Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series leading up to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, highlighting the top athletes contending for the U.S. Olympic team. You can find the rest of our coverage here.
At the end of her second-ever marathon training segment, Emily Sisson is still trying to figure a few things out, not unlike the rest of us—the best pre-race breakfast to eat, the shoes she’s going to wear, and when, exactly, might be a good time to make a decisive move at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
But don’t let her rookie status fool you. In her first 26.2-miler in April in London, she set a record for the fastest American debut in history on a record-eligible course. She finished in 2:23:08, just off Jordan Hasay’s debut of 2:23:00 at the 2017 Boston Marathon (which is not a record-eligible course).
Sisson, who is based in Phoenix, has some key support on her side in training partner Molly Huddle (who’s also competing on February 29 at the Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta) and coach Ray Treacy, who also coached her to three NCAA titles at Providence College.
She comes into her first crack at making the U.S. Olympic Marathon team with the third-fastest time, behind Hasay (2:20:57) and Sara Hall (2:22:16). The top three will go on to compete at the Tokyo Games—and Sisson is squarely in contention to do just that.
“We’re still trying to figure out what works best for me, but I think it was similar to the London buildup in terms of the quality of work that I put in, so that’s good,” Sisson said. “The perfectionist in me and a lot of runners is that we want perfect, ideal buildups, but there’s always going to be hiccups here and there. We just wanted to get in three months of uninterrupted training—good quality work—and that’s what we were able to do.”
Olympic Trials Qualifying Time: 2:23:08 (2019 London Marathon)
Marathon PR: 2:23:08 (2019 London Marathon)
Peak weekly mileage: 120 miles
Favorite workout: The basic tempo (around 12 miles faster than marathon race pace) and long runs are Sisson’s favorite, probably because they are the biggest diversion from the track speed workouts she’s used to. The long runs are anywhere from 20 to 24 miles—she’ll often try to run hard in the second half.
“I think it’s because Ray gives me a general time to hit, but it’s also based on feel,” she said. “In track workouts, you’re just trying to hit the splits and check those boxes. In tempos and long runs, I get to go off feel a little more, so I like that.”
Best part of training for the Olympic Trials: The past three months “are almost a blur” Sisson said, but she felt like most of her workouts were neither “really amazing” or “really bad, either.”
Worst part of the training for the Olympic Trials: Any time she had to push a training session off or delay it due to not feeling well or because the weather wasn’t cooperating (that actually happens in Phoenix on occasion).
“I’m pretty good at making that decision—it’s okay if something’s not feeling right to skip an evening run or cross-train,” she said. “But any time I’ve had to do that, the stress of feeling, ‘Oh no, is what I’m feeling a big deal? Or not really?’ Luckily, nothing’s been a big deal, but you still wrestle with it.”
Best piece of advice or encouragement given: It’s not one training cycle that decides your fate—or the race.
“I was a little stressed before this buildup began—I just wanted to get it going,” Sisson said. “But somebody told me that it’s the weeks, months, and years I’ve put into training before this training cycle even started that matters, too. I like that big-picture approach.”
Taper tantrums: While Sisson had been looking forward to tapering about three weeks ago, now that the wind-down period is here, she’s not that thrilled about it.
“I don’t like it. The hardest part of marathon training is training so hard for so long and not getting to race,” she said. “I get kind of impatient. Now that the taper is here I want more time and also don’t know what to do with all this energy. The work is done, now I just need to absorb it all, stay healthy, and try not to overthink anything.”
Pre-race superstition or good luck routine: The only consistent thing Sisson is sure to do before a race is, “don’t try anything new.”
Race-day shoes: “I haven’t decided yet—they’ll be New Balance, though.”
Looking forward to most on race day: Sisson feels like she’s been working toward the day for so long, she’s simply looking forward to the start.
“I’m just excited for the gun to go off and getting started,” she said.
Dreading on race day: The few days before the race, when the suspense is building along with the hype, isn’t Sisson’s favorite part. She’ll work to keep the nerves calm.
“Of course, it also gives me that adrenaline rush, so it has a purpose,” she said.
Impressions of the Olympic Marathon Trials course: The course was changed after so many athletes qualified to run and Sisson ran on it before those alteration took place.
“I know most of it but some parts I’m not familiar with—I heard they took out the part that I liked least, though,” she said. “I’m hoping it’s not as bad as I remember. The hardest part was the last two miles of the race, which is not really where you want the hardest part of a marathon to be. You need to have something left at the end.”
Support crew in Atlanta: Sisson’s parents, her husband, Shae Quinn, and her best friend, Shelby Goose, who also qualified to compete, and other friends who live in Atlanta.
Morning routine for a late start time: She’s always been more of a get-up-and-go kind of morning runner, so she’ll try to stay on Mountain Time so it feels more like her normal routine.
“I don’t love waiting around to start a marathon,” Sisson said.
Olympic Trials breakfast fuel: Toast with peanut butter and banana and a cup of coffee is Sisson’s go-to, but when she ran the London Marathon she tried to eat a few more carbs with oatmeal and fruit.
“That was the hardest part of the marathon for me because I had never done it before,” she said. “It’s all new to me and I’m still playing around with it.”
Race-day mantra: She doesn’t pre-plan any mantras, but when she hits rough patches she tries to keep negative thoughts at bay. She’ll point out (to herself) what’s going well, like, “You feel strong. You feel good.”
“I’ll focus on form, too, and say things to myself like, ‘lift your knees, pump your arms,’” Sisson said. “Or, ‘get to the next water bottle.’ Just something encouraging.”
Walk-up song, if you had one as a pro runner: “Shake It Out,” by Florence + the Machine
Slow and strategic or fast and furious: She can see it going either way—she knows that some of her competitors may take it out hard from the start and others who might push beginning at the half marathon point.
“I’m prepared for either,” she said. “I don’t have one that I prefer.”
How she’ll know that she did everything she could, even if she doesn’t make the team: Coming into the race, Sisson already knows that she’s done everything she can do.
“Top three is definitely the goal and if I fall short, I’ll definitely be upset,” she said. “But I know that I’ve done everything I could up to this point. I’m still so new to the marathon I feel like I’m still trying to learn how to run it. All you can ask for is to run to your potential.”
Celebration beverage of choice: Get this woman some French fries and a beer, stat.