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Emily Sisson wasn’t sure she’d ever come back to the track after she turned her attention to the marathon. And her body wasn’t so sure it wanted to, either.
In her first 26.2-mile race at the 2019 London Marathon, she finished in 2:23.08, the fastest American women’s debut on a record-eligible course. Then she focused on the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials, but after the race didn’t go well for her (she dropped out after 21 miles on the unrelenting hills of Atlanta), it was back to the oval for another chance to make Team USA in the 10,000 meters.
“It took my body a really long time to feel pretty good again after the marathon Trials,” she says. “Getting my track legs back took a while. It wasn’t really until 2021 that I started to feel that pep in my step. Now I feel like a track runner again.”
In one of her recent races, at the Sound Running meet in May, she came away with a personal best in the 5,000 meters (14:53.84).
“The first track race I ran back in March, it felt rusty to me and foreign because I hadn’t raced on the track in 18 months,” Sisson says. “That was just a good introduction. It took me a little while. At the Sound Running meet I actually didn’t feel that great. I felt heavy from altitude training, but it was still a PR, which was really promising.”
On June 26 she competes in the 10,000 meters, which is scheduled to be split into two heats because so many women qualified to compete. The fastest three times go on to the Tokyo Games (if they also have achieved the Olympic standard of 31:25). Her Trials qualifying time of 30:49.57 is the third-fastest of those who plan to compete, behind Elise Cranny (30:47.42) and Karissa Schweizer (30:47.99).
“The talent in the women’s 10K is really deep and I think it’s exciting in a way, because it pushes all of us to perform and try to get to that next level,” Sisson says. “I feel like there are 10 people who could make this team. I’m confident in the training I’ve done, but respectful of the field.”
Hometown: Phoenix, Arizona
Event/PR: 10,000 meters (30:49.57)
Training tip: It’s a good feeling when you can look back at six months of training and see no big holes or gaps due to injuries.
“Obviously things can be out of your control, but when I feel like I’ve done every workout on the schedule, I’ve put in weeks and weeks of hard, good quality training, that give me the most confidence,” Sisson says.
Favorite workout: True to her marathon-ing nature, Sisson loves a good, long tempo run. She runs 2 x 4 miles or 2 x 5 miles, off the track and either along the canal paths in Phoenix or bike paths in Providence, Rhode Island.
“Instead of checking splits every 200 or 400 meters, I’m really dialed into how my body feels,” she says. “I really enjoy that.”
Sage advice: Coming out of college, Sisson worked with a sport psychologist who helped her work on tuning out all the hype and noise around big races. It wasn’t causing additional pressure, but Sisson found it distracting.
“She told me to be the eye of the storm. You can be aware of all this noise and all the hype going on around you because at the end of the day, it’s good for the sport, but it doesn’t need to affect you,” Sisson says. “It’s just there. It’s just noise.”
The worst part of race day: The marathon happens in the morning. The 10,000 meters happens at night, usually.
“My sport psych also taught me to write down a race-day schedule, which I thought sounded silly,” Sisson says. “But then I started doing it and I would write backwards from the race start. So throughout the day whenever I feel bored or not sure what I’m doing, I just look down and can see, ‘Oh, it’s time for a shake-out run,’ or whatever.”
The best part of race day: Racing is the best part of race day, obviously.
“It’s when I feel most present and I just love it,” she says. “The nerves and everything kind of dissipate once it starts.”
Trials success (aside from the obvious goal of making Team USA): Sisson struggled a lot after the Olympic Marathon Trials didn’t go well. It was tough to walk away from it after not finishing the race.
“I want to know that I did everything I could, especially in this buildup knowing I gave it my best effort,” she says. “I can move on to the next thing or keep preparing and feel content.”
Last words to herself on the starting line: Sisson doesn’t say much to herself on the starting line, but she uses cues on the track, like “my body knows what to do.”
“The splits can sound intimidating, but I tell myself that I’ve been able to run them in practice. It takes some pressure off a bit because you’re like, ‘Oh right, I’ve done this a bunch.’”
Pandemic pastimes: Sisson filled a lot of time reading, especially during the hot Phoenix summer. She and her husband also took their two dogs on some road trips north to Flagstaff and west to San Diego.
“Not having to be away from the dogs was nice, actually,” she says.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series leading up to the 2021 U.S.A. Track & Field Olympic Trials, highlighting many of the top athletes contending for the U.S. Olympic team. You can find all of our coverage here.