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A Year of Strength for Emily Sisson

After disappointment at the Olympic Marathon Trials, Emily Sisson took time to examine her weaknesses.

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When Emily Sisson studied the weather report for the 15K national championship last Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida, she quickly adjusted her race plan. The 20 mile-per-hour winds were not record-setting conditions, so her new strategy? Just race aggressively.

And that plan resulted in a decisive win for Sisson, 29, who trains in Phoenix and is coached by Ray Treacy. Finishing in 48:09, she also won the equalizer bonus against the men—the women’s field started six minutes ahead and she crossed the finish line first, taking home a $15,000 prize.

“This gave me something to work toward,” Sisson said during a phone interview with Women’s Running. “So that was motivating.”

The 15K turned out to be a good indication that the past year of examining her training, niggles, and imbalances was time well spent. The pandemic didn’t leave many opportunities for pro runners to race, but Sisson also decided early on that the lack of competition might work in her favor.

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She has raced three times since February 2020, when she dropped out at mile 21 of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta. Sisson, whose marathon best is 2:23:08, came into the Trials as a top contender to make the Tokyo Games, but the brutally hilly course and relentless wind that day took a toll. Afterward she felt beat up and defeated.

“Usually how I get back after bad races is to just jump into the next one,” she said. “But Ray said that losing this year of racing could just add time to the end of my career if I invest in getting stronger and learning how to correct my weaknesses. It took four months before I started feeling all right again after the Trials.”

With the help of her husband and often training partner, Shane Quinn, she’s looked at more videos and photos of her running form. They had noticed that it was not the same as it was before her 26,2-mile debut at the 2019 London Marathon. It seemed like her quads were the culprit, she said.

“I think my body just fell into some patterns that we needed to correct, so I’ve done some posterior chain strengthening. I was getting really stiff, so I’ve worked a lot on mobility,” Sisson said. “Now there are days where I feel tired just from the mileage, but I feel more powerful.”

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She’s also learned the difference between feeling sore and tired from the high-volume marathon training and what could actually indicate the beginning of an injury—an important distinction to make for sustaining a career.

“I just thought that feeling was normal during marathon training, but looking back maybe we should have been more aware of some things prior to Atlanta,” she said.

In December, Sisson traveled to Valencia to race the half marathon, where she finished in 1:07:26, just one second off of her training partner, Molly Huddle’s, American record. Sisson also raced 5,000-meters in March, at a Sound Running meet in Southern California, where won in 14:55.82, a personal record.

From here, Sisson’s attention turns fully toward preparing for the 10,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, scheduled for June 18–27, in Eugene, Oregon. That will entail an altitude training stint in Flagstaff, Arizona, and probably some time back in Providence, Rhode Island, with her coach. Although Sisson had originally planned to also race the 5,000 meters there, officials recently changed the competition schedule and the revised plan doesn’t allow enough recovery between the events to race both.

The 10,000 meters could be a crowded field, with approximately 35 women already qualified. She finds herself again in the top contenders club, with a fastest time of 30:49:57.

“The talent is deep,” Sisson said. “It’s going to be a hard race no matter how it plays out, so I think we just need to prepare for any type of scenario.”

The focus doesn’t extend past making the Tokyo Games right now, but Sisson also knows she isn’t done with the marathon. Should everything go according to plan, she’d like to race 26.2 miles in the fall—and she’ll have plenty to choose from with all six World Marathon Majors currently scheduled to take place between September and November.

“It’s probably good for me to take a break from it, but I’m excited to get back to the marathon,” Sisson said.