In the last few miles of the Olympic women’s marathon on Sunday, U.S. runner Molly Seidel saw an unexpected opening.
Three athletes were charging ahead in front of her, and Seidel had come to accept she’d miss the podium. But when Israel’s Lonah Chemtai Salpeter dropped out three miles from the finish line, a medal suddenly seemed within Seidel’s reach.
“You’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve dreamed of this my whole life.’ And this was the moment that you train for,“ she told VICE World News.
Seidel’s bronze finish made the 27-year-old runner the third American woman to medal at an Olympic marathon. But what was perhaps more extraordinary was that the Tokyo event was just Seidel’s third-ever marathon.
Originally a 10-kilometer specialist, Seidel only pivoted to marathon last year when injuries kept her from improving her times. To prepare for Paris 2024, she joined the U.S. Olympic team trials in Atlanta last February and ran her first-ever marathon. To her surprise, she finished second and qualified for the Tokyo Games. The only other marathon she ran was in London in October.
The transition to marathon was painful, she said. But for a competitive runner, overcoming the pain is part of the job.
“Running at this level, people think it gets easier when you’re a professional, like, ‘Oh, they do it all the time. But if anything, being a professional runner just means you’re able to handle huge amounts of pain and discomfort when you’re running. And that’s kind of what pushes you beyond,” she said.
Seidel attributed her Olympic success to patience.
“The marathon just being such a longer distance than other races, I feel like it just has stages to it. You have to learn to change with the race as it goes on,” she said.
“You almost have to be able to stay calm, more than anything. Because if you let your emotions get too high or too low, it could ruin your race, really. So, just having that patience to just sit and wait in the early miles, and prepare for it to get really, really hard at the end.”
Seidel first started running as a kid in the woody backyards and farmland of her 150-acre Wisconsin childhood home.
She started running competitively for her church in middle school. She raced Wisconsin state competitions in high school, which earned her a full ride to Notre Dame University, where she ran the 3,000 meters, 5,000 meters, and 10 kilometers for five years before turning pro in 2017.
In addition to controlling her emotions during a race, Seidel trained to build her body up like a “chassis.”
Before qualifying for the Olympics, she struggled to run 115 miles a week. Kenyan marathoner Catherine Ndereba, otherwise known as “Catherine the Great,” ran 75 to 100 miles a week and won silver at both the 2004 and 2008 Summer Games. But in the days leading up to the Tokyo games, Seidel was consistently averaging about 130 to 135 miles. She ran twice a day and also had two workouts a week, which included a day of race-pace running and one long run of about 20 to 24 miles. She also did daily strength training to prevent injury, as well as to build up her core and glute muscles.
But unlike most other athletes, Seidel doesn’t restrict her eating habits whatsoever. “I've struggled with eating disorders since I was a kid, and so a lot of it for me is actually making sure that I’m getting in enough calories,” she said.
She drinks beer throughout her training and eats sweets, so long as she’s consuming more than 4,000 calories a day. To prevent “bonking” during the race, or when a marathoner’s body runs out of fuel, she takes a carbohydrate drink.
But come race day, fitness is only part of the equation. Understanding pain and actively pushing against the desire to stop, Seidel said, are what help her break through difficult moments during a race.
“When you’re really hurting at the end of a race, and you’re so tired and you just want to stop, instead of looking at it as a negative thing of ‘Oh, my body's telling me to stop, back off,’ [I need to be] able to remember it’s supposed to hurt if I’m doing this right—and being OK with that and making peace with that,” Seidel said.
Just like the Innuit have 50 words for snow, Seidel explained, the marathoner has 50 words for pain. “It’s all the different kinds of fatigue. It’s the burn of a fast workout. And then there’s injury pain and learning to say, ‘My body needs to stop and rest now and heal.’ And differentiate that from ‘OK, I can push through this,’” she said.
After pushing through the third marathon of her life, Seidel broke down in happy tears when she watched her family celebrate her win in a video call. “We did it. I’m good. I’m so tired. Please drink a beer for me.”