Molly Huddle's Inner Strength: Versatile Distance Star Finds Peace, Sets American Record

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Huddle_MollyWideF-NYC16.JPGMolly Huddle, photo by PhotoRun.net

Updated February 26, 2017

Molly Huddle just ran a 15:01.64, negative splits, at BU Last Chance Meet, with Emily Sisson right behind her (15:02.10). Molly told FloTrack she will race the United Airlines NYRR Half Marathon on March 19! But, then (thanks Molly), Molly Huddle will go back to the track and the 10,000 meters and 5,000 meters for 2017! Congrats to Molly and her training partner, Emily Sisson! Great races in Boston!

This feature on Molly Huddle, on her amazing year of 2016, was written by David Hunter. Molly's hard fought year, like the years that preceded it, are like a tapestry of the athlete's complete career. Many more races to run for Molly Huddle, as David Hunter writes in this fine piece. We, her fans are most fortunate.

December 20th, 2016

One of the more frequently-cited quotations of the Dalai Lama - a gentle man of many observations - notes that "not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck." Deep thinker, the Lama. And perhaps no person better personifies the Tibetan Buddhist's wise saying than American distance star Molly Huddle.

It's been over 16 months since Huddle's premature celebration in the final strides of the Beijing's World Championship 10,000m final allowed her USA teammate Emily Infeld to nip her at the line, costing Huddle the bronze medal. The commission of a horrific mistake in front of a capacity stadium crowd, a vast television audience, and countless more who viewed the virally-transmitted video would have been enough to devastate a lesser person. But Huddle found a way to transform crushing misfortune into a positive force in her life. What did she do? Among other things, she went on a road race tear in the fall of 2015 - winning national road championships at 5K, 10K, 12K, and 10 miles. She rode that momentum on into 2016 by ringing up a second place performance at the Millrose Games 5000 meter run, nipping Joyce Chepkirui at the line to successfully defend her New York Half Marathon title, and grabbing the laurel wreath with a victory in the B.A.A. 5K on Patriot's Day weekend. "I don't think I'll ever get over it," explained Huddle earlier this past summer. "I just want to move past it, not dwell on it, and not let it steal anymore from me by fixating on it."

Huddle's Crusade Of Redemption continued on into the 2016 outdoor season as Huddle completed an impressive distance double - winning the 5,000m and the 10,000m - at the U.S. Olympic Trials, setting a new American record in the Rio Olympics to finish 6th in what many have labeled the greatest women's 10,000m ever run, and capping off this Olympic year with her debut marathon - a 2:28:13 3rd place finish in the New York City Marathon.

"Yeah, I definitely think it's a bit of a fire. Like it's always going to have a hot factor to it," states Huddle recently, in referencing that fateful race in the Bird's Nest.. "I've tried to ascribe a lot of different meanings to it. In the end, I don't really know how I'll think of it. I think I need a few more years to think about it."

Molly Huddle grew up in Elmira, New York where, as a youngster, she would watch her father Robert run. "I saw him run a lot road races when I was really young," she recalls. Before long, she was hitting the roads herself. Her father counselled her - and even stepped in to serve as her coach during her only foray into high school cross country. "He coached me for cross country only - my senior season," explains Molly, whose high school didn't offer cross country. "He took to me to all the meets in his car. It went pretty well," understates Huddle, who concluded that special season with 12 course records, a state championship, and a 4th place Foot Locker finish. A parent coaching a child can often lead to disaster, but Molly and her dad made it work. "With my dad giving me the workouts, if I felt bad one day, it was easier to kind of like have a temper tantrum around my dad than it would be around a coach," adds Huddle with a laugh. Robert still follows his daughter's progression. "Yeah, he tries not to step on Ray's toes. But he loves to talk about running," Huddle states. "He likes to ask about the workouts I'm doing."

After high school, the New York native was off to South Bend, Indiana. "We were a Notre Dame family. My uncle and my dad both went there. My dad actually ran on the track team there," explains Huddle. And during one of the family's football pilgrimages back to campus, they stopped by the office of the head track & field coach. "We kind of just walked into his office when I was 13 and we were visiting one day. We just stopped in to say hi. I told him that hopefully I will be here one day. He was really nice, but I don't think he thought much of it." While head coach Tim Connelly might not have thought much about Molly then, he did later - as Huddle began to impress as a high school runner. "He knew my background in high school. And he kept an eye on me," offers Huddle who capped her prep career by winning two state championships and setting the national high school record in the two-mile [10:01].

While competing for the Irish, Huddle authored an impressive collegiate career. Highlights for the 10-time All-American include the American Junior record she set in the 5000m [15:36.95] at the 2003 Mt. SAC Relays and the Notre Dame outdoor 5000m record of 15:32.55 she posted the following year.

As the conclusion of her college career drew closer, Huddle began to think more seriously about running as a professional. "I think it was during the last two years of college when I realized I really wanted to keep doing it after college," she states. "I definitely wanted to try to run professionally, but I didn't know if I would have the interest from shoe companies and that kind of thing," offers Huddle. "I was lucky that Saucony kind of took me on that year and let me chase my dreams."

Saucony may have allowed the spunky athlete to chase her dreams. But it was up to Huddle to make those dreams come true. Consistently a game competitor, the young professional always raced in earnest. But it took the former Notre Dame star a while to produce podium-worthy performances. But by mixing races on the track with battles on the roads, the medals started coming: her 10K road win in 2008 was the first of 3 consecutive USATF 10K road championships; In 2010 she set her first American record for 5000m [14:44.76] on Brussels' King Baudouin Stadium track; and in 2011 she won her first USATF outdoor 5000m title [15:10.01]. Suddenly, Molly Huddle - whose waif-like physique and gentle demeanor belies the ferocity with which she races - was emerging as a force on the American distance running stage.

Huddle is quick to acknowledge that Ray Treacy - her post-collegiate coach - has made an invaluable contribution to her success as a pro. "He does a great job with the 5K and 10K distance group," notes Huddle who - along with her husband, Canadian middle distance runner Kurt Benninger - resides in Providence, Rhode Island and is part of Treacy's tribe of elite women distance athletes. "He is an old school coach - using a staple of workouts for the year, never getting too far away from peak shape," she explains. "I value his experience the most. I think I came to him at a point in his career when he had seen every kind of athlete. He knows how to deal with a lot of different scenarios. He kind of knew how to handle our whole group." Aspects of Treacy's workout regimen pair nicely with Huddle's strengths. "Workout wise, he really focuses on the VO2 max type stuff. For me, that's one of my strengths. I think things kind of built from there. He's great with [preparing us] for international competition. He's had athletes go to the Olympics and the World Championships. He knows the strategy and how to get through rounds. He taught me how to do that." Treacy employs a Lydiard-based approach to his workout menu. "We pretty much alternate between a tempo run and a track workout all year," notes the two-time Olympian. "The mileage is on the high side. For the track, it is between 85-90 miles. And for the marathon it was around 110-115 miles."

Perhaps one of the most impressive facets of Molly Huddle - the athlete - is her versatility. In track & field - a sport of specialization, to be sure - it is indeed rare for any athlete, track or field, to truly excel at the highest level in more than one event or on more than one surface. Molly can - as she has found her own way to win on the track and on the roads. "I probably use the road races as kind of a bridge for the next track season. Ray's not one of the coaches that thinks that it is a one or another scenario," offers Huddle, who explains the track/road combination took time to perfect. "At first, I would jump into a 5K or a 10K on the road, and I would kind of struggle because it didn't seem measured and had undulating surfaces. But after a year or two of doing it, I kind of got used to the roads. We always kept it [road races] in the program. I always thought they were fun. I always got enjoyment out of it whether I was placing well or not. I think it was just because we kept it in the program and I kind of adapted to it. It is different than the track. The feel of the race is different on the roads." Now clearly glad to compete - and succeed - in both, Huddle adds, "Once it started to go well, we definitely embraced it."

In Rio, Huddle was one of 37 world-class athletes to toe the line for Olympic 10,000m final. "It was a strange, difficult race," admits Huddle who worked with Treacy to carefully analyze and anticipate how the race would unfold. "You can never really predict the race based on times. We had just looked at past 10K finals to kind of get an idea of maybe what would happen and what the pattern might be. Just judging from Beijing - where Shalane [Flanagan] medaled and set the American record - Shalane ran pretty evenly and passed people at the end as they fell off the pace. We hoped that would happen," states Huddle. "When it went out hard, I raced remembering Ray's advice: 'Don't be afraid to go out in 15:10 - 15:15 for the first 5K.' It was actually a lot faster than that," notes Huddle who split halfway in 14:55.5 trailing Kenya's Alice Nawowuna's leading opening 5K in 14:46.81. "When [ultimate winner Almaz] Ayana started to pull away at 5K, I thought, 'I was hoping it would settle at this point, but it's getting faster. But just try and stay under 15:20 pace for the next 5K and see if that reels anybody in.' And when it became clear that I wasn't reeling anybody in, I was just focused on the record at that point," explains Huddle on how she shifted her attention from placing to Flanagan's American record. Running her own race within a race, Huddle stayed on task - crossing the line in 30:13.17 to take down Flanagan's AR by a whopping 9.05 seconds. "I knew I was hovering around the old record. It was just so fast. And we were lapping people. It was a little chaotic out there. It was definitely a surreal race."

Huddle's poise came into play again as she brought down the curtain on her 2016 season with her marathon debut in New York. Unknowns awaited, but Molly was thoughtful, not fearful. "I kind of had no idea just because I had never run the marathon," she admits. "I was thinking about how New York is so difficult. And I don't know if my style of running would be suited for that course. There were just so many unknowns. I kind of thought I'd be happy with anything in the top 6 - and ideally a finish in the top 3." As the leaders swung off the Queensboro Bridge and began charging north up 1st Avenue, Huddle was savvy enough to stay calm. "After it started to become serious running, that's when I started to think, 'OK, just cool it here. It'll be good.'" It paid off, as Huddle moved up several spots over the final miles, finishing 3rd to earn a spot on a World Marathon Major medal stand - in her first 26 mile 385 yard effort. "I was really relieved at the end, just to avoid so many of those mishaps that can happen in your first marathon. I was glad with that one."

In Huddle's year filled with lots of miles, many critical competitions, the Olympic Games, and even some new challenges, physical and mental exhaustion would be expected. To the contrary, the new American record holder is already looking ahead. "I definitely still feel motivated. I still feel like there are things I want to do that I haven't done yet," declares the 32 year old Huddle who already has her eye on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. "In that respect, I feel like there is still a lot left to the career as long as my body can hold up."

Since the Beijing incident, Molly Huddle has engaged in what many would cite as the most impressive racing of her career. Reflection upon Huddle's world championship gaffe and the pathway the disappointed athlete - without hesitation - chose to follow brings to mind yet another Dali Lama quotation: "When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways-either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength." The Tibetan religious leader would be content - perhaps even inspired - with the choice Molly Huddle has made. Dave Hunter

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