Molly Seidel is learning to roll with all the unusual circumstances that have shaped her professional running career so far. The latest? Twenty laps in front of Buckingham Palace, on a biosecure 26.2-mile course.
Seidel, 26, placed second (2:27:31) in February at the Olympic Marathon Trials, her debut at the 26.2-mile distance. But just after the shock of her performance (somewhat) subsided, the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. The Tokyo Games were postponed until July 2021. Her home base of Boston was essentially shut down and she learned to cope with wearing a mask while continuing to train.
What was she training for, though? That question has vexed most runners while road racing opportunities have been diminished, thanks to the novel coronavirus. That’s why Seidel says she was especially thrilled to get a call eight weeks ago letting her know that the London Marathon had a spot for her in the bubble.
The marathon was originally scheduled for April 26, but officials announced a revised plan for October 4—an elite-only race with strict health and safety protocols before, during, and after the event. Athletes are tested for COVID-19 before traveling and upon arrival to London, prior to checking in at a hotel reserved just for runners and their support crews. The race itself is closed to spectators, run primarily on a 1.3-mile loop in St. James’s Park.
Though small, the men’s and women’s fields are packed with the best talent in the world. On the women’s side, Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei, the world record holder (2:14:04) is the headliner and she is joined by three other women who have run faster than 2:20. Along with Seidel, American Sara Hall (2:22:16) is also scheduled to race. The men’s race is a hugely anticipated matchup between Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, the world record holder in the marathon (2:01:39), and Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, 10,000-meter world record holder (26:17.53).
Seidel’s young career has been anything but typical. An NCAA cross-country and 10,000-meter champion from the University of Notre Dame, she struggled in her transition to the professional ranks after graduating in 2016, battling an eating disorder, anxiety, and depression, which she recently wrote about for ESPN.
“I still struggle: I relapse and I actively deal with the ups and downs that come with chronic OCD, depression and anxiety,” Seidel wrote. “It’s not something that a nice tidy bow—like the Olympic Trials or even the Olympics—can disguise.”
Her first consistent stint of training, after treatment and after recovering from several injuries, began in 2019, just five months before the Trials. Now, with a year of mostly healthy running under her, Seidel says she’s relying on new confidence to race to her potential in London and next summer in Tokyo.
Seidel spoke with Women’s Running by phone on Wednesday about her training and goals for the London Marathon.
Women’s Running: It’s hard to believe that this is only your second marathon. How was training for 26.2 miles different this time around, apart from navigating a pandemic?
Molly Seidel: First off, the timing is very different. I only found out eight weeks before that I was going to be able to race the London Marathon. With the Trials, we almost had the opposite problem, because I was originally supposed to do the Houston Marathon [in January], so we had an extra six weeks until the Trials [in February]. It’s been very different, but really nice to have the opportunity to go through another marathon training cycle.
We were flying by the seat of our pants the first time—I only had five months of consistent training under my belt back then and I didn’t know what I would be physically capable of doing. I was struggling for so many workouts. It was tough. So many times I’d finish my second run and just lay on the driveway and think, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this.”
Now I’m a little bit more confident and at the very least I have a slightly better idea of what marathon training is like. It’s come with challenges, like training in quarantine, but more than anything I’m glad to go through all of this at least once before training for Tokyo.
WR: In a condensed buildup, did you change the weekly mileage you were trying to hit or the workouts you were doing?
MS: A lot of the workouts we were trying to hit were the same things we had done in the buildup to Atlanta. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. We knew what worked well for me. In terms of mileage, we didn’t jump all that much. I maxed out around 120 [miles per week] before Atlanta and I’ve been able to manage that more consistently this time. I was all over the map before Atlanta, like a week at 120 followed by a week at 109, then a week at 115, then a week at 105. This time I’ve just managed more consistency which I think comes from a bit more experience. I had a pretty good base and more strength to go off of, I guess. Right now I’m feeling like I could benefit from an extra three weeks or so, but this is the situation and we’re going to make the most of it.
WR: Is there a workout that gives you confidence? Anything that you liked doing before Atlanta and wanted to do again?
MS: One that I really enjoyed doing that we got in just under the wire—it was my last workout—we call float-and-push miles. Basically the run averages your goal marathon pace, with one mile slightly faster than marathon pace and one mile easing up. You do that for 10 miles. You practice some lactate flushing, you practice running at a variety of paces. That’s one that’s hard and mentally challenging, but I enjoy doing it.
WR: What was it like for you as an athlete during quarantine?
MS: I feel like there were phases of it. There was the initial very scary phase when we didn’t know if we’d be able to leave our apartment, when there was no food in the grocery stores and we could barely go outside. Boston has gotten a lot better since then and more has opened up. The spring and summer came with a lot of challenges, but I feel lucky that as a marathoner, I’m not restricted to training on a track and it’s not that big of a deal if I can’t get into the weight room. I still got in decent training, though I had some ups and downs with it.
We know that we have the Olympic race a year from now, so everything between now and then, everything we do is to prepare for that race. Even with all the uncertainty and not knowing if I’d get to race in the fall, as long as I’ve been preparing as well as possible for Tokyo, if and hopefully when that happens, that’s what I’ve grounded myself with.
WR: How did the option to do this elite-only race in London come up and why did you take it?
MS: My agent had told me it might be a possibility but didn’t want me to get my hopes up. I was just like, “I will do whatever I have to do to get into that race.” There are so few racing opportunities right now, it was something I really wanted to focus on. I’m so inexperienced at the marathon, so I wanted to get another race in and learn as much as I can before next summer. We didn’t know what it would look like, just that it wouldn’t be the London Marathon as it normally is.
The questions I had to ask myself were: Am I OK with a full quarantine beforehand? Am I OK if it’s potentially 20 laps around St. James Park in the middle of London? And I said, “I will literally run in circles for however long I have to. I don’t care. I’ll do anything I have to.”
So we got the news at the end of July. I got the text from my agent and I literally dropped my phone because I was so excited. Then it was a short time to prepared, so we were like, “Let’s go,” and I planned my [high altitude training] trip to Flagstaff. We were like, “Let’s do the shortest marathon buildup ever. Let’s do it.” It’s been a wild ride, but that’s what it’s like in a pandemic.
WR: What precautions are the race officials taking related to COVID-19 and do you have any fears related to travel or worries about your health?
MS: I personally don’t have any anxiety related to travel. I’ve flown a number of times through the pandemic. I take full precautions. I’m masked up, disinfecting everything. Obviously it comes with some risk, but if you want to compete you have to be willing to accept a level of risk in this. I think London has done a fabulous job with the precautions. They’ve been very strict. I just went in for COVID test. I have to get tested before I leave, with proof, and then we’re tested when we arrive before we enter the hotel, which is essentially a biosecure bubble. It’s kind of similar to what the NBA has done. We’re all housed in a hotel where there’s 40 acres to train on for the week before the race. You’re not allowed to be within six feet of anybody in the hotel. Apparently we’ll be given sensors that go off if you get too close, which sounds absolutely wild.
Then we race 20 laps, with no spectators allowed. It’s very contained. And when we finish, we have to get right out. We can’t stay. It’s different than a typical London Marathon experience, but Atlanta was such a different marathon experience, too, I don’t know any better. It’s just how it’s going to be.
WR: Given all these circumstances, with so many variables that we normally don’t have to consider when we’re running a marathon, what are your primary objectives for this one? What will a successful experience look like for you, given the circumstances?
MS: Given the abbreviated buildup and everything going on, plus it’s going to be a very fast, very competitive, very different situation from Atlanta—which played to my strengths as a hilly and tactical race—this is just going to be, frankly, balls to the wall. It’s going to be ripping laps around St. James’s Park.
I definitely don’t want to sell myself short. I have confidence in the training and work that I put in and myself as an athlete, but I also have to be realistic. I mean, [marathon world record holder] Brigid Kosgei is in the race and so are other women who have run sub-2:20. I’m a very inexperienced marathoner and I’m not going to lie to myself. I want to be realistic and understand I’m very young in this. I still have a long way to go in my training and learning how to do this. I’m going to race to the best of my ability and know that there are some women who are going to be really fast and way out front. I have to be OK with that and run my own race.
I’m using this as a chance to learn about the marathon and progress. I just feel a deep sense of gratitude to be able to do this race and have a year of running healthy, which I haven’t been able to do for a long time. I have to pay my dues at the marathon distance. I’m thankful and grateful that Atlanta was just about as perfect a marathon as I could hope for, but I realize that I’m not always going to get the golden days. But if you put in the work and show up to the start line, anything can happen on the day. I’ve done what I can and now it’s all up to God.
WR: Are you going in with any concrete goals as far as time or place are concerned?
MS: My biggest goal is to be able to go hard and be competitive, stay with a pack, and truly race. I don’t want to feel like I’m giving up. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a time-based goal. I think there are a lot of women there who will be running around the paces I’d like to go for, so I’m going to try to stick with them. The goal is when the going gets tough, I want to know that I hung on no matter what my time ends up being. It’s the same mentality I took at the Trials—whether I was in second place or 15th place, I was just trying to race as hard as I could and fight for every place I could.
WR: Those short loops are something. How have you mentally prepared for going around and around?
MS: It was nice in Atlanta with the eight-mile loops, because it broke the race down into thirds. So, 20 laps is going to present its own set of challenges. I think coming from a background of racing track 5Ks and 10Ks, where it’s a lot of laps, it’s the same mentality. It’s going to monotonous without cheering crowds or the glitz and glamour of big-city marathons, but I have raced 25 laps on a track in Jacksonville, Florida, for NCAA regionals, where it’s hot and miserable. It’s the same mentality of just grinding it out. I am prepared for that time in the race where it’s going to absolutely suck. I’m ready for it. We just have to push through it, regardless.
WR: You’ve never run a marathon with an international field, either, so I imagine this is a bonus before you race the Olympics?
MS: This is really next-level. Atlanta was an insanely competitive race, but London is even more so. You’ve got the world record holder and all these women who have run such fast times. These are the big dogs now. I’m not going to put them on a pedestal because they are my competitors, but also I’m realistic. They’ve run seven to 10 minutes faster than me, so I’m not going to be an idiot or trying to think that I’m better than I am. I’m respecting the distance, the competition, and my own body. I am trying to be realistic, but also cautiously optimistic.
WR: Are there mistakes you made in Atlanta that you’re working to correct in London?
MS: Nutrition is an easy one for me. I did not practice going into the Trials. Frankly, in my position as one of the “B” qualifiers [Seidel qualified for the Trials by running a half marathon in 1:09:35], not knowing if I’d have access to personal bottles, I didn’t practice because I figured I’d just take the orange [sports drink] on the course and carry a gel. So when I did get to have bottles that day, I wasn’t sponsored by Maurten at the time but I was using it, and I put the wrong concentration in my bottle. I needed to double it. I’ve practiced taking in my carbs and taking in fuel more consistently so I have energy throughout the race. I was really struggling those last couple miles of the Olympic Trials. I want to be a little more methodical and practice, rather than just taking a bottle whenever. That’s not a super smart way to approach a marathon.
WR: What are you looking forward to after the London race is over?
MS: I’ll go back to Boston and definitely take a break, give my body time to recover. We have no idea what racing will look like afterward, so I’m all-in on London right now. I’m looking forward to being back in Boston with my sister and our friends there, just being in town for a nice New England fall. With COVID, you can’t vacation anywhere and I’m gone so much from Boston that I really enjoy my time there, when I can enjoy the community, my friends, and just being in the city. I value time at home.