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Molly Seidel and Sally Kipyego had vastly different experiences representing Team USA at the Tokyo Games. One came home with a medal—an unexpected performance of a lifetime. The other left Japan with a deep disappointment and a bit of depression. But both had a short window to cope with the aftermath and prepare to compete on Sunday at the 2021 New York City Marathon.
Seidel, the Olympic bronze medalist in the marathon, suddenly found herself at the center of attention. Everybody had a request for an interview or an appearance or an autograph—all opportunities she welcomed and was grateful for, but also found overwhelming to balance at times. Although she had come in second at the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials (her debut at the distance) to make her first Olympic team, she didn’t arrive in Tokyo with any heavy expectations placed on her. After all, at 27 years old and just two marathons deep into her career, Seidel didn’t seem to have the credentials yet to truly compete with the world’s best.
On paper, that might have been true. In Sapporo it couldn’t have been further from the truth. Seidel performed like a veteran under some of the worst marathon conditions possible—oppressive heat and humidity. Her podium finish was the pinnacle of achievement for a professional distance runner, but recovering from it and getting ready to compete at the New York City Marathon was challenging, she said on Thursday during the event’s press conference, which was the first time she’d been invited to speak with the media before a race.
“I have to admit, it was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. Originally, when we signed on to [New York], in my mind three months is like, ‘Oh that’s so much time,’” Seidel said. “And then with obviously everything that happened at the Games, just the emotional and physical toll coming off of that, it took a little bit longer to kind of get back into the swing of things.”
They had about 14 weeks between the two races, but because of the recovery the Games took, for Seidel, it turned into about a seven-week buildup. Although she’s based in Flagstaff, Arizona, Seidel, who’s openly shared her experiences with disordered eating, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, sought a little bit of peace back home with her parents in Wisconsin—a time to process the life-changing events and recenter herself with the support of her family.
“Being back home, I kind of needed that. We live in a really small town and so it was nice just kind of getting away from everything,” Seidel said. “It’s been a lot, with all the media stuff and just so much more attention. I guess that was probably the hardest part.”
Kipyego, 35, the 2012 silver medalist in the 10,000 meters, also turned to the comforts of home and her family. She placed 17th at the Olympics, which was far off the performance she had felt prepared for. The heat, she said, got the best of her that day. Instead of going back to her training base in Eugene, Oregon, she returned to her home in Kenya.
“The [two-year] effort and work that I had done leading up to that race was enormous. I felt like I was in the best shape of my life, period. I had never been that fit. And so when it blew up and it just went south, it was difficult for me to process,” Kipyego said. “When I came back from the Olympics, I would say I was slightly depressed.”
She took three weeks away from running, focusing her attention on gardening and her two children, Jerop (age 11) and Emma (age 4) with her husband, Kevin Chelimo.
“I would say thank God for children, because they do wonders to distract you sometimes when you’re feeling really low,” Kipyego said. “My kids were fantastic and I was around my family, so I completely forgot about running for a few weeks.”
And, like Seidel, when it was time to start training again, Kipyego gradually eased back into the routine.
“I came out of Tokyo really tired and fatigued from the heat and I just need more time to recover. I just had to go with it and make a judgement based on what my body was telling me,” Kipyego said. “If it told me I needed an extra day, that’s what I did. If I was running 20 miles and I got to 17 miles and I felt tired or fatigued or not feeling great, I just did 17 miles. We did a lot of adjusting like that.”
The duo, who both said they have emerged from their training cycles optimistic and feeling prepared to race well, will face a solid field, including 2021 marathon gold medalist Peres Jepchirchir, 28, of Kenya, who also has the fastest time, 2:17:16. Three other women have personal bests under 2:21: Ruti Aga of Ethiopia (2:18:35), Helalia Johannes, 41, of Namibia (2:19:52), and Ababel Yeshaneh, 30, of Ethiopia (2:20:51).
Kipyego (2:25:10) placed second in New York in 2016, later learning she had competed while four weeks pregnant with Emma. And Seidel (2:25:13) has proven over the past two years that she can compete with the world’s best even if she doesn’t have the fastest time on the list. New York, after all, is a place to race, not engage in a time trial.
“The reason that I don’t make race plans is because you don’t really know what other people are going to do. Peres could take it out super fast, like 2:17 pace, and realistically that’s just too fast for me,” Seidel said. “As long as I focus on being competitive, staying with a good pack, focusing on the effort that I could put out, I can come away from it putting out a good effort and knowing that I raced hard. At the end of the day that’s all you can control.”