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“I felt like a broken toy,” Molly Seidel said when asked about the end of her collegiate running career. She won four NCAA titles in her final two years at Notre Dame, but suffered just as many injuries, each one contributing to the feeling that her body was made of glass. Yet more recently, that self-described fragile frame has held up under the physical burden of consecutive 135-mile weeks and produced perhaps the most remarkable rookie trio of marathons run by any American woman in history.

In his book Men of Oregon, Kenny Moore writes that, “If it is run right, the marathon inflicts some damage.” That might be true. But might it also be true that the marathon, if run right, can put a person back together?

September 2004  •  Up Back  •  Hartland, Wisconsin

Before Molly Seidel earned the nickname Jetty, so dubbed by her classmates when her PE teacher told her she ran so fast it was like she “had jets in her pants”; before she threw up from nerves at what was supposed to be her first race for her St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church track team; and long before Bowerman Track Club Coach Jerry Schumacher identified her as “intense” in what felt like a job interview for a position on a post-collegiate running team, Molly took refuge “Up Back.”

The Seidel family’s home in Hartland, Wisconsin abutted a 150-acre parcel owned by their neighbor Wolfgang. The land had forests and fields, hills and flats, and Wolfgang used to mow a trail to create mile and two-mile loops across the varied terrain. “I would just go up there if I had extra energy or was bored or couldn’t focus on homework. I’d take my dog Augie up there and we would just run loops,” Molly explains.

She was nine. Maybe ten, she says. Sometimes her Dad would accompany her, too. He also sloughed off stress by taking some sort of concrete action – bushwacking, tree pruning, brush burning – and Molly remembers thinking during those early forays Up Back, “Don’t let Dad lose you. Don’t fall behind.”

As Molly got older and her relationship with running matured, she kept heading Up Back. “It’s truthfully one of my favorite places in the world,” she explains. “It’s quiet and calm – all woods and fields. Even in high school, when I was running more, that was still one of the main places that I would train. It’s just a lovely spot. I still remember it as one of the most peaceful times and just loving going up there and running for the sake of running.”

Eventually Wolfgang moved away and the new owners stopped mowing. And then the Seidels moved, too. Molly hasn’t been back for a few years. But there’s no mistaking where Molly laid the foundation for her future running success – or where she came to understand a fundamental, if slightly unexpected, truth: she was most calm when she was in motion. 

Molly Seidel is not a border collie: happiest and most relaxed after arduous hours of physical work. Molly Seidel is a shark: movement is critical to her survival. 

September 19, 2009  •  University of Wisconsin-Parkside  •  Kenosha, Wisconsin

By the time Molly was a high school sophomore, winning had become a habit. Despite having been the only member of her University Lake School’s track team as a freshman, she’d won state titles at 1600 and 3200 meters. She’d won the state cross-country title earlier that year, too.

So when she arrived at the 2009 Angel Invite at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the same cross-country course where she would contest the Foot Locker qualifiers several weeks later, it was with a victory in mind. Intention being a precursor to success, Molly was indeed the first athlete across the finish line in a record-setting 14:06, 23 seconds ahead of second place. Elated and exhausted, Molly laced her fingers together and reached her arms over her head in an effort to catch her breath. It’s the runner’s universal pose of earned satisfaction, but in this case it cost her dearly. 

When Molly reached for the sky, the hem of her singlet floated up and revealed that she had rolled the waistband of her shorts – once – in order to achieve a better fit. At the time the Wisconsin competitive rule book stated that no uniform could be modified in any way lest an athlete risk disqualification, a fact of which Molly was unaware. The Waukesha North coach took tacit note of Molly’s shorts and reported her to the officials. She was disqualified and the victory was awarded to second-place finisher Jenna McMiller. Of Waukesha North.

“Frankly, it was a really shitty thing and I was really disappointed. I was really sad,” Molly recalls. She wanted to go home. But Anne Seidel, Molly’s mother, would hear nothing of it.

“Kudos to my mom,” Molly says. “She was like, ‘I think you should stay for the awards and be a good sport about it.’ So we stayed and I shook the hand of the girl who won… And I just remember it being one of those moments where I’m really glad my mom had me stay, and just be like, ‘Hey, there are things that are more important than winning.’ And being a good competitor and a good teammate is sometimes more important.”

Molly had her fair share of wins in high school – four state cross-country titles, eight state outdoor track titles and a Foot Locker National Championship – but it may be that the most hard-won victory, the lesson that winning isn’t always paramount, came in a rare defeat.

Molly returned to the Angel Invite as a junior the next year. She won the race in 14:07, a course record.

June 11, 2015  •  Hayward Field  •  Eugene, Oregon

Heading into the 2015 NCAA Outdoor Championships at Hayward Field, people didn’t expect much from Molly Seidel, the junior from Notre Dame. Though her high school career had been glittery, she’d yet to make much of a splash on the collegiate running scene. A sub-optimal coaching dynamic during her freshman and sophomore years and a run of unfortunate injuries had prevented Molly from achieving the heights that had been forecast by her prep performances.

But Notre Dame had brought in a new coach, Matt Sparks, and as Molly explains, “he built me back from the ground up.” Under his refreshingly positive guidance, Molly had put together several months of uninterrupted training. She’d earned All-American honors in cross-country in the fall and had just missed out on the podium at the NCAA Indoor Championships in March. Though her first 10k on the track hadn’t gone according to plan – “I got lit up,” admits Molly – she and Sparks had a hunch there was success awaiting her in the event.

Still, no one was talking about Molly as a contender in that year’s 10k. Her coach made that clear before the race. “I was so excited, but super nervous,” Molly remembers. “And Sparks ran the warm up with me and he’s just like, ‘Hey, ultimately, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you finish today. Nobody even has you ranked to get All-American. Just go out and do something crazy.’”

It was a curious coaching choice – to remind an athlete that no one expected much of her – but it was the right one. Sparks knew something of Molly’s heart by then: that it was her greatest asset, a pilot and an engine both. If he could lift the burden of expectations off of Molly’s shoulders and simply let Molly do what Molly does best – compete instinctively – something extraordinary might happen. 

It’s not until mile five of the race that the announcers even mention Molly’s name, mispronouncing “Seidel” with the emphasis on the second syllable. With exactly four laps remaining, defending champion Emma Bates shoots to the front and accelerates dramatically. Only one athlete among the dozen in the lead pack reacts instantaneously: the pony-tailed runner from Notre Dame. Molly steps sideways out of her comfortable box on the rail and begins to give chase. The race is on.

Though Emma opens up a gap of nearly 50 meters in a single lap, her pace appears unsustainable. Molly gains steady ground over the next lap and with 800 meters remaining she takes the lead. As Molly came to find out later, someone in the stands had to recall her coach, who had wandered away from the track: “So I’m in second and then all of a sudden I pass Emma and I’m leading it with two laps to go and somebody apparently had to go get him. They’re like, ‘Sparks, you gotta come back. Your girl is winning the race!’”

Over the final two laps Molly cycles between the sun on the backstretch and the shadows on the Bowerman Turn, arms churning, expression inscrutable. Her form looks so good you’d think she might be able to run another ten kilometers at that pace. She crosses the line in 33:18 – an unchallenged victory and a personal best by 20 seconds.

“So that’s how I won my first NCAA Championship,” Molly says. “I definitely was not the fastest or the fittest person going into that race. But I feel like you’ve got to seize an opportunity when you see it. You’ve got to shoot your shot…It’s just this mentality: if nobody expects me to do anything, why the hell shouldn’t I go for it?”

Molly and her coach had hit on a truth that would surface repeatedly over the course of Molly’s running career: that she rises to the occasion, spectacularly, when expectations are lowest. To this day, when asked to reflect on Molly as an athlete, Coach Sparks says:

“When Molly is fit, healthy and competing, she has a laser focus that makes her hard to beat.”

January 26, 2020  •  Hot Mess Central •  Phoenix, Arizona

When Molly began to transition to the marathon at the end of 2019, she had no idea if her body would hold up. She and John Green, her new coach – new to her, new to coaching – knew that high-intensity, spiked-up speedwork on the track often triggered injury. But they also knew that Molly could run on the roads for mile after mile at paces near threshold without breaking down. The question was whether this nascent coach-athlete duo – both just 25 years old – could thread their way through a potential minefield of injury and overtraining.

Ways to the summit of the marathon, perhaps more than any other Olympic running event, are narrow and few. Path dependencies run deep: well-executed tempo runs, marathon pace segments and the standard weekend long run are seen as doors you must walk through to arrive fully-prepared at your start line. But whereas most marathoners thrive off of routine – the same workouts in the same order at the same venues – Molly switched things up routinely. She was never afraid to call an audible if she wasn’t feeling great, or to adapt on the fly if circumstances demanded.

One weekend in late January of 2020, about five weeks out from the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, Molly traveled from Flagstaff down to Phoenix for a Notre Dame Track team reunion. Molly had a big workout on the docket for Sunday morning and she’d extracted a promise from one of her former teammates, Tim Ball, to accompany her. She laid off the booze on Saturday night but Tim was deep into the gin and tonics. Proving the constancy – and the constitution – of the Irish, he was up the next morning at 8 a.m., “still smelling of gin,” Molly recalls, but ready to pace her.

“We got kicked off of two separate tracks,” she remembers. “And we had to hop a fence and it was just the biggest mess of a workout. But we were still like, ‘Oh my God. That was awesome!’ I think we did 30 by 400 [meters] mixed with fartleks up and down the canal. 

And I just felt like that workout was the definition of how I train: it’s a hot mess, but you get it done.”

Molly can roll with a hyper-organized crew, too. She just does it her own way. She recalls a workout she did this summer in Eugene, Oregon with US Olympic teammate Aliphine Tuliamuk and her coach Ben Rosario. “Ben is like Type AAA. He’s always on it and always has his stuff together,” Molly says.

The workout called for 18 miles steady plus a four-mile tempo to finish. Ben had all of Aliphine’s bottles and gels ready and he’d researched their route. As Molly recalls, “I jumped in the car at 7 a.m. and I’m like, ‘OK, cool. What’s the workout?’ And they tell me and I’m like, ‘Oh, shoot, I forgot a water bottle. Can we stop at the gas station?’ So I pick up a BODYARMOR and a banana. And Aliphine is like, ‘Is that your gel?’ And I’m like, ‘Hell yeah, that’s my gel!’ And so at mile 20 she’s got her gel that Ben’s handed her and I’m eating a banana…

It’s just this aspect of flying by the seat of my pants. And it’s always been like that for me…but somehow it works out. It all works.”

August 7, 2021  •  The Olympic Marathon  •  Sapporo, Japan

Molly hit a bad patch halfway through the Olympic Marathon in Sapporo. She’d been getting pushed around and snapped at by some of the veteran runners, who didn’t know who the American was and why she was still mixing it up with them at the sharp end of the race. 

“The ladies gapped me a little bit…they started getting away from me and I was really hurting. I was starting to feel the heat,” Molly recalls. “And I had to just mentally override that and [tell myself]: ‘All you have to do is get back up to them.’”

A bad patch is a gut check. It’s an athlete’s call to arms: are you going to fight or are you going to flee? And if Molly had learned anything about herself in her years of competition, it’s that she’s a fighter.

The prior year she’d run her way onto the U.S. Olympic Team in her first-ever marathon, later reflecting, “I’m so glad I was brave enough to go and run hard before I believed I was ready to run hard in that race.” And since then she’d logged the highest mileage of her career and accomplished workouts – the morning and afternoon Double Ts, for example – the likes of which she wouldn’t have dared attempt a year earlier. 

In short, she was as ready as ever for a fight.

Within meters, Molly buckled down and reattached herself to the runners up front and was once again swept up in the collective energy of the lead pack of a major marathon. “I’ve never surfed in my life,” she explains, “But you feel like you’re riding a wave. You feel this energy and force behind you, pushing, and you’re just trying to stay on the front edge of it. And it’s exciting. I love that feeling of being on the front edge and knowing that there’s a tidal wave coming behind you.”

As the latter half of the race unfolded, Molly continued to take the measure of her competitors and the course. She made little moves to test her rivals’ resolve – “everybody’s trying to gauge how much the others have left but without laying all their cards down,” she explains – and she noted the uptick in energy when their front pack passed through the water bottle stations. 

While the streets and stadia of Tokyo had remained empty throughout the Olympic fortnight, the citizens of Sapporo had come out to watch the marathon. “It was the only time I saw the Japanese break a rule the entire time I was there,” Molly observed. The spectators weren’t cheering, though; they were offering a restrained clap instead.

“It was this quiet, polite, little golf clap,” Molly remembers. “But then you would come up on the bottle stations – because all the countries have their own table – and there’s screaming in every different language and people throwing bottles. It’s just madness. You’d go from these periods of quiet, just clapping along the course, to crazy, loud, screaming and swearing in every language.”

At the mile 20 bottle station, Molly heard the familiar voice of her friend Mike Smith break through the chaos. In his recognizable baritone he was shouting her full name – “MOL-ly Seidel! MOL-ly Seidel!”– over and over again, as if to anchor her in the moment and encourage her at the same time. “They’re gonna make the move! Be ready to go!” he told her as she snatched a bottle and rode the wave of athletes back out onto the course.

Molly remembers that feeling with six miles to go, trying to stay both relaxed and focused as the race wound up and the pace cranked down. Tucked among four other women, all sub-2:20 marathoners, it was not a matter of if the race was going to break apart; it was just a matter of when.

And then it did: at just past the 20-mile mark, an Ethiopian runner dropped off the back and their group whittled down to four. Molly thought, “OK, this is it. Three of us are getting medals and one of us is going to be left with their head in their hands.” With the pace still ratcheting down, the runners passed through the bottle station at mile 22, where Molly’s coach John Green shouted coded encouragement: “Rule Five!” Harden up. 

“That’s when it was really hurting,” Molly says. “And I could feel them starting to pull away and I’m like, ‘OK, this is going to be the hardest four miles of your life.’” A space yawned open between Molly and the three women in front of her, and for a kilometer she fought the good internal fight, checking in with her body, the pace, her expectations. She knew she couldn’t go any faster – that with five kilometers still remaining she was working at her absolute limit – and she recalls thinking, “You have to just hope that you’ve got one card left. And you have to hope that somebody else has put all of theirs down and they’ve got nothing left.”

That is when she saw the unmistakable figure of Israeli athlete Lonah Salpeter coming back to her. Molly closed the gap on Salpeter so quickly that she lost track of her: “She was in the side of my vision and then she was just gone. And I had no idea what had happened,” Molly said.

Though not a runner, Molly’s mother had drilled into her daughter a fundamental rule: Don’t ever look back.

So with two miles to go, running in the bronze medal position in the Olympic Marathon, Molly focused all of her attention up the road and steeled herself for a late-race challenge from Salpeter. But it never came. Molly explains: “It was only with a mile to go when I passed Mike [Smith] again at the bottle station and he’s screaming, ‘Molly Seidel, you have 40 seconds on the field!’ That’s when I was like, ‘This is happening.’”

“Racing is such a weird and interesting thing. You put all this training in and then you just put it out to the universe,” Molly says. “And you just have to believe and show up. You have to be willing to put yourself out there in a way that’s scary. And you’re not always going to have it. But sometimes the stars align and something great can happen.”

Lots of things had happened to Molly over the course of her running career – injuries and recoveries, heartbreak and happiness – and she’d taken all of them in stride, extracting learning from the lessons offered up in each workout and every race. She’d learned Up Back that her mind is most still when she is in motion. She’d learned at the Angel Invite how to shape a victory from a defeat. She’d learned at Hayward Field that even when expectations are low, she rises to the occasion. And she learned in Phoenix and Flagstaff and all throughout her so-called messy marathon builds that the perfect workout, the one that best prepares you, might just be the radically imperfect workout.

She’d carried a broken body into the most demanding running event and she’d emerged stronger than ever. And now here she was in Japan, her grandest classroom yet.

Molly still feels like there’s a lot she has to learn: even her bronze-medal performance in Sapporo could be improved upon, she says, by running better tangents and being less aggressive in the middle of the race. But she knows now that she’s on the right track and it’s a track that is wholly of her own design.

“My first two years as a pro I always kind of assumed that what I was doing was inferior, or that there was some secret that everybody else knew and I needed to figure out,” Molly says. “And it was only once I started doing things in a way that was authentic to me that I found my own success…I think over the course of this last year and a half, I’ve been learning to have confidence in the fact that I may do things unconventionally but that doesn’t mean that’s wrong and there are a lot of different ways to find success.”

Could she sum up that learning in a single rule – like John’s Rule Five or her mother’s admonition to never look back: What’s Molly’s one rule of marathoning?

“The cardinal rule of the marathon,” Molly says, “is that there are no rules in the marathon.”

***

Follow along with Molly as she runs her fourth marathon in New York City on Sunday, November 7, 2021.