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Molly Seidel’s Ultimate Trial

When Molly Seidel stopped trying to be perfect she ran the race of her life.

Standing on the start line of the Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, next to a who’s who of American distance running, Molly Seidel felt relaxed. A curious emotion when you think of what was at stake: A place at the summer games in Tokyo. As a multiple time Footlocker and NCAA champion Molly knew what pressure felt like, how easily it could squeeze the air out of the most robust balloon of confidence. But this time around things were different: She didn’t need to win.

In 2015 Molly had been on top of the world, or so it seemed. She’d just won the second of two NCAA indoor titles having come off an NCAA cross country victory. She was fast, fit and finally delivering on the promise she’d shown in high school. But inside she was struggling with a destructive eating disorder.

“Truthfully, in college, especially toward the end of my college career, specifically my final indoor national championships, I was in such an unhealthy place mentally that those championships just brought me no joy [...] Nothing was enough. I had to constantly keep pushing and pushing and I wasn't finding this value in myself.

"I wasn't finding any value in myself and I wasn't getting it from running and it was just hard."

It’s a sad story that is eerily familiar to many athletes involved in elite running: An incredibly talented athlete falls into the trap of believing that lighter = better. Early success quickly spirals into broken bones and a series of frustrating comeback attempts. More often than not said talented athlete slowly drops off people’s radar – chalked up as another talent that flew too close to the sun.

Molly seemed to be following this well-laid path. Shortly following her indoor NCAA victory she broke a bone in her back – an injury that is synonymous with the hormone imbalances and low bone density that come as a result of under-fueling. When she graduated college 18 months later the professional contract offers had almost dried up and she’d barely stepped foot on a start line during her final year in college. Molly did what she’d known for a while she needed to do: checked into an eating disorder treatment program. What followed was a more painful battle than any Molly had ever had to wage on the track.

“Approaching my own treatment, I went into it with the mentality of, I'm willing to dedicate to this as fully as I would to my training. And realize that I'm going to hurt probably just as much in doing this as I would doing any sort of workout. But I'm mentally tough enough to get through this. And I think that's part of the reason why it worked for me, where I was like, ‘You know what? I just got to commit to this because if I don't, I'm never going to run again’. And that's what scared me more than anything.”

There were a lot of times, during her return to running, when Molly considered quitting the sport. The full extent of the damage an eating disorder can wreck on an athlete’s bones often doesn’t reveal itself until an athlete tries to make a comeback. Or several comebacks. After her first year running as a pro Molly got an MRI on her hip and they found that she’d been running for a year on a broken hip that had never fused back together.

“I had to get surgery on it and that's what led me to not being able to train for six months. And the doctor who did it said that it was probably going to be about a 50/50 chance of me being able to run at a competitive level again after that surgery. They weren't sure if it was going to take. And in those six months, it was definitely a pretty dark time and I had to really wrangle with the idea of, ‘okay, who am I if I can't do this anymore?’.

"If I'm not Molly the runner, what am I?”

In eating disorder recovery Molly had relearned how to fuel herself but the hip surgery forced her to really confront the mental demons she’d been battling. “It was this horrible gut feeling of, ‘Okay, I might never get to do the thing that I love most in the world again’. I need to figure out underneath everything who I am as a person, so that if this happens I need to be okay with living the rest of my life like this. And dealing with the fact that I just have low bone density now. That I can't do this.”

When Molly returned to running at the beginning of 2019 it was humbling. Once an elite runner is in the groove it can be easy for them to wonder why everyone doesn’t love running – it’s smooth and effortless and the perfect excuse to catch up with friends on ‘easy’ days, right? Molly was back at square one, experiencing the struggle so many new and amateur runners around the world experience.

“When you haven't done it for a long time, it is so freaking hard [...] that constant fear of, am I going to break a hip again? Am I going to break my back? All of these different things. And a lot of it was having to figure out, and nail down more specifically, the kind of training that was going to work for me.

“You just see all these other pro runners around who were doing crazy workouts. Cool, I can barely do six miles right now at a pace. It's just building up that consistency over time and it's just being patient.”

Unlike in college when Molly had focused on the 5K and 10K her and her coach realised she couldn’t do the intense track sessions and speed work that had been the bread and butter of her training. They figured out she could stay healthy on mileage, long tempos and hills: The essential components of marathon training.

“Just on a whim we were like, ‘Hey, I've been doing all this long-distance training, let's try a half marathon in December’. I did that and it went really well. Got my qualifier for the Olympic trials. Then we were like, ‘You know what? I've been doing marathon training anyway. Let's make this a real thing. Do a real build and see what we can do’. All of this [qualifying for the Olympics] came about as a means to try and get healthy.”

Standing on the startline in Atlanta, Molly was ready to rewrite her story. “I am better now than I was in college when I was at my lowest body weight. I can do workouts now that I could never do because I was just held together by duct tape in college. I was just nothing. So yeah, I hate that when people are like, ‘Oh, if you go and get help for an eating disorder, you're not going to be as good’. And it's like, no, you just have to be able to put in the work and put in the time and realize that this is not going to be a short term thing. You have to really dedicate yourself to it.”

Molly knew she was fit, healthy and ready to surprise some people but she didn’t need to succeed to look at herself in the mirror and feel content. “I was just there for the joy of running to go out, see what I could do.

"And the outcome of the race wasn't going to affect how I viewed myself as a human.”

When Molly crossed the finish line in second place, surprising many people in the running world, she proved on the biggest stage what so many of us know: success doesn’t come from being perfect, it comes from being happy and healthy.

“I had a lot of people message me about my last workout before the trials that I posted on Strava. And I actually titled it as ‘A Wildly Unimpressive Final Workout’ because it was just literally one of the shittiest workouts of my life. I just put it up and I'm like, ‘Oh, this is what it is’. [...] I hope people who see that realize it doesn't always have to be perfect. You just have to go out and get it done.”

Molly did exactly that in Atlanta: She got it done, on her terms.