When organizers of the TCS New York City Marathon have their eyes on an elite runner they want to run their race, they’ll often use what some have called the “Seduction Ride.” Riding along in one of the pace vehicles, the coveted athlete gets to experience all of the excitement of the five-borough run, with none of the attendant physical effort, and usually commits to debut at New York the following year. Molly Huddle, the pre-eminent American distance runner on the track, has taken that ride twice as the elite athlete recruiters have targeted her almost since the London Olympics ended four years ago.
On Sunday morning, that long courtship will come to fruition when Huddle, the American record holder of the 10,000 meters on the track, toes the start line in Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, and finally tackles her first marathon.
Huddle is no stranger to the streets of the Big Apple, having won the United New York City Half Marathon the past two years—her most recent 1:07:41 win set an American record for a women’s-only race by more than 50 seconds—and having raced there 15 other times. And while most might consider her métier to be on the synthetic oval, based on her 30:13.17 American record set this summer at the Rio Olympic Games she’s equally adept on the roads, having won seven U.S. titles on the macadam at distances from 5K to 20K.
“I’ve raced well on the roads, and on the roads in New York,” Huddle said. “I think I can handle that hilly, potholed, cross-country type course. That’s what a lot of people say is the challenge of New York. I think the 26.2 distance is what’s going to be the shocker.”
It’s impossible to predict what Huddle can run in her debut marathon, but her background and fitness suggest she’s probably capable of running in the 2:22 to 2:26 range if all goes well.(The fastest debut marathon by an American woman is 2:25:53, set by Kara Goucher in New York in 2008.) But the marathon is a different beast, especially at the elite level, and many variables can swing the outcome. Plus, Huddle’s buildup for her debut had to be somewhat shoehorned into the relatively short time between the Olympics and New York.
“I had to jump right into the buildup, and the focus was on not trying to cram too much in, but on hitting the workouts—long tempo runs and long runs–but not killing them, just getting the volume in,” Huddle said. “It’s pretty much the same workouts as I did in the winter the past two years. Kind of like half marathon training, but making the tempo run a couple miles longer and doing longer reps.”
In the past, Huddle’s longest runs have been 18 miles in two hours. “I needed to get that up by at least four miles, and treat the long run as a workout,” she said.
Like the most popular girl in high school before the prom, Huddle resisted the entreaties of the New York recruiters until she felt the time was right. “The Olympics was kind of the end of a four-year cycle,” she said “If anything were to go wrong with the marathon, if the training or the race beat me up too much, there’d be some time to recover before the next track season. Also, at my age, if I ever want to get serious about the marathon—in a perfect world maybe run it at the 2020 Olympic Trials—I should start now.”
It was probably never a question of if, but when Huddle would take on the marathon. Just as there was little, if any doubt, her debut would come in New York. Growing up in upstate New York’s Elmira she often watched the race on TV.
“I know a little about the legends there, and it’s definitely been in my mind for a long time,” she said. “If you’re going to run 26 miles you need to be excited about it and New York definitely gets me excited.”
Huddle remained typically coy about her goals, time or place-wise, for Sunday, but it’s clear she’d like more than just a finisher’s medal for her efforts. “Placing in the top three would be crazy,” she said. “I can’t even imagine what it would be like, that would make me feel like a marathoner and point the next four years of training that way. It would change everything.”