It was just a little over a month and a half ago on Feb. 29 in Atlanta that Molly Seidel crossed the Atlanta Olympic Marathon Trials finish line as the unlikely runner-up, securing a spot to race in the 2020 Tokyo Games expected to take place in July. It was a spectacular cinematic underdog story to light the torch on the Olympic Year.
But, outside of the euphoric buzz of Olympic fever in running circles, by late-February, news had already begun to trickle in about the coronavirus claiming its first American lives. In the weeks that followed, society ground to a halt. On March 24, the International Olympic Committee officially announced the postponement of the Games until 2021, something that hadn’t happened since WWII.
So, in the span of one month, Seidel: prepared to run her first marathon, against all odds and expectations became an olympian, and witnessed a historical postponement of the Olympic Games wrought by an unprecedented global pandemic.
“Not gonna lie, it’s been a lot,” says Seidel. “Once the crisis started to get really, really serious and NCAA’s started canceling their seasons, I kind of started mentally preparing for the very real possibility that it was going to be postponed.”
The decision, Seidel says, was initially something of a relief after pressure from nations and athletes built in the days leading up to the IOC’s postponement, with Canada and Australia announcing that they would not be sending their athletes to represent their respective countries.
“I one-hundred percent support that decision for the athletes, for the spectators, for like the Olympics as a whole for what it is,” says Seidel.
Jake Reilly, who finished runner-up in the men’s Olympic Marathon Trials, expressed why he felt it was important for the 2020 Games to be postponed in an Instagram post:
“I’ve dreamed about competing in the Olympics since I was 6 years old, and I don’t want a watered down version with an asterisk next to it. I want to see the best athletes, at full strength, competing in front of full stadiums.”
Seidel resounded Reilly’s sentiment adding, “Basically we don’t want to half-ass the Olympics.”
But after the IOC’s decision to postpone the olympics came down, there was no early announcement by either USATF or the IOC confirming that the spots of the six Olympic Marathon Qualifiers would be preserved. Then came murmurs within the running community on social media questioning whether the Olympic Marathon Trials should be re-run.
The sudden insecurity of her spot on the Olympic Team, putting in jeopardy years of training and the realization of a lifelong dream, was excruciating for Seidel.
“That truthfully was probably the hardest part out of all of this,” says Seidel, who told GQ in a separate interview that she actually had people directly message her on her Instagram account to tell her she should not be on the team. “I can deal with the postponement and what not, but that would have just been heartbreaking,” she says.
But, as it turned out, the internet vigilantes have little influence outside of anonymous message boards, Twitter feeds and Instagram DMs. The chairs of USA Track and Field have said that they are in favor of honoring the results of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Team that was assembled in Atlanta. Now, with her spot secured, Seidel can formulate a better idea of what her next 18-months of preparation will look like, despite the turbulence that is certain to accompany at least the next few weeks of the crisis.
Utilizing the Extra Year
“I’ve just been enjoying the process of running and taking the time to heal and recover and get that mental sharpness back because a marathon build kind of grinds you down a little bit,” laughs Seidel. “It’s nice being able to go out and run for the joy of it and using it right now as more of, like, stability in my life.”
Running, however, hasn’t exactly been a particularly meditative experience these days in Boston, where Seidel lives. As the city’s historic and tight-knit running community has had to temporarily disperse to comply with social distancing mandates, she’s been running solo on the city roads along with, she jokes, “every person who hasn’t worked out since 1997” making it something of a challenge to maintain distance.
“But, you know, you get by.”
Besides running, she’s been coping with the pandemic-induced isolation through Zoom calls, reading, and making music—playing the piano, banjo and ukulele.
Pre-Olympic Racing Plans
While she’s taking a step back from the competitive mindset and recharging for the time being, Seidel does have plans, albeit very flexible plans, to race this fall or possibly late-summer depending on the COVID and foot situation. (None of those plans include virtual races.)
Though 26.2 miles seems to suit Seidel pretty well, she’s not totally married to the marathon at this point in her young career, and still views herself as competitive in the shorter distance events. In fact, before COVID-19, she had been planning on competing in the Olympic Track Trials 10K this June. She had also hoped to race the 10K at the Payton Jordan Meet in Stanford along with a road 25K championship. Of course, those have been canceled, but she says that she still hopes to get some chances to “bang out a fast 10K on the track.” Whether or not she does will depend on how the season and pandemic progress.
Depending on what fall marathon she chooses to do (this is the only non-“if” on her racing agenda), she’ll fit her racing schedule into that marathon plan. She hopes to hit some of the USATF circuit races and road championships including the Falmouth Road Race and the USATF 20K Championships in New Haven, Conn.
Of course, this is all TBD.
“You have to kind of just roll with the punches right now,” says Seidel. “There’s not much use planning for things because things change around in an instant.”