Molly Seidel knows the marathon will never be like this again.

It can’t possibly be.

Running in her first marathon, Seidel made it look almost easy, turning in a stunning debut performance of 2:27:31 and a berth on the U.S. Olympic Team bound for Tokyo. Against a deep field of American runners with world-class PRs and Olympic berths to their credit, the 25-year-old native of Wisconsin ran like a seasoned pro herself. Like the seasoned pro she always seemed destined to become.

photo: Justin Britton

Seidel became the first American woman to earn an Olympic berth in her debut marathon. Her time was the sixth-fastest in Olympic Trials history.

“Yeah, I think I’ve ruined the marathon because of the way this one turned out,” she said with a laugh while donning a Boston Red Sox hat at the post-race press conference. “The whole experience was amazing. It was basically a 26-mile scream tunnel with amazing energy from all of the spectators. Between the crowd and the logistics and how easy it was to get our bottles, I was shocked how smoothly it all went.”

Early Success Before Struggles

Seidel was a heralded high school record-setter and a Foot Locker cross country champion who went on to become a four-time NCAA champion at Notre Dame. But it’s been a long road to find success as a pro. She had struggled with disordered eating, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder in college and then suffered from osteopenia and skipped the chance to sign a big pro contract to instead return to South Bend, Indiana, for a fifth year in college.

Molly Seidel of Notre Dame wins the 3000m at the NCAA DI Indoor Track & Field Championship photo: Tom Ewart/NCAA Photos via Getty Images.

She moved to Boston in 2017 after Saucony offered her a modest pro contract but then missed July-December of 2018 after surgery for a hip injury. She eventually left the Saucony Freedom Club to train under new coach Jon Green, and since then everything has been looking up.

In January this year, she went to Flagstaff to get altitude training and run with friends, spending long stints logging 100- to 110-mile weeks with Aliphine Tuliamuk. Those miles and that friendship would prove to be significant.

Seidel had a strong year in 2019 and qualified for the Olympic Trials with a 1:10:27 half-marathon. When the calendar flipped to 2020, she was in the shape of her life. She lowered her PR with a 1:09:35 effort at the Houston Half Marathon and was hoping for a top 20 finish in Atlanta—top 10 as a dream. But that’s not how the day played out.

Molly Seidel Houston Half Marathon
Molly Seidel Houston Half Marathon / photo: Stone Malick

Smart Strategy

Amid brisk winds and a very hilly course, Seidel smartly tucked into the deep pack of 15 runners that passed through the halfway mark in 1:14:38. With the group still bunched up at the 20-mile mark, Seidel looked comfortable and under control.

“In the first part of the race, I wasn’t really thinking,” Seidel said. “My coach and I have a little saying of, ‘No brain, no pain’—so I was just kind of trying to flow through it. I wasn’t paying attention to the miles, and I wasn’t paying attention to the pace. I was just going off of feel. When we kind of made our move, I just wanted to keep running the pace I felt good and I knew I could hold.”

The Power of Training Partners

Then as Tuliamuk surged near the 21-mile mark, Seidel went right with her. Sally Kipyego tried to keep pace, too, but everyone else started to fall back, stringing out the field. Although Tuliamuk increased the pace, Seidel didn’t let her go. She covered the gap and they ran stride for stride until Tuliamuk surged again in the final mile.

“I think Aliphine needs to take a lot of the credit on this,” Seidel said. “Every time she said, ‘Come on, let’s go,’ I tried to say, ‘I’m with you.’ But just having her there was huge. I don’t think I would have been as calm on that breakaway with anybody else. I look up to her so much. To be able to know I was running alongside a friend and someone I trust, it was almost like a feeling of working together. I knew we were in it, but if we were going down, we were going down together.”

photo: CoopsRun Photography

Seidel didn’t let up after Tuliamuk pulled away, even though her Olympic berth was secure and she was visibly feeling the miles.

“It definitely hurt during the last part,” she said. “But it was calming to know that one of the things going through my head was, ‘It’s supposed to feel like this.’”

Even more than her own performance, Seidel said she was honored to run in the largest field in U.S. Olympic Trials history. A record 511 women qualified for the event and 444 started the race.

Seidel admits she was a bit overwhelmed and nervous in the days leading up to the race.

“My coach told me, ‘Keep your emotions in check. You’re tough. You know how to do this,’” she said. “It was really an honor for my debut marathon to be here at the Trials on this course with just about the finest group of women I can imagine. The entire field was made up of people I really look up to.”