T&FN Interview — Molly Seidel

Of her Olympic medal Seidel says, “This is a great accomplishment, but I still have really big goals and I’m still going to keep moving forward.” (JIRO MOCHIZUKI/PHOTO RUN)

IT WAS ALWAYS IN HER, this gift for running long. The world saw flashes of it along Molly Seidel’s path: a Foot Locker title in cross country as a high schooler and a collection of 4 NCAA crowns while competing for the Fighting Irish.

Yet her route to where she is now was difficult and anything but straight. There were a few too many injuries, and there were battles with an eating disorder that she has been open about. The toughest year came in ’16, when she opened up with an all-conquering NCAA season indoors but instead of following that road to the Trials and the Olympics, she faced her demons and fought her battles away from the crowds.

The next year the Wisconsin native embarked on a pro career, producing respectable races amid a smattering of injuries but not many headlines. But then, in the fall of ’19, the calculus of her career arc changed dramatically. What started as a bid to get healthy and have fun being coached by a friend — 3-time Georgetown All America Jon Green (see sidebar) — became one of the most remarkable stories in the history of American marathoning; in figurative terms, something akin to the rebirth of the phoenix.

Seidel stood on the starting line of the OT Marathon in Atlanta on Leap Day, February 29, 2020, never having competed over the 26.2M distance before. Two hours and change later, she stood wrapped in an American flag as a member of the Olympic team. While the Games were postponed for a year, Seidel’s progress was not. That fall she finished 6th at London in a PR 2:25:13. (Continued below)

Then in ’21, she stunned the Olympic field in Sapporo by running near the front of the race most of the way, snagging a bronze, the first podium finish by an American since Deena Kastor’s bronze at Athens ’04. Lest that didn’t impress observers that the “has-been NCAA runner” was now an international force, she followed up in New York just 3 months later, her 2:24:42 PR for 4th making her the fastest-ever American on the challenging course.

We talked with Seidel on a Monday, the day after the American Record fell to Keira D’Amato in Houston.

T&FN: You have been on an incredible roll. I almost feel like we’re late to the party. You’ve been interviewed by absolutely everybody since the Olympics. How many interviews would you guess you’ve done if you were to ballpark it?

Seidel: Oh my God. I couldn’t even tell you. It’s definitely upwards of over a hundred, probably somewhere between 100 and 200.

T&FN: Is it challenging being fresh and open and all the things you want to be in an interview, time after time?

Seidel: That’s a pretty good question. After a while, I feel like a broken record, saying the same thing over and over. Obviously, the Olympics was like such an incredible experience. It was so cool. And then with New York right after it. But sometimes — I’m trying to think of the right way to say this, but it’s like, I think people expect me to be behave a certain way about it. It’s almost hard. Like you kind of almost need to reflect what people want to hear in the interview. I don’t know if that’s the most positive way to say it. I think sometimes I approach my races differently than people might assume that I do. And so it’s like people want to hear certain things in an interview.

T&FN: What would you say is the most common question that you get?

Seidel: I think a lot of people [say], “Oh my gosh, this has to be the happiest moment in your life. This has to just make everything.”

It’s like, “No, this is a great accomplishment, but I still have really big goals and I’m still going to keep moving forward.”

I see this as a jumping-off point or as a stepping stone whereas I think people not necessarily within the sport are like, “Oh my God, that must be the pinnacle of your career!”

I’m like, “Well, I hope to keep working very hard and keeping going toward other goals too.” That’s how it kind of works in the sport. You do something and then you can either celebrate it or mope about it for about a day and then you move on to the next thing.

T&FN: And you’re not about to hang up your shoes after a perfect 4-marathon career.

Seidel: I would hope not. If anything, it’s funny because it was almost shocking that it did happen like it did, getting the medal just because I personally feel like I have so far to go, so many things that I need to work on and improve upon. It was kind of crazy: I definitely see myself as very much a work in progress and then I achieve this very big, very exciting thing, but I’m like, “Man, I have a lot of work still to do.”

T&FN: I read that you started running around 9 or 10; what was the initial impulse that made you into a runner?

Seidel: Probably really bad ADHD [laughs]. But yeah, we had a bunch of land up behind our house. We would just play up there all the time and it had a mile loop trail around it. I would just run up there and we’d run in gym class and I just found that I really enjoyed it. And my brain was a little bit quieter when I did that and eventually I found that I was pretty good at it.

T&FN: Do you recall your first race?

Seidel: Like first race ever, ever?

T&FN: First ever, ever.

Seidel: First race ever, ever: my mom drove me to a track meet at Pius XI High School. I was in middle school trying to run for my church’s track team and I threw up in a trash can and went home without actually racing because I was so nervous. So that was the illustrious start of my running career.

T&FN: OK then! In your early dreams of running, did you ever expect that the marathon would be the place you end up?

Seidel: I hoped it would be. I knew that I really liked long distances. I think in running there is a certain glamor to the marathon. I was always much more drawn to that than I was to the shorter track races. Even though there were people running incredible times in track — don’t get me wrong — what I saw primarily when I was young was what Deena Kastor was doing. And then eventually Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, Molly Huddle, Desi Linden.

I saw what they were doing at the Bostons, at the New Yorks. And that was what inspired me. That was what got me really excited. I kind of saw running the mile and 2M in high school as a means to an end.

T&FN: Was there any race in those years, good or bad, that you can point to as a key to who you later became as a competitor?

Seidel: There was actually one. We ran the 4K in high school cross country. My senior year I was going after the 4K national record. I finally had this confidence of, “I’m gonna try and go after the national record, I feel like a pretty big shot.” And I went out into this race, just took it out from the front hard. And I ended up going the wrong way and went 400m in the wrong direction in my moment of utter hubris. My friends luckily were shouting to me and they were like, “Molly, you’re going the wrong way.” I turn around… and the entire field is going the opposite direction. I just had to stand there for a second and recombobulate.

And it was that moment of, “Do I just quit or do I go for it?” It was just like, split second, go!, absolutely take off. And I was able to get back up into the race. I definitely did not get the record, but it was that moment of… sometimes you need to just keep your head. The universe will laugh at you sometimes if you think you’re a big shot and knock you back down, but all you can do is just put your best effort into it, regardless of what the situation is. And, and even if things start going a little bit haywire, you just gotta recombobulate, get into it and do whatever you can on that day.

T&FN: Your Notre Dame years obviously featured big ups and big downs and everything in between. Was it tough keeping your faith in your running future during those years?

Seidel: Definitely. I almost quit after my sophomore year. I just didn’t think it was gonna pan out. I hated the sport at that point. I frankly owe so much to my teammates. I owe so much to [Notre Dame coach] Matt Sparks. He resurrected my running career and really, he was the one who made me start believing in myself again, especially that junior year when he first came in, he had to build me from the ground up. I think he saw a lot more in me than I saw in myself at the time. I couldn’t have done any of it without him and without his belief in me.

T&FN: Was there any particular turning point where you realized, “Yeah, I’m back. I’m gonna fight for this”?

Seidel: After I had gotten my first All-America at cross in the fall [’14], I got like 19th; it wasn’t anything super special, but it was a confidence builder. And I went into indoors that season finally having the confidence, and made it to the indoor national meet [in the 5000]. And I went in the last 400m of the race from 3rd place to 6th place. I just totally went backwards.

And afterwards Sparks and I, we sat down outside the track and we were just like talking. He was like, “I know that you can do better than this. I’m not disappointed, but I know that you are more than what you were in this race. And I believe that you can be more than this.” And I think that was the ‘click’ moment in my head of, I can be one of the best people in the country. I just have to think like it. I have to have the confidence to go after it. Just over the next couple months of workouts and him building me up mentally, I won Nationals for the 10K that spring. I think it just really shows the difference of what a truly good, inspiring coach can do for someone.

T&FN: The cause of some of your college struggles you’ve been open about is your battles with an eating disorder and you have pointed out that the war is never really won. You can’t declare victory and be done with it. These days, what’s the key mindset that you go to, to help you keep making progress?

Seidel: I think a lot of it is, one, if there are relapses, it’s being able to reset and be like, “OK, like that was a mistake, but we’re moving forward, we’re thinking healthy.” And I think another one just really is a little bit more confidence and body positivity. Not even from the standpoint of like, “Oh, if I’m skinnier, I will run faster.”

It’s just more in the sense of being able to be comfortable in my own skin and confident in what my body can do and what my body is capable of doing when it’s healthy. I think that’s the biggest thing for me.

Seidel says making the Olympic team transformed her from “the has-been NCAA runner that nobody ever thought was gonna do anything ever again.” (KEVIN MORRIS)

T&FN: There were some tough years there after college. At what point did you decide it was time to aim at the marathon?

Seidel: So I went pro, I ran for a while, I had surgery, almost left the sport again, and it wasn’t until Jon [Green] started coaching me in 2019 and I finally started getting healthy, that we really thought that it could be a possibility. We knew that I liked the longer distances, we knew that’s where I eventually wanted to end up.

I ran my first half, got the qualifying time for the Trials and we figured that it would be kind of a fun learning experience to do the Trials. And it was almost more of a, “Can you believe if I actually ran the Trials as my first marathon” kind of deal. It started out more as that, “Oh, this would be a cool thing to do.” And then over the course of that build, getting a little bit more confidence to me, like, “OK, it’s an extremely competitive field, but I actually want to try and go for it and see what I can do here.”

T&FN: At the time you described your finish at the Trials as “sheer shock.” After the euphoria ran out, the next day or whenever, was there a point where you realized your life had completely changed?

Seidel: Oh yeah. There was a moment of, “Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?” It was that kind of crazy moment of “What just happened?” And just radically shifting overnight going from being frankly, the has-been NCAA runner that nobody ever thought was gonna do anything ever again to suddenly someone who just qualified for the Olympics. It was a real mental reckoning to have to deal with.

T&FN: [young mile sensation] Hobbs Kessler has said that every time he made a major improvement, a major leap, he had to redefine himself and recalibrate, and that was ultimately exhausting. Did you find it to be tiring to adjust and reset all your goals?

Seidel: I think of my experiences through the struggles in the early part of college and then recalibrating as I got good in college. And then like, going through my pro career and really struggling and having to recalibrate, if I even saw myself as a runner anymore, if I was ever going to be able to run again, and those kinds of things. It was very much having to spend a lot of time deep in the weeds of figuring out who the hell I was.

It was definitely difficult to come to terms with going from a relative unknown in the sport to one of the bigger names in American distance running. But I think like having a strong support with network and having a strong sense of self helped that.

T&FN: Leading up to the Olympics, did you visualize…

Seidel: Nope. Not at All. Nope, it’s really funny. Cuz people always say, “Oh, you must do a ton of visualization techniques.” I’m like, “Nope, not ever once.”

T&FN: I see! So did anything come up in that Olympic race that totally caught you off guard?

Seidel: Going into that race, I knew that I wanted to try to be competitive and I knew that I wanted to try and go for it. I had a conversation with my brother and sister the night before, effectively them asking me what my race plan was and me telling them that I saw no point, frankly, in playing it conservative and trying to go out and comfortably get 20th. I was gonna either go for it or probably end up in the hospital.

But I think what surprised me was being out front from a very early stage in the race, quite literally a mile in, of being on that leading edge of the front pack and just being like, “Oh, wow, this is kind of odd.” I don’t think I would’ve imagined that it would’ve gone that way. I kind of thought that if I had a chance of being up in the front, that I would’ve done what I did at the Trials, kind of sneaking in the back and holding on for 16M and then try and make my way up to the front. It was being on that leading edge so early and for so long and controlling some of the pace of the race at certain points.

That was an interesting feeling, going from “OK, I’m just gonna try and hold on” to “OK, I get to control what the pace is right now. And I get to control what this race might be at certain points.”

T&FN: Jon was there at the race, at one point yelling “Rule 5. Now!” What did Rule 5 mean?

Seidel: Rule 5 is our shorthand between the two of us for, “Harden the F up!” We use it in training. We use it in racing, but it’s shorthand for when the conditions are tough, you can’t control it. All you control is your attitude and that absolutely better be hard as balls.

And so it was going into that final lap, Jon had been shouting race tactics. I would see him once every lap at the bottle station. And I think at that last lap, when it was four of us and 3M to go, the only thing that he could say was, “It’s going to be the hardest 3M of your life. And three of those people are getting the medal and one is going to be unhappy. And so you better just try and go for it with everything you have.”

T&FN: Okay. Now the real question. What are rules 1 through 4?

Seidel: I think rule 5, it’s like a cycling saying. I think it’s from this book called the Velominati or whatnot [The Rules, by the Velominati]. But I could not even tell you what rules 1 through 4 are. We probably need to come up with those.

T&FN: If you look at the yearly list in the marathon, every year the Africans dominate the top with incredible times. Why do you think American women, given that context, seem to earn more than their share of World and Olympic medals in the marathon?

Seidel: Ooh, I think there are a lot of reasons. How deep into the weeds of dynamics do you want to go here? Cuz I think it’s a combination of racing, it’s a combination of where the money is. People probably want me to say like, “Oh, I think Americans can show up and overperform when the time is right.”

But no, I think part of it is that you go into any World Marathon Major and there are 10 top Kenyans with the top times in the world, you go into any Olympic or World champs, there’s only 3 Kenyans and 3 Ethiopians. So one, you have a smaller field.

I will say straight out Kenyans and Ethiopians [are] disproportionately much, much faster than Americans. And especially on very fast courses. I think Americans — and I’m speaking solely about myself right here — when the conditions get really, really tough, whether that’s with the heat or if you’re on a hillier course, like a Boston or New York versus like a London or a Berlin, I think it evens out the playing field a little bit. Because the conditions were so bad in Japan, it gave me a fighting chance.

Let’s be serious: if the conditions had been perfect on that day and Peres Jepchirchir wanted to run a 2:16 — I cannot run a 2:16. But when you add in these compounding factors of the conditions, I think it lends itself to people like me who tend to overperform in racing conditions versus time-trialing conditions, gives people like me a fighting chance.

Let’s be honest. I don’t have that fast of a marathon PR. It’s something that I’d really like to try and work on. Seeing what Keira D’Amato and Sarah Hall did yesterday is incredible. And I need to try and get that confidence to go after a fast marathon, because I haven’t really had a chance to yet. And I know that I’m not a time trialer. I know that if Peres Jepchirchir wants to take it out fast, frankly, I can’t hang with that right now and I need to develop myself.

That was kind of a roundabout answer to that question. It’s probably a little bit more cynical of a view. It’s not quite as inspirational as what people want to hear, but I think it’s honestly more the conditions rather than just, “Oh yeah, we can go out and rise to the occasion.” Like no, come on.

T&FN: American exceptionalism in the marathon?

Seidel: Yeah, no, yeah. We’re gonna get our asses handed to us nine times outta ten, if the course is fast.

T&FN: You’re in an event that historically rewards experience. How have you had so much success with so little experience in at this point?

Seidel: Man, I’m wondering about the same question! [laughs] I don’t know. It’s been so interesting because I think there is a very specific conventional approach in American distance running as to how you run the marathon. You race elite-level 10Ks for a number of years, you develop yourself on the track. And then when you hit age 30, you go to the marathon and you see what you can do.

I feel like I kind of circumvented that just because I found out very early on that I am not an elite-level 10K track runner and I didn’t see any point of wasting my time trying to run mediocre track 10Ks for the next 5 years before I got to run the marathon. We were like, “Welp, I know I like running mileage. I know that I’m probably going to get stronger the farther the distance, so why wait?”

The Kenyans start running marathons at age 23. So I think we might start seeing a little bit more specialization at younger ages in the U.S. at the very least in marathoning, hopefully. I think we might be losing a lot of talent of people trying to make it work on the track where there’s no money and no support and then wasting away some of their prime years of marathon development.

While at Notre Dame Seidel won NCAA titles at the Indoor, XC and this Outdoor 10K. (MIKE SCOTT)

T&FN: Speaking of the track, is there any burning desire to do anything on the oval anymore?

Seidel: Frankly, no, but there never really was. I don’t actually enjoy track racing that much. Honestly, the idea of like a 10K cross country race in the Olympics excites me a hell of a lot more than a 10K track race in the Olympics. I think like potentially I should try and go out and see what I can do. But honestly, I don’t know. I want to make sure that I keep my sharpness and my strength at some of the shorter stuff, but I do that by racing road 5Ks and road 10Ks. I just really don’t like track.

T&FN: So we shouldn’t look for you this spring at the 10K Trials for the Worlds?

Seidel: Definitely not. I might do one track 10K in the spring, like at the Portland Track Fest. More like a building kind of workout. I don’t know. I think people kind of expect how well I’ve done at the marathon. They’re like, “Oh, I want to see what you can do at a track 10K.” Frankly, it’s not going to be anything impressive. I’m really not that good at it.

I’m definitely a little bit more of a one-trick pony. I know my strengths, I enjoy what I do. I’m not afraid to go and get my ass kicked by doing distances that don’t come super naturally to me. But if people are expecting me to try and go out and run the American Record in the 10K, they’re going to be sorely, sorely disappointed.

T&FN: This coming year, you’ve got Boston on April 18 and you got the World Championships race July 19, giving you a 3-month gap. Is that a comfortable framework for you and Jon to work with?

Seidel: Actually with the quick turnaround between Boston and the World Champs, part of doing the quick turnaround to New York last year was to practice that. We knew that this was going to be one of my goals. And so obviously the build to New York was less than ideal, but it was a good practice of learning how my brain’s going to respond, how my body’s going to respond. And so we’re using that to plan it out a little bit better.

I think it’s more than enough time. We’re going to be pretty focused with it and go in with a very specific idea of what it needs to look like and what our goals are. I think nowadays with the super shoes, it makes it a hell of a lot easier than it would’ve been 10 years ago. So yeah, I’m excited for it.

T&FN: Last year we were covering the Trials in Eugene during that 111-degree day, that horrible heat wave. Obviously, you ran with the heat in Japan. Are you doing anything special in case Eugene gets nailed again in July?

Seidel: I’m not changing anything specifically. I do actually just prefer running in the heat. I feel like I’m a good heat runner. I do a little bit of sauna training, but living and training in Arizona is almost more than enough for it. If it looks like it’s going to be really, really hot around World Champs, we’ll just go down and do some stuff in Sedona, like do my long runs up these fire roads in Sedona where it just gets ungodly hot. I wear a lot of layers, a lot of cotton layers anyway.

People have differing opinions on the amount of clothes to train in. And I have a lot of friends who will run in 30-degrees in shorts and a t-shirt and I’m always the person wearing two pairs of tights, three shirts and a parka and people will give me crap about it. But my excuse is that nobody ever got to a race and wished that they’d done more training feeling colder. Always train too hot.

T&FN: The best two years of your career have been during a pandemic that’s changed everybody’s lives. What effect has it had on yours?

Seidel: The pandemic sucked, don’t get me wrong. It was very mentally and physically difficult and especially training in Boston during the pandemic was wild. Looking back now, I don’t know how I did it. It’s weird to say, but I would not have won the Olympic medal without the pandemic.

That year postponement at the time, it seemed like the worst thing in the world. But the fact that I got that extra year of development and growth and just a lot more training under my belt and a lot more belief in myself, like if we had run this marathon in August of 2020, I probably would’ve been 20th, or 30th, honestly. Getting that extra training, that’s what made me a medalist.

T&FN: Going after medals in a championship race versus competing in World Marathon Majors, how do you prioritize your race choices?

Seidel: Ooh. So honestly racing in Worlds or Olympics is what sets my soul on fire. That’s what gets me really, really excited. I think there’s just something very special about putting on the USA uniform and going for it. I really love that I got to do the Olympics so early in my career, because it’s something that means so much to me and making the World Champs team this year has been something that I have dreamed about, especially in Eugene.

But don’t get me wrong — I still very much am focused on the World Majors. It’s a big goal of mine to get to race every single World Major. I know Americans tend to just do the same New York, Boston, New York, Boston, but I feel like it would be really cool to try some different stuff. Like with anything in my career, it’ll probably evolve over time and evolve to fit my different goals. But at the very least this year, I’m going to go all out for Boston. I’m going to work really hard, but I’ve got a big circle right around the World Champs in July. I’ve been focused on of trying to go after a medal there for a really long time.

T&FN: As near as we can tell through our research, you’re the only Olympic medalist in any event to have shown up to compete in a turkey costume. It seems like the key to everything you’re running is whether you’re having fun with it. Is that accurate to say?

Seidel: Oh yeah, definitely. Especially at the Olympics, what made that experience was having Jon there, having Aliphine [Tuliamuk] there, having Sally [Kipyego] there. We had a great team dynamic and it was just really fun. I went into it with a great mindset and I don’t respond well to the classic approach of super intense, go out ready to kill people out there. I personally like approaching things with gratitude, with fun, feeling joy in the race, even though you’re working as hard as you can.

It kind of takes a lot of the enjoyment out of it when it’s overly serious and I don’t really see a point of it. I hope that if I can leave any lasting legacy on the sport it’s that you can race super hard and still enjoy the hell out of it. It doesn’t have to be a mutually exclusive thing. It’s like, don’t take yourself too seriously, cuz no one else does.

T&FN: Speaking of lasting legacy, do you have any thoughts about how long you’re going keep going with this stuff?

Seidel: Man, as long as I can. I feel like every day that I get to do this, I’m grateful for it. You never know what’s going to happen, like a piano can fall out of the sky and land on me. And so you hope for the best and take every day as it comes. I pray to God that I’ll be able to do this as long as I possibly can, until my legs give out underneath me. Until then, I’m just going to keep working as hard as I can.

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