There were many dramatic competitions and moments in the Tokyo Olympics, but one of the most compelling performances was Molly Seidel’s bronze medal in the marathon. In only her third marathon, Seidel, 27, fended off heat and stuck with world-record holders in an inspiring race.
In doing so, Seidel became the third-ever woman to medal in an Olympic marathon, behind Joab Benoit Samuelson (Gold, ’84) and Deena Kastor (Bronze, 2004). Going into the race, Seidel tried to keep her expectations realistic, telling media that she just hoped to place in the top 10. Let’s not forget that the field had Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei, the world record holder in the marathon, and two-time world half marathon champion Peres Jepchirchir.
Seidel, a former track and cross-country star at Notre Dame had solid, if not deep, credentials going into the race: she’d run a 2:27:31 at the Olympic Trials, and knocked that down to 2:25:13 in the London Marathon last October. Still, there were around eight women in the field who had sub 2:20 efforts on their resumés.
But Seidel ran a fearless race, knowing that she belonged in such a field. Plus, the heat in Sapporo that day helped to level the playing field. No one was going to go out too fast, allowing for a much more strategic race. Reports state that it was 79 degrees at the half-way point with 72 percent humidity, and that the pavement was about 100 degrees.
Making the Most of Her Training
Instead of lamenting the missed year the Olympics were supposed to have been held (2020), Seidel took advantage of the extra time to get into the shape of her life. Training in Flagstaff, Arizona, she was able to get heat acclimated, even going so far as to wear cotton T-shirts and sweatshirts to add to the effect.
Maybe the most significant aspect of Seidel’s medal is the way she ran. Unafraid to stay with the leaders, she later told womensrunning.com, “Seeing your peers do incredible things kind of gives you the courage to go after it. I didn’t know if it was going to work out…they’re the best in the world, but I figured if I hung with them long enough and was brave, something good would come of it.”
Staying With It and Keeping Calm
The marathon is a long grind. At any point along the way, athletes must battle not only physical fatigue, but the mental urge to just slow down and ease up. That’s where Seidel really shined. At 21 miles, she was still in the lead pack, even running out front. But then Jepchirchir and Kosgei surged with around three miles to go, and with Lonah Salpeter of Israel still in that pack, Seidel was in fourth place. That’s where her mental tenacity and ability to not panic made all the difference. She knew her best bet was to maintain her form. Indeed, if you look at her splits, they remained steady in the mid 5:20 range all the way through.
The strategy paid off, as Salpeter slowed to a walk just after mile 23. At that point Seidel knew she’d medal if she held strong. And she did. With a triumphant cry crossing the finish, Seidel took bronze in 2:27:46 behind Jepchirchir (2:27:20) and Kosgei (2:27:36).
“This is the day your dream of your entire life. This is what it means to be an athlete,” Seidel told womensrunning.com.
Notes: The two other American women on the team- Aliphine Tuliamuk and Sally Kipyego did not fare as well, Tuliamuk dropped out at 20K with a hip injury, while Kipyego finished 17th in 2:32.53.