Everyone keeps breathlessly mentioning how Molly Seidel was running only her third marathon in bringing home the Olympic bronze medal from Sapporo last weekend. OK, but I don’t understand why that is such a distinction. People often run their PR‘s within their first five marathons, as the longer you go in the event, the more it tends to extract its toll.
Fellow U.S. Olympic Marathon medalists, Meb Keflezighi, silver, and Deena Kastor, bronze, won their medals in Athens 2004 in their third and fourth marathons respectively.
What’s more, if you’ve never been humbled by the event, you’re not afraid of that which you damn well ought to be afraid of. So not having too much experience in the marathon isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all. On top of which, Seidel looked especially efficient in the long race, ala Des Linden (and wouldn’t you have loved to see how she might’ve fared in Sapporo?)
Molly has also admitted loving the training and pace of the event, putting in 130-mile training weeks in preparation. Some events just fit snuggly into an athlete’s physical and psychological wheelhouse.
Men’s two-time Olympic champ Eliud Kipchoge is another one who fully embraces the solitary nature of the game, then keeps it solitary by pulling away from everyone like he’s still driving past Hicham El Guerrouj and Keninisa Bekele at the 2003 World Champs 5000m in Paris (and can you believe it’s the same guy still pulling this off in 2021??!!!).
Another factor to consider: Molly may be tiny, 5’4″, 107-115 lbs., but that, along with her ultra efficient form, is an advantage in heat conditions, as there is less action to generate heat and less surface area needed to cool.
More than that, she’s been a terror since high school. She won the Foot Locker National Cross Country championship, and has what, four NCAA titles in cross country and track from her days at Notre Dame? That’s a better record than American record holder Deena Kastor produced at similar stages of her development.
If there was a surprise, it was Molly debuting at the Olympic Trials Marathon in Atlanta in February 2020 in second place. With debutantes, you never know until you see them try on the distance. But when she followed the Trials with a sixth place finish in London last fall in 2:25:13, that should have alerted us all that she had a knack for the long distance. But with Sara Hall closing with a rush to finish second behind Brigid Kosgei in 2:22:01, the second fastest time ever for an American woman, Molly’s performance in sixth got overshadowed.
Add it up and sure, you wouldn’t have picked Molly Seidel to bring home a medal from the 2021 Olympics. At the same time, despite its lofty stature, the Olympic Marathon is often easier to podium at than the annual Abbott World Marathon Majors.
When the weather is nice or neutral and the event inserts pacers, the athletes simply out train the distance and it’s a pure speed contest. But remove the pacers and crank up the humidity, and suddenly the speedsters can’t afford to risk going early, the pace is slower, and next thing you know, it’s anybody’s game as the finish line nears.
Plus, with only three runners per nation allowed to run in the Olympics, there’s only so many Kenyans and Ethiopians that can disperse to fly the flags of other nations, meaning Olympic fields at times aren’t as deep in talent as we find at the Majors.
This is not to take anything away from Ms. Seidel who performed like a champ in Sapporo, then had the best post-race chat with the folks at home of anybody NBC tried so hard to make appealing but often devolved into simple declarations of “Love yous” and holding up the family dog. Molly, on the other hand, came across so endearingly genuine: “I’m soo tired”, and “Have a beer for me.” No wonder she showed up on the Today Show.
So while we couldn’t have expected it, Seidel’s bronze medal in only her third marathon shouldn’t be classified as a shocker, only as a most welcomed and deserved ascension to the world stage. What’s more, I’d say she’s far from done taking the measure of the old marathon distance. Like many others, I’m looking forward to her marathons four, five, and on. Keep it going, Molly, you’re just getting started.