Molly Huddle will be among U.S. distance-running elites at the 2018 Boston Marathon, but her record against her fellow Americans could suggest that she’s the heavy favorite.
What do you do when you’re seeking a bit more excitement? If you’re Molly Huddle, you step away from the track and dive head first into training for the Boston Marathon.
The two-time Olympian is no stranger to the competition at 26.2-mile distance—Huddle made her long-awaited marathon debut at the New York City Marathon in 2016, running 2:28:13 for third place just 12 weeks after setting an American record in the 10,000 meters at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But once she committed to training for Boston, she watched her fellow American marathoners continue to trend upward against the East Africans that have dominated the distance for so long.
In October, 26-year-old Jordan Hasay ran 2:20:57 for third place at the Chicago Marathon—just one minute and 21 seconds off the American record. In November, Shalane Flanagan—one of the most accomplished U.S. distance runners whose records Huddle has continuously broken on the track—ended a four-decade drought for American women in the New York City Marathon with a 2:26:53 first-place finish. Add in Desiree Linden—and defending Boston champion Edna Kiplagat of Kenya—to the mix with Hasay and Flanagan, and the 2018 Boston Marathon is shaping up to be a battle of elites.
“We’re all going to raise our game,” Huddle says. “We don’t just want to be the top American on the day, [we want] to win. And it’s a tall order given that the international field is not weak. It gets my blood pumping when I see the names.”
If you applied the transitive property to the marathon distance, Huddle’s record against her fellow American distance runners on the road would indicate that she’s the heavy favorite to be the top U.S. woman and possibly the winner in Monday’s race. Huddle has not lost to an American woman on the roads since 2012 and is putting her 30-race streak on the line. Then again, no American woman has won since Lisa Larsen Weidenbach in 1985 and all the elites know it, but each approaches the race believing it’s their time. That’s been the case for the last handful of years, but the odds appear better than ever in 2018.
The learning curve is still a little steep for Huddle. She only has one career marathon on her resume but she is not going into Boston questioning whether she’s a marathoner. She is looking to figure out the right formula to win and it’s one that’s worked for most of her career.
Huddle’s first sport and favorite at a young age was basketball. Her father, Robert, was a 400 and 800 meter specialist at the University of Notre Dame in the 1960s, and when she was in sixth grade, he took her to a picnic in South Bend, Ind., where she met women’s basketball head coach Muffet McGraw and told her that she wanted to play basketball for the Fighting Irish.
It was her father who also got her into running a year later. One of the first races that Huddle remembers was a road 5K at the Elmira-Thon in her home town of Elmira, New York, where she was trying to race him—just an early sign of her competitiveness. It carried over into high school, where she stood out for Notre Dame High School in Elmira.
“I barely made the varsity team in the other sports,” Huddle said. “Running brought me recruiting offers from other places. I honestly had no idea what schools were good. It was the early 2000s and I barely knew how to use the internet. I didn’t do too much research.”
Her current coach Ray Treacy sent her a letter from Providence College, but she hadn’t heard much about the school and it became an afterthought on Huddle’s shortlist of colleges that included cross country powerhouses such as Stanford, Villanova, Georgetown and Duke. Ultimately, she picked Notre Dame to continue her family legacy.
“It was actually a bit scary when I agreed to go there because I was really excited about attending Notre Dame as a student and fan,” Huddle says. “At the same time, I was like ‘OK. I’m going to try and raise the level of this program by myself. What if I don’t make it to Nationals for cross country?’ I would’ve been very upset. There was some trepidation.”
“I remember being afraid that I wouldn’t make the top seven on Notre Dame’s team,” Huddle adds. “I never looked up results and so I just assumed that everyone was better than me.”
The Fighting Irish ended up faring well. Huddle led the team to its first-ever Big East cross country title and then a third place finish at the 2002 NCAA Championship, the highest finish in the school’s history. Huddle was sixth overall and earned her first All-American honors. By the end of her sophomore year, Huddle was the most decorated runner in program history and competed at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials in Sacramento, Calif., where she finished as the top non-professional athlete and seventh overall.
Coach Tim Connelly oversaw her training and brought Huddle along conservatively with a lower volume training program. He saw it as a good experience for Huddle to compete at the U.S. championship stage for her future but he also did not want to risk burning her out. Huddle’s collegiate career was not without its hiccups. Going into her senior year, Huddle broke her right foot three times in a span of 18 months.
“After the third break, I had to watch the NCAA championships from my house and I was really out of shape,” Huddle says. “I had just gotten back to a few weeks of running and then had to take some time off. I remember thinking that these runs felt terrible and I didn’t know if there was any way I’d come back. I didn’t know if I’d be in our top seven for real this time. That was probably my lowest point.”
Huddle returned to form for the 2007 outdoor season and capped off her collegiate career with a third place finish in the NCAA championship 5,000 meter final. Through her experience racing some of the Providence Friars like Kim Smith and Mary Cullen in the Big East, Huddle decided to work with coach Treacy after she graduated. Immediate success showed when she ran 15:17.13 for 5,000 meters that summer.
Treacy and Huddle have taken a careful and traditional approach to her development since turning professional. There are some athletes, such as Hasay, who can take to the marathon at an early age, but Huddle and Treacy wanted to build up her strength before contending on the world stage in the longer distances. Huddle was also making good money on the USATF Running Circuit by winning national titles as part of her occasional break from the track.
“Our idea was what’s the point of moving up to the marathon if you’re not at least good enough as you are in the 10,000 meters in the world rankings?” Treacy says. “She's always been successful on the roads but had a love for the track. She wanted to get the best out of herself before making the transition."
Treacy credits some of Huddle’s dominance to her “racing brain” since she manages herself very well during races and is not afraid to occasionally take the lead to keep a quick pace going and then still kick. The ability to kick, even from the front, has won her so many races—including 26 U.S. national championships. While Huddle believes it’s been a result of better strength work since college, Treacy believes it comes natural to her.
“She’s got this confidence about herself when she steps on the line that you know if she’s the done the work then she’s going to be impossible to beat,” Treacy says. “It’s a confidence that hopefully she can bring to the marathon as the years go along.”
Huddle’s training for Boston included time in Arizona, both in Scottsdale and Flagstaff. As opposed to the lead up to her debut, training this time was specifically pointed to the marathon. She raced the Houston Half Marathon in January and finished seventh overall, but as the top American woman. She won the U.S. 15K Championships on March 10 while sandwiched between two 12-day cycles where she ran about 130 miles. (Treacy estimates that she would be at a 110 to 115 miles per week during the 13 to 14 week training block.)
The 15K win came in the same city that handed her last loss to an American woman. In March 2012, Janet Bawcom pulled away from her at the U.S. 15K championships at the Gate River Run in Jacksonville, Fla. Huddle remembers the race fondly that she was “really pissed” afterwards because it took her by surprise.
“I would’ve given anything to win an NCAA track title but I’ve been fortunate to win a few USA titles, which are even harder,” Huddle says. “That’s pretty crazy when I think about it. It’s something that I’m not taking for granted. I try to run hard all the time. We don’t like to do time trials and we don’t like to use races as workouts or tempo efforts. If I’m going to run hard, I want it to count.”
This year in Jacksonville, Huddle came away with a win by a full minute and improved to 11–0 over Hasay. Linden is also winless against Huddle in 12 head-to-head contests. In a much smaller sample size, Huddle is 2–0 against Kiplagat, but the longest race was a half marathon. Flanagan has a 19–6 career record against Huddle but has not been able to beat her since 2011.
The numbers are there for the running geeks to crunch, but in an event like the marathon and on a course as unforgiving and challenging as Boston with its rolling hills and unpredictable weather, the stats get thrown away on race day.
“They’re all great athletes,” Huddle says. “Anything can happen in the marathon, either good or bad, to you or to other athletes. It’s an event where if you prepare really well, there’s hope.”