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Here’s Why Emily Sisson’s London Marathon Performance Matters Right Now

Her 26.2-mile debut adds spice to the depth of U.S. women’s long-distance talent—and we should all take a moment to appreciate the era we’re witnessing.

Photo: Kevin Morris

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Maybe you’ve heard by now that on Sunday at the London Marathon, the U.S. welcomed yet another star at the distance: Emily Sisson, who finished in 2:23:08 for sixth place—in her first attempt at a 26.2-mile race.

The time is significant because it’s the second-fastest marathon debut by an American woman, just eight seconds behind Jordan Hasay’s 2:23:00, set at the 2017 Boston Marathon. It makes Sisson, who also achieved the 2020 Olympic standard on Sunday, the seventh-fastest U.S. woman ever at the distance, according to Track & Field News. In fact, the all-time marathon list features five performances within the past two years.

“It was a good first experience,” said Sisson, on Sunday after the race. “You can never really know what to expect in a marathon—there are so many things that can happen.”

With her performance, Sisson is now the third-fastest qualifier for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, behind Hasay and Amy Cragg (2:21:42)—with nine months left in the qualifying window, 291 women are already eligible. Of those, 58 have the “A” standard of 2:37:00 or faster. At the 2016 Trials, a grand total of 198 women qualified and 42 had the “A” standard. So yes, the Trials (where Team USA is selected to compete at the Tokyo Games) on February 29 in Atlanta is shaping up to the be one of the most thrilling women’s races we’ve ever seen.

Indeed, we’ve come a long way since 2016.

Cragg became the first U.S. woman to medal in the world championships marathon since 1983, earning bronze in 2017. Shalane Flanagan became the first U.S. woman in 40 years to win the New York City Marathon, also in 2017.  Desiree Linden won the 2018 Boston Marathon, the first American woman in 33 years. Hasay has gone three for three: running three major marathons and taking third at all of them—and at the 2017 Chicago Marathon, clocking the second-fastest U.S. time ever, 2:20:57.

Spring 2019 isn’t over yet (Kellyn Taylor, for example, is racing the Prague Marathon on Saturday to try to lower her best of 2:24:28), but after Sisson’s debut we need to take a second to appreciate this era we are witnessing in American women’s distance running:

Expectations have been redefined.

Molly Huddle, two-time Olympian and American record holder for 10,000 meters (30:13.17) and half marathon (1:07:25), also competed on Sunday in London. It was her fourth marathon and although she finished with a personal best of 2:26:33, she classified it as a bad day.

“I felt rough from 10K on—my legs were really achy,” she said. “I didn’t feel good.”

Huddle, 34, who, along with Sisson, is coached by Ray Treacy, came in with training that indicated she could finish in the 2:23 range. That didn’t come to fruition—but it’s worth noting that a 2:26:33 would have been the third-fastest on the 2016 Olympic Trials starting line (right now, it is seventh for 2020). The bar has been raised in a short period of time—already, 14 women qualified for the trials with sub-2:30 times. During the entire qualifying period for the 2016 trials (August 2013–January 2017), there were 10.

Huddle said she considered dropping out on Sunday, but realized that even on a sub-par day, her performance would still yield the 2020 Olympic standard, which is something athletes need beyond the U.S. trials standards to make it to Tokyo. Part of qualification for Team USA, in addition to a top-three finish in Atlanta, is to run 2:29:30 or place in the top 10 of a World Marathon Major between January 1, 2019 and June 29, 2020, according to a new system released in March by the International Athletics Associations Federation.

Teamwork continues to make the dreams work.

One bright spot Huddle identified despite her disappointment was that seeing her training partner’s success—in a debut performance, no less—gives her confidence.

“I know our training works and I can put that together on the next one,” Huddle wrote on Instagram.

It’s been well-documented that more U.S. women are benefitting from working together like Sisson and Huddle do. Formal and informal teams of distance runners are feeding off each other’s success, sharing the workloads during workouts, and feeling a new degree of comfort on the starting lines when they compete. After all, if you can hang with the best on training days, it’s reasonable to expect you can do so on race day, too.

Take Northern Arizona Elite, for example. Taylor won the 2018 Grandma’s Marathon last spring and dropped four minutes from her PR in the process. Her training partner Stephanie Bruce then ran her fastest (2:29:21) in December, at the California International Marathon. And another member of the team, Aliphine Tuliamuk, placed third at the Rotterdam Marathon in April, finishing in 2:26:50, taking more than six minutes off her previous best.

The teamwork takes many forms, too. Linden mentioned in her post-Boston comments in April that it feels a lot like competing for Team USA during the major marathons. She and Hasay, along with Sara Hall, chatted early in the race about strategy when eventual winner Worknesh Degefa of Ethiopia surged at mile five—Linden offering the sage advice to not waste energy covering every move in the first 13.1 miles.

At the California International Marathon, 98 women achieved their Olympic Trials qualifying times, which is another illustration of working together. When a large population of people who are prepared to achieve similar goals line up at the same races, some magic is going to happen.

The bench is getting deeper.

As Flanagan, who’s been contemplating retirement for a while, recovers from knee surgery and Linden is undecided about whether she’ll race the Olympic Trials, it’s satisfying to know that the U.S. has a growing roster of women who are poised to succeed on the world level—and some who already have or, like Huddle and Cragg, continue to do so.

Both 27 years old, Sisson and Hasay have already upped the ante considerably. But the list of young, emerging talent is also growing consistently. Tuliamuk is 30. Emma Bates, who won the 2018 CIM in her marathon debut (2:28:19), is 26. Lindsay Flanagan, who placed ninth at the 2019 Boston Marathon, is 28. And the number of marathoners will grow in 2021, when some of the stars of the 10,000 meters move up in distance, like Sisson and Hasay did after 2016.

“What a fun introduction to a new event,” Sisson wrote on Instagram, after finishing in London.

And what a fun time to be a fan of American women’s distance running, too.

The article includes reporting from WR contributors in London.

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