live in the moment, and to will herself onto the podium.
“This is the day you dream of your entire life,” she said. “This is what it means to be an athlete.”
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.