After years of success in races from the 5K to half marathon, elite runner Emily Sisson is ready for her next big challenge: 26.2. “I’m excited to try the marathon,” says the 27-year-old, who is sponsored by New Balance and currently lives in Scottsdale, AZ. “It’s so different than any other distance.”

If Sisson performs well in her marathon debut this spring—she won’t reveal yet which race she plans to run—she will consider competing at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta next February. Given the depth of talent among American women distance runners these days, the gritty fight for the top three spots for the Tokyo Olympics won’t be easy. “I know how strong it is in the marathon,” she says. “It’s pretty exciting, and it’s making everyone up their game and bringing out the best in everyone.”

Sisson has already established herself as a stellar distance performer, winning the USATF 10K road championships in 2016 and snagging the event’s 5K title in 2018. She’s also known for her fierce finishes against some of the world’s best, including her mentor and sometimes-training-partner Molly Huddle, a two-time Olympian and American record holder.

In 2017, Sisson ran her first 13.1-mile race, finishing second at the United Airlines NYC Half, only two seconds behind Huddle. Her time of 68:21 was the fastest half-marathon debut for an American woman, and a new PR. She returned in 2018 to deliver another gutsy performance and again take second (1:12.24), just one-tenth of a second behind winner Buze Diriba of Ethiopia.

As she prepares for her spring marathon, Sisson will run the Aramco Houston Half Marathon on January 20 and aims to beat her personal record. “The Houston Half will give us a good idea of how she is handling the increased workload,” says her coach Ray Treacy, who also coaches Huddle. “The goal is to run under 68 minutes.”

It was at the Aramco Houston Half last year that Huddle ran 1:07.25 and set a new American women’s record in the event. Huddle says Sisson has the potential to run even faster. “For Houston, she is in really good shape and hasn’t had a shot to run a fast course yet, so I would not be surprised if she broke the American record and ran 67-teens or so,” says Huddle.

Photo Credit: Chuck Utash

Huddle has also been a role model when Sisson made the jump from a college athlete to a professional in 2015. Both Huddle and Sisson are coached by Ray Treacy, the director of cross country and track at Providence College, where Sisson competed. “I didn’t expect [the transition] to be as big as it was because I was staying with my coach, and I was staying in Providence,” Sisson recalls.

But without classes to attend and school work to do anymore, Sisson learned from Huddle and others that she had to structure her own time. That meant developing routines that focused on making her a better runner. With the help of her chiropractor, she started a strength training program for the first time.

“I never looked at a weight before,” she says. Now that she lifts, she feels more durable, less prone to injury and stronger in her form at the end of a race, she says. Sisson has also learned to prioritize her recovery. She avoids being on her feet between morning and afternoon runs and has embraced day-time snoozes. “In college, you are going from one thing to the next, and you don’t have a time for a nap,” she says. “I didn’t nap at all before I was a professional, now I do.”

One area she is cautious not to get caught up in is comparing herself to other elites and their training methods. “Some of the numbers people do for mileage, I said, ‘Wow, that’s significantly more than I do,’” Sisson says. “Everyone is different. You have to remember that. I try really hard not compare myself to other people.”

Treacy says if her training continues to go well, he thinks she may have a 2:25/2:26 marathon debut. Huddle, who ran a personal best of 2:26.44 at the 2018 TSC NYC Marathon, expects Sisson to shine in the event. “The longer the distance, the better she gets,” she says.

Although she’s been described as “Probably America’s Next Great Road Runner,” Sisson says she doesn’t feel pressure, even as she takes on a new and especially tough event. “I see myself competing with the best in the U.S., I see myself up there with them,” says Sisson.