Molly Huddle went into Sunday's NYC Half Marathon as one of the leading contenders for the women's title but, truth be told, the 30-year-old didn't think winning was ever really on the cards. "It wasn't really on my mind to win," she said. "I just wanted to run as fast as I could."
In the end, she actually did both, taking the win in convincing style in a swift 1:08:31 ahead of Kenya's Joyce Chepkirui (1:08:42), which was a big personal best for Huddle, a New York native, who currently holds the American 5,000m record.
The field set off in cautious style and remained bunched through the first half of the race, with seven athletes still in the lead group as they passed 10K in 33:07, many of the leading contenders unwilling to push the pace in swirling winds, not wanting to risk becoming the race's sacrificial lamb.
It wasn't until the race reached the three-quarter mark, says Huddle, that thoughts of the win began to clamber their way into her mind. "Around 10 miles, I started to think I could win," she said. "That's where I faded in the last couple of half marathons and I wasn't fading, so I thought: '5k to go, I can handle that.'"
Molly Huddle and Joyce Chepkirui duel, NYC Half, Photo by PhotoRun.net
At nine miles, Huddle raced to the front ahead of long-time leader Joyce Chepkirui, an athlete of the highest calibre over the half marathon, who holds a best of 1:06:19. Chepkirui was alert and alive to the threat of Huddle, clinging to her shoulder through the following mile as they raced away from eventual third-placer Sally Kipyego.
Being at the front, particularly over a distance above her comfort zone, proved a new role for Huddle, but one she fulfilled with the confidence of a seasoned half-marathon veteran. "I wanted to take a few more risks," she said. "Being able to push it at the front isn't something I would do in the past, but now the training has got a lot better the last two years and I have the mentality: 'whatever I get out of the race doing that is better than letting anyone go.'
"There were a few moments where I thought I shouldn't be up there leading, but I wanted the race to go faster; I wanted to run fast today and I thought: 'whatever happens, happens.'"
Huddle continued to click her watch at every mile marker, despite the immediate presence of the Kenyan in her slipstream; she remained adamant that, win or lose, she would run fast on the streets of New York. As they entered a tunnel with a mile to go, the pace Huddle set proved too much for Chepkirui, and the American slowly opened an advantage.
Molly Huddle makes the break, NYC Half, photo by PhotoRun.net
From there, it was a case of how fast Huddle could go and she crossed the line a worthy champion in 1:08:31, which equalled the course record set by Sallly Kipyego last year. "That means a lot to me," said Huddle, when asked about becoming the first American winner of this race.
With such a commanding performance at the half-marathon distance, the question was soon put to Huddle if this may help coerce a move to the marathon, and though Huddle, now 30, certainly sees that in her future, she remains in no rush to step up just yet.
"I'd have to do that [half marathon distance] twice, so I still have a long way to go to prepare for a marathon," she said. "I'll see how that transfers into the track season. It would be great to do a fall marathon, but we'll have to see."
Indeed, much of Huddle's training, which is carried out in Providence, Rhode Island, under the tutelage of coach Ray Treacy and alongside athletes like Amy Hastings and Kim Smith, has been leaning more towards the half marathon this winter, aware that the move to training for the full 26.2-mile distance will be something that will take years, not simply months, to accomplish.
"I overlap with the marathoners a little bit more [in our training group] and have done a lot of longer reps - mile-and-a-half, two-mile reps, whereas I used to do more track stuff," she said. "This year, I was doing 90 to 95 miles a week, which is only 5 to 10 miles more per week, but it's made a big difference. I'm not far off [marathon training]. I'm closer than I was a few years ago, but I need to get the mentality of it, and have the patience for it."
Before any of that, though, Huddle's attention is focused on the main event of 2015, the IAAF World Championships in Beijing in August, where she is leaning towards the 10,000m. "Next up is the BAA 5K and probably the Stanford 5K, then the US nationals 10k," she said. "I was thinking with no prelims in the 10K [at the world championships], that's a big thing in being able to come back for the final fresh. I hope to finish higher than I have in the past. The opportunity is there [to medal] but a lot has to go right."
Huddle made a major leap forward last year, setting personal bests at the mile (4:26.8), 5,000m (14:42.64) and 10,000m (30:47.59). If she can find even a small improvement on those marks in 2015, she will certainly be a medal contender in the world 10,000m final in Beijing, now just over five months away.
A long way to go yet, but right now, in March, things couldn't be going better.
Molly Huddle smiles, flag waving, enjoying her victory, NYC Half, photo by PhotoRun.net