Former Notre Dame standout breaking through barriers in a big way.
Interview by: Duncan Larkin
In the sport of track & field, the numbers alone can be quite telling. Heading into this year’s summer track season, former Notre Dame standout Molly Huddle’s 5,000-meter personal best was 15:17. In a series of breakthrough races so far in 2010, she’s whittled that time down to 14:51.84. That’s a 26-second improvement at a distance where PB’s are rare–and when they do come, usually arrive in single-digit seconds.
Huddle started making dents at the Mt. Sac Relays in April, running 15:05. And just last month at the Paris Diamond League meeting, she smashed the 15-minute barrier for the first time, becoming the fourth-fastest American woman over 5,000 meters in the process.
Upon returning to her home in Providence, Rhode Island after her big breakthrough in Paris, Huddle was expected to race the Bix 7 in Davenport, Iowa on July 24, but withdrew her name from the start list at the last minute to rest up for another series of high-quality European track races in August. Competitor.com caught up with Huddle earlier this week before she embarked on a quest to inch another second or two closer to Shalane Flanagan’s 5,000-meter American Record of 14:44.80.
Competitor.com: After your 5K PR in Paris, you flew home for some down time. How are you feeling after this rest period?
Molly Huddle: Good. I came off my 5K race pretty well. I kind of wanted to come home to train a little bit, because I was racing and not doing much in-between, but yeah, everything is healthy. I recovered pretty well from it. I’m very happy with it.
You are heading to Stockholm (Diamond League Meeting on August 6), correct?
No. I’m actually not running in Stockholm. I’m going to compete in London (August 13) and Brussels (August 27) instead.
You pulled out of the Bix 7 because you wanted to keep racing in Europe. Any regrets for making that decision?
I do. I have huge regrets. I think it would have been a tossup as to who would have won: me or Lisa [Koll]. I had a lot of fun in last year’s Bix. I really liked it and said I would be back. I even said that if I skipped any races this year, it wouldn’t be that one, but I was kind of advised by a few different people to choose one or the other. I might not have recovered from a 14:51 and a hard effort at Bix when I went back to Europe. It was hard to watch the race results come up, but I definitely would have had to run really hard with Lisa in there. It was hit or miss whether or not I could come off of it ok to go back to Europe.
What kind of races are you entering on the second half of your European tour?
I’m going to be in 5Ks. I actually thought I might have been in a 3K or a 5K, but Brussels and London are 5Ks, so I’ll be doing two in those meets and then a 5K at the Continental Cup ten days after Brussels. These are a lot of high quality races. It could go well or I could start to get tired. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
You have knocked huge chunks of time off your 5K PR. What are some factors behind that improvement?
In college, I was stuck at 15:30 for pretty much five years and then my first year as a pro, I switched over to Ray [Treacy] and I ran 15:17 that summer. I think he knows how to work with every type of athlete. He saw that I was tired and needed to do some shorter stuff and so he kind of brought the best race out of me. Then, in between, I got injured once or twice, so that’s kind of always been my problem—even in college. I’ve had about 17 months now without injury. I really even haven’t had to take a day off for injury for the past year and a half. I think that is the main thing. I’ve been able to get a full training plan in, which is a full year of what Ray wants me to do. He’s a great coach, especially in the 5K and 10K distances. There are some really great women to train with here. I think it’s the combination of all those things.
Did you do anything different in your workouts or mileage? Has your mileage gone up?
It’s gone up a little bit since college. I think my last two years I was running maybe 70 miles a week max. Now, maybe I do 85. It’s still not always that high. It still goes down to 70. It just kind of depends. I do more proper tempo work than I did when I was in college. In college, you race so often. You can’t really get those longer workouts in. I think that might help. My workouts are spaced out a little bit now, which I realize in college I wasn’t recovering that well in between workouts and so we tried a schedule where we have a couple days in between. We used to have one or two and now we have three. For me, that really helps. I kind of recover slowly, which I never even thought about before. But also, this year, with me being injury free, I kind of just found a really good chiropractor and physical therapist. We went away to Phoenix for the winter, and I was coincidentally staying down the street from him, so I was able to go in once a week. I’m getting a lot more into the preventative side of physical therapy. You need those little things you can do, because I’m now realizing how much progress you can make if you don’t have to take huge chunks of time off. When I was injured, I cross-trained heavily and I thought that it couldn’t be hurting me that badly, but there’s nothing like running to train for a race. It makes a big difference.
You alluded to the benefits of longer recovery between races. So what kind of recovery are you doing on your non-workout days? How many miles and what kind of pace?
I usually do two runs a day or one kind of medium-long run. I don’t really run that hard—just easy running pretty much. I’m even running a little easier on those days than I was running in the past. When you have a group of people that you really trust in their talents, you just kind of do whatever they do, so if I train with Kim [Smith], Mary [Cullen] or Amy Rudolph, I’m going to do whatever they do. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t recovering quite as well when I was running by myself. So I’m taking some tips from them.
Even though you ran 14:51 in Paris, you placed eighth overall there. You were in a tough race with superfast Ethiopians and Kenyans. Did they or do they ever intimidate you? Did that tough field help you run that fast time?
I think it definitely helps because you don’t waste any seconds. They go out hard. So you just get in the back of the pack and hang on as long as you can. You either fall off or you don’t. Even if you do, you have a little cushion for time, because you went out so hard. I definitely think it helps. It’s intimidating. The races that I’ve been in, I’ll look over and see, like, Meseret Defar on the line. I think, “Oh God.” I try not to get in her way, but you can’t really think like that even though you are not racing her, per se. You can still have goals for yourself in the race. You just have to use who’s there. There are always going to be some Kenyan girls you don’t know. But they are better than anyone in the United States. You work with them. That’s how I try to think about it.
Are you ever nervous before a race?
Yes. I was pretty nervous going into Paris, especially since they had to work pretty hard to get me into it. You always have in the back of your head that you don’t want to embarrass yourself and everyone else for fighting to get you in the race. You don’t want people saying, “she’s fit and can run fast,” and then you don’t. You then worry about all that comes with that. It was kind of a good nervousness, because it was such a cool atmosphere there. You couldn’t help but be more excited than anything. I’m usually always nervous. I was nervous before USA’s this year. I was nervous before pretty much everything.
You’re now heading back to Europe as a sub-15 minute 5K runner and are starting to knock on the door of Shalane Flanagan’s American record. Are you more confident now?
I’m definitely more confident, especially since workouts are going a little better, but I’m still waiting for the wheels to fall off or something. I can’t believe how good it’s been going. Deep in the back of my mind, I’ve been thinking, “I didn’t plan this season. I didn’t plan this many high-quality 5Ks. It’s going to blow up somewhere along the line.” I’m already happy with how the season’s gone. There’s really no pressure. If all I did was run 14:51, then that’s a good year. I can’t be happier with that, so that’s helping my mindset a little bit. I don’t know if it helps my confidence at all, but it kind of takes the pressure off, which is a good thing.
You mentioned your good relationship with your coach, Ray Treacy. Describe that relationship.
I think Ray’s a great coach, because he’s been around a long time. He’s coached a lot of athletes. I mean he’s coached four white girls to 15-flat or faster. Not many people can say that. He’s coached every type of athlete, so it’s taken away a lot of guesswork with what we are doing. He gets to know you in a couple months and calls back to all that’s he’s done. He says, “Well, you’re like this runner or like that runner. I know this works and that doesn’t.” I think that’s pretty good. There’s not a lot of handholding. I don’t see him a lot of the time, because our whole group travels a lot. So we do a lot by phone and by email. He has the team as his first priority, so if he can’t make a workout, that’s fine. There is a lot of flexibility. It works pretty well. Sometimes we make our own calls with weightlifting, drills, and rehab. He doesn’t enter that world. He’s just the running guy.
Since Ray sticks to just running coaching, do you have a weightlifting or cross-training coach?
No. In college, we did basics in the weight room for runners. I think everyone at this level knows the basic drills–you know, core work, hurdle drills for hip flexibility–things like that. We do those things by ourselves. Some of us do it; some of us don’t. It’s important for me, because I have a few imbalances. A physical therapist will teach you what to do there.
Do you think Flanagan’s American record of 14:44 is within reach?
I wasn’t thinking about it after Paris, because seven seconds is a lot when you’ve already run that kind of PR. I really don’t know where I’m going to find seven seconds. It’s something I can try for, at least. It’s a good goal to have for the end of the summer—something to just get you into the race. I want to get into the mix in the first 3K. In Paris, I felt like I was off a little bit. I was leading a third pack of people. There’s got to be more of that. I’ve got to be dragged rather than leading a little group. I’m thinking about improving on what I’ve done. I don’t want to get it into my head that I’m going for an American record or something like that. It’s a tall order. If Shalane’s done it, then you really have to be in phenomenal shape to do it. It’s not at all expected. I think there’s a three percent chance of it happening.
A lot of people reading this interview aren’t as fast as you are, but still want to glean some information on how you ran your big PR. What can you share with them about making improvements in a 5K?
I’d say maybe to focus on the quality of your workouts. For me, that’s part of what changed. I’ve never been one who’s had great workouts. I’ve just always raced better than my workouts. But they are getting a lot better and I just feel I had to get familiar and comfortable with the paces I needed to be at in order to run 14:51. It gives you a lot of confidence and prepares you really well. If that means maybe taking an extra easy day between workouts in order to make that workout much better, then it might be worth doing. I know a lot of people have to fit their workouts around a work week, so they will do a seven-day schedule. They’ll do a workout; have two days in between, and then a long run on Sunday. But we do three days in-between, so it’s like an 8-day or 12-day cycle, depending on what we are doing. So it’s like having more intense workouts in order to give you more rest. I think that’s the only thing that’s really changed with me. That, and consistent work are the most important things. If you can avoid an unplanned break due to injury or something else, even if you don’t change anything else, that’s going to help you right there. I think that is really important.
Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first book, Oxygen Debt, was recently released.