Women's Beijing 10,000 meters reconsidered: fickle margins between agony and ecstasy, by Cathal Dennehy

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AOFall.jpgFlanagan, Infeld, Huddle, moments after WC 10,000m finish, design by Alex Larsen, photo by PhotoRun.net

The women's 10,000 meters was a true championship race. The quality of the field was tremendous and the fact that three USA women were in the hunt had me riveted to the track. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone flying around the track, as I spent much of my time watching Molly Huddle.

In that moment, in the 4,999th meter, Molly Huddle faltered, and Emily Infeld, as she had practiced most of the summer, after being chided by Shalane Flanagan, ran through the finish. The picture above captures the pathos of the event.

Three classy athletes battling for a medal and one gets it.

I had known of Emily Infeld for some time. That Jerry Schumacher was coaching her was all that I needed to follow her: Jerry is a litmus test for finding great talent. His athletes love him, and respect him, and give him their all.

This is the story of many things, quite frankly.

But, I will let Cathal Dennehy tell the rest of the story...

If ever a moment exemplified the fine, fickle margins which separate agony and ecstasy, success and failure in sport, it was the climax of the women's 10,000m final at last month's IAAF World Championships in Beijing.

For one American athlete - Emily Infeld - there was stunned joy at the finish, the 25-year-old's face lighting up in a glow of jubilation after snatching a surprise bronze medal.

For US teammate Molly Huddle, though - who had eased up in the final 20 metres, surrendering third place just before the finish - there was nothing but a dark, horrified look of despair.

It was the full spectrum of everything this sport is: clinically objective, yet sometimes grossly unfair, emotionally uplifting, but often cloaked in gut-wrenching dejection.

For the victorious to be anointed as champions, dozens of others must slink away defeated - the burden of failure coming to rest on their tactics, their training or their relative lack of talent.

For Molly Huddle, though, there was no one to blame but herself, and the 30-year-old - who had taken the lead for much of the final kilometer and only surrendered the bronze medal right on the line - knew as much afterwards.

"I blew it, pretty much," she said. "I let up, and Emily was right there with more momentum. I thought there was no one battling me down the home stretch, but she was there the whole way, and I just wish I had that one last step."

With Vivian Cheruiyot of Kenya taking gold in 31:41.31 and Gelete Burka of Ethiopia silver in 31:41.77, it was left to Huddle and Infeld to scrap for the bronze and though Infeld was visibly delighted with coming out on top, she couldn't help but feel for her older teammate.

"It stinks, because she's worked so hard," said Infeld. "Molly is so great, so sweet. I saw her after the race and immediately burst into tears and [Huddle] said: 'those better be happy tears'. I just wanted to give her a hug, but there was nothing really you can say."

Afterwards, Huddle bravely faced the press and tried to summon some words to describe the race, but Infeld was right; in a situation like that, what could she really say to make it better?

"I blew it in the last steps," said Huddle. "I don't know when that chance will come again. The Olympics are usually really fast from the gun. I'm old, so I'm probably not going to get another one of those. This will take a lot of time to get over."

Get over it, though, she did.

Showing a level of resilience for which she has become renowned, Huddle bounced back from the sucker-punch of Beijing by taking victory at the US 20K Championships in New Haven, Connecticut on September 7, before going on to win the US 5K Championships in Providence on September 20, running 15:12.

While Huddle may not be keen to relive the pain of Beijing, her misfortune was what allowed her younger teammate to step into the international limelight for the first time and Infeld, at least, will have happily replayed the race several times over the past month.

"I had no idea I got it," said Infeld of her photo finish with Huddle. "I saw Molly letting up. She didn't know how close I was. I was trying to give it everything I had right to the line."

That lesson, as it turns out, had been drilled into her by her Bowerman Track Club training partner, Shalane Flanagan, over the previous couple of months.

At the US Championships in late June, Infeld surprised many by making the team, but not Flanagan, who had trained alongside Infeld and mentored her for much of the year.

"We've been all about closing," said Flanagan in Beijing, shortly after finishing sixth in the final in 31:46.23. "I beat Emily at nationals and we've been working on running through the line since then. I feel like I'm living vicariously through her. We literally do everything together, and I'm taking a lot of pride in what she's done."

In Beijing, Infeld was quick to credit the influence of Flanagan after a year in which she returned from the depths of injury hell in February - having not run a step in two months due to a sacral stress fracture - to become a global medallist in August.

"I have the best teammates, I'm so grateful to them," said Infeld. "Shalane is phenomenal; she works so hard, loves it so much, and is so dedicated. It's one of those things you have to fully commit to and she does it the right way. It's a lifestyle."

On the six months leading up to Beijing, Infeld lived that lifestyle like never before.

After coming back from injury, Infeld hit the pool for two to three hours a day through the spring trying to regain fitness for the outdoor season, but it was a slow process.

It wasn't until the US Championships in June that the world championships loomed as a realistic proposition. A medal was never in her mind, at least not until coach Jerry Schumacher spoke to her and Flanagan shortly before the event got under way.

"Coming into Beijing, Jerry said to us: 'you have a chance to medal, you guys are just as good as Molly; the Americans can do something really, really special,'" recalled Infeld.

As the 10,000m field entered the final kilometer, Flanagan realized Schumacher's confidence was well-founded. "I was getting chills those last few laps," she said. "We had three American women fighting for medals. The coaches told us all three women can be contending. I believed them but didn't believe as much in myself."

Though Flanagan had to make do with sixth, and Huddle fourth, their effort wasn't forgotten despite Infeld deservedly taking the limelight with her bronze medal.

The race, in the end, was many things; it was a lesson to Huddle and young athletes everywhere about the importance of running through the line. It was a demonstration of the value of persistence and never-say-die attitude by Emily Infeld, while it was also an exposition of all that is beautiful and brutal about high-level sport.

Above all, though, it was proof - if it were needed - that when it comes to US distance running, the tide is irrepressibly rising once more.

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