LONG BEFORE ANYONE ELSE realized it, Ray Treacy knew that Emily Sisson would make a great marathoner. Even going back a decade ago, when she was winning NCAA 5000 titles for Treacy’s Providence team, he told her, “I think you’ll break the American Record someday.”
The heady prediction didn’t faze her: “There really wasn’t a lot of pressure with it. When Ray says something like that, he means it. He’s not the type of coach who will say something like that just to boost your confidence. He’s often spot-on with his predictions. So it wasn’t like pressure. It was more like, ‘OK, he can see that I have this potential.’ I’m aware that even if you have the potential to do something, there’s so many variables and factors that come into play. Whether it happens or not, I don’t know.”
It happened. In just her second marathon finish in three tries, Sisson, now 31, slashed 43 seconds off Keira D’Amato’s AR with her 2:18:29 and finished an impressive 2nd in the Chicago Marathon.
“That day it felt like everything lined up perfectly,” she says. “I was surprised that I felt good for most of the race. There was a 2-mile stretch where I was going through a rough patch. And then towards the end I was definitely getting tired. But I felt good for a lot of it and was able to close as well as I did.”
She adds, “I was zoned into how my body felt, paying attention to my pacers who were doing all the hard work, running all the tangents. I was in that float zone where you’re just kind of really present and focused on where your body’s at.”
She followed Treacy’s advice and avoided looking at her watch. Along the way, she saw the clock at the halfway point (1:09:26), but she didn’t know what place she was in.
One of her pacers, Johnny Mellor, tried to find out: “He kept trying to ask people — there were a lot of men specifically that would come back to us towards the end of the race — ‘Hey, how far is the next woman? How many women are ahead?’ And no one was talking back to him. It probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway.”
A year before, watching Sara Hall run to 3rd on that Windy City course, Sisson remembers that a camera stayed close to her. “That’s why I actually thought I wasn’t on record pace. I wasn’t aware of any kind of vehicle or camera. I knew we went through halfway under AR pace. There was that rough patch and then there was actually a little bit of jostling at one point with another competitor. I was like, ‘We might have slowed down maybe.’ I really didn’t know.”
With about 200m left, Sisson thought she heard a spectator say something about 2nd place, “But I didn’t know until I crossed the finish line.” That’s when she also saw her time. “I didn’t expect it to be under 2:19. That surprised me.”
The run in Chicago provided a marked contrast to her other 26.2M experiences. Her first came at the ’19 London race, when her 2:23:08 gave her 6th. It was the fastest American debut ever.
Her next attempt came in February ’20 at the Olympic Trials on a hilly Atlanta course where she dropped from the lead pack after a hard uphill mile and quit the race altogether after 22M.
“That was definitely a hard one because I was just so new to the marathon, I didn’t really understand what went wrong,” she recalls. “And that to me is what I kind of struggled with to grasp. I do believe that Ray is correct and that that course doesn’t suit me.
“But I don’t want to buy into the narrative that I can’t ever run hilly courses. Because I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t believe it is. I could be wrong, but I don’t believe it. I remember Ray saying once that he thought I can run hilly courses, I just need flat stretches of road to recover in between.”
The analytical Sisson concludes, “I remember saying that I was really glad I ran London before that because I had such a good experience with my first one. That made me feel like I was drawn back to do another one. Had the Trials been my first experience, I might not have felt that way.”
The COVID-delayed Olympic Games gave Sisson extra time to prepare for another shot in a different event. “With the help of a lot of people — my coach, my chiropractor, my husband — I was able to bounce back for the 10K on the track and I don’t know if I would’ve been able to do it if I only had 5 months. But that extra year I really benefited from.”
The New Balance-sponsored Sisson used her time well. In December, she ran a PR 1:07:26 at the Valencia Half. It was the No. 2 performance ever by an American. Then she geared up for the oval. In March she cut 6-plus seconds off her 5000 best with a 14:55.82 win at San Juan Capistrano. A 48:09 for 15K followed when she won that USATF road title. In May, she improved her 5000 again, to 14:53.84.
Then came the track Trials. Sisson took command of the 25-lapper after 2K and kept upping the ante until she was alone at the front, earning the win in 31:03.82. The time was her second-best, after her 30:49.57 PR from ’19.
“It felt amazing; I was so happy,” she says, adding, “Everyone says it must have been redemptive [after the marathon DNF], but I don’t know if that’s the word I’d choose, because I feel like I process every race separately, and I’m like, I still wish the marathon Trial hadn’t happened. I don’t know if one race cancels out another so much — that’s just how I view things.
“I understand the sport: you can work really hard and some days things work out and some days they don’t. I’m really happy on the days that things do work out and come together.”
Then, a few weeks before the Games, her knee started acting up, but “It was really important to me to show up to Tokyo and perform as well as I could given the circumstances. We were able to get my body at least doing some little mini-workouts in the lead-up. I’d have to take the next day off and crosstrain. I think that helped.”
On the big stage for her first Games, Sisson finished 10th in 31:09.58, the first American. “The whole race felt really hard, but I was really happy with that, especially given how difficult the 3 weeks prior had been,” she says. “I don’t know, if I hadn’t been injured, how much better I could have run on that day because it was such a deep field.”
The post-Tokyo plan had been to go for a fall marathon, but Sisson explains that that had to be scotched because of the trade-off with preparing to run in Japan while injured. “If I had stopped running [when the knee injury hit], I think I would’ve been able to get through the marathon buildup for the fall. It was a calculated decision between me, my husband, my coach and chiropractor, just everyone all in on what was going to be best.”
That shifted Sisson’s marathon plans to this year’s Chicago, and she had the leisure of a year to prepare. The buildup went fabulously. Training alongside her husband of a year, Irishman Shane Quinn (himself once a Big East 5K champion for Providence), she got up to her highest mileage yet, some 110–115mpw (c175km) at times. In addition to Treacy, she also credits chiropractor John Ball and friend/mentor Molly Huddle.
“My mindset ever since I graduated college was always try to surround myself with the best people,” she says. “I’ve always felt like I can’t guarantee that I’ll reach any of my goals, but if I surround myself with the best of the best, it’ll give me the best chance.”
She continues, “I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor than Molly Huddle.” Key was a piece of advice the 2-time Olympian gave her several years ago, about not being afraid to go all-in: “I didn’t take it as a win-at-all-costs mentality. It was more just, don’t be afraid to go all-in on your goals. Don’t be afraid to take risks because, when you’re in this sport for a long time, you’re going to fail. And one of the silver linings of failing is it’s freeing because you realize, ‘Oh, it’s actually not that big of a deal.’
“It’s not a catastrophe to fail at something, so you might as well work hard towards your goals when you have this time, because you won’t be able to do this forever. I might as well give it my best shot. Don’t fear failure is the main takeaway.”
Though both train under Treacy, Sisson says Huddle — because of her track base — benefits more from speedier quality work, whereas “I’ve seen the benefit from more tempo work and harder long runs. Our training is actually kind of different. I found we didn’t overlap as much as I expected to.”
Instead, Quinn has been her steady training partner. “It makes such a big difference having him there for every single workout. And my big races as well. When I realized how much he helped when he started helping me in 2019, I actually don’t know if I could go back to not having a training partner.”
The races along the way showed that the process was on point: in March, a 15K PR of 47:28 to win another USATF title. In May, the USATF Half-Marathon crown in an American Record 1:07:11. In June, a 31:29 at the New York Mini. August brought a 25:08 best for 5M and September a 1:05:35 PR for 2nd in the USATF 20K.
That led to the record run in Chicago. “It’s been a long, long time since I completed a marathon, so that was really a good experience,” she says.
Now she’s taking her break, “running 30 minutes probably like 4–5 times a week, whenever I feel like it.” She adds, “It’s actually nice. I enjoy my breaks and just kind of moving at a slower pace and running when I feel like it.” She also uses the time to catch up with family. “I feel like one of the hardest parts of the job is missing family events like weddings or birthdays, so it’s nice just sitting and spending time with them.”
The coaching of Treacy continues to yield steady progress. “I was only 19 when I transferred to Providence College [from Wisconsin], so I have changed a lot and grown as an athlete and a person,” Sisson says. “Ray has been really good about the slow build over the years, each year trying to run a little bit more, a little bit faster. It’s not always constant. I have had injuries, I’ve had illnesses, but he’s always been very much about the long-term plan.
“Working together for so long, the big benefit is he knows how I think. Him telling me not to look at my watch was just what I needed for Chicago. And I don’t think I even realized it at the time, but looking back, I’m like, ‘Oh, that actually was very good advice.’”
What’s next? “I actually have a lot of ideas. I definitely want to run a faster half-marathon. I feel like I haven’t nailed that distance yet. There’s a lot of different marathons that I’d love to do and I just have to decide which ones I want to do first, working backwards from the ’24 Olympic Trials because that’s actually not that far away. I feel like I have no shortage of ideas. It’s just an exciting time.”
She concludes, “I was saying the other day to someone, I actually feel like the older I am, the more I’m enjoying it. But also, I know I don’t have as much time as I did back when I was in high school or college. When I was younger, I probably cared more about things I don’t worry about as much anymore. So I’m enjoying it a lot now.”