This time, it was Molly Seidel's turn to unfurl an Olympic tearjerker
She just wouldn't go away on the streets of Sapporo, and she's got the tools and panache to stick around for a long time yet
Molly Seidel isn’t the first female American marathoner to earn an Olympic medal. But consider how precious a feat landing on that podium is, regardless of country of origin. Only thirty Olympic Women’s Marathon medals have been awarded in all, with just four athletes collecting more than one and none yet repeating as champion. Twenty-five of history’s twenty-six Olympic Women’s Marathon medalists are still alive, with only Grete Waitz, stolen by cancer ten years ago at 57, no longer around to cheer and celebrate the rest. And she would have.
I watched the first Olympic Women’s Marathon on television in 1984, mainly because I was watching most of those Olympics anyway. I was soon to begin the ninth grade, and not expecting to play any sports that school year. In what the network announcers unhesitatingly called a risky, even suicidal gambit, a woman from a neighboring state moved into a big lead by herself at around three miles and stayed there.
As I observed the slow-motion drama of this runner—who at 27 had already undergone a fucking knee operation that year thanks to this habit—slowly being broiled toward exhaustion along with her distant pursuers on those shade-free, ass-awful L.A. freeways, it occurred to me how strange it was that women had been running and winning their division of the Boston Marathon for years, yet this was the inaugural Olympic version just for them. I didn’t then follow running, of course, but almost every station on my New Hampshire-based television was a Boston station, and I couldn’t help but absorb some of the extensive annual coverage of the city’s April marathon as I waited for baseball or basketball scores to come on the screen. So why was what I was now seeing an Olympic first? I assumed the rest of the world’s backwardness had something to do with this, and for years gave the matter little further thought. (Remember, I was 14.)
Most people reading this know who that American woman was and the outcome of her “reckless” early move. In what was possibly a coincidence—really, I’d have to ask my mom—I wound up going out for cross-country within the next two weeks, with no prior jogging experience. (Some readers may also recall The Complete Book of Running author Jim Fixx dying of a heart attack during a run in Vermont shortly before those Olympics. This event also wasn’t part of my inspiration, but I did own a copy of Fixx’s book within a year.)
Thirty-seven years and nine summer Olympics later, as I watched a telephoto-lens version of Molly Seidel run in my general direction for the better part of two hours, I got the same impression from I often get while watching tiny, compact women effectively race long distances from that angle: She was never going get to tired, at least not while it mattered, as long as she kept doing exactly what she was doing anytime I looked. Her silhouetted form was like that of a young kid chasing the family dog across the yard, all snap and bounce and endless energy in those loose, somehow independently joyful limbs.
The thing is, Seidel—while elfin by everyday-citizen standards—is not tiny, or at least not short, especially for an elite marathon runner: She’s 5’ 5”. That she gives the impression of taking up little vertical or horizontal space while in superbly economical motion—even as many of her competitors manage to take up still less—is to me a cardinal sign of a born marathoner. Plug in the right training and the right mindset, and you have a wondrously efficient machine that can maintain turnover with uncommon ease and skitter along with alacrity for as long as the race requires, maybe longer. Or so it sure looks.
Always among the leaders, at times the nominal leader, Seidel, despite the roasting and rising heat, gave the race-long impression that the hardest part was already over, rather than about to come. Every time she successfully found a sleeve of shade to glide through on the Sapporo streets that her competitors were ignoring, it seemed like she had landed a silent blow against those who would scuttle her medal chances with their annoyingly superior credentials and, if we’re honest, endurance. Even though the eventual gold and silver medalists looked at every stage as if they had plenty left—and damn those nose-breathers, they did—Seidel appeared to be by far the least distracted athlete in the field. It was almost as though she ran the last two hours slowly visualizing nothing but the finish line coming into view, while others were inevitably exchanging words or bottles or glum comments about American mzungus who just kept hanging around the front, inexplicably as can be.
Seidel’s personal best entering the Olympic Marathon, her third attempt at 26.2 miles, was 2:25:13. That made her only the 155th-fastest woman marathoner just since the last Olympics and the 299th-fastest in history. Realistically, Seidel wasn’t even a world-class runner until yesterday. She had no reasonable chance of a medal against the women she was racing—an assortment of, let’s say, “unfettered” talent that included a Namibian who ran 2:19:52 at age 40 in December.
But now that she’s an Olympic bronze medalist anyway, it’s a good opportunity to look at why her result combined with her public profile imply that she’ll be a 2:20-2:21 marathoner before long.
Seidel has been frank, irreverently so, about her history of eating disorders and related challenges stemming from internal noises and voices that demand more and better no matter what the fuck you give them. Scads of top-class endurance athletes toil under the lash of such static, but it helps to have Seidel’s approach. She’s tough, but she seems to acknowledge clearly that certain gifts come packaged with certain costs, and she doesn’t claim to have been battered around by macabre influences or influencers.
An eating disorder is not a demon that can be exorcised from one’s internal operating environment with some triumphant burst of self-realization, any more than taking specific aim at male coaches will purge competitive running of the whole spectrum of nutritional derangements. It is more like a pain-in-the-ass, ADHD-addled sibling, the kind who always cut corners to get ahead as a kid and now wonders why they’re mired in job- and spouse-jumping as a besotted but energetic adult.
Your siblings don’t go away even when they’re not the best people and certainly not good advisors. They drag you down at inopportune times and make you wonder why ever fucking try, at running or anything else, since all they are is an albatross on your life and an anchor on smoother societal functioning for everyone. But like as not, they’re not going to either disappear or morph into positive influences. It’s best instead to just learn to deal with the routine squawking, even after years of sound and proud behavior, and the haphazard suggestions from your personal Shitty Committee to just toss every rational plan into the weeds and ride the Id wherever it goes. So it is with any addiction, but eating disorders are a special case because of the ineluctable ubiquity of both the need to self-nourish and your own physical body.
My idea about Seidel’s future—and yeah, I understand she could quit the sport now and be something of a legend as well as a success, and that she should bask in this one at least until her core temperature drops below 100 °F—is predicated on the idea that, while she recorded some solid times and placings in college, she was being held back more than people realize despite her candor about her own journey. After all, the common thinking goes, if someone wins a collegiate 10,000-meter title, how bad can things have really been for the athlete at the time, medically speaking?
They can be bad. Especially when you’re in college. And being able to manage the impulsive behaviors underlying an eating disorder, with no illusions of winking the triggering thoughts into nonexistence entirely, can make an enormous difference. Leaving out the nontrivial issue of my binge-drinking, one of the reasons I didn’t record my fastest times until my early to mid-thirties despite training and racing with few breaks since age 14 was that I was unable to consistently break certain habits until then. And like Seidel, I have no idea what kind of “slips” might be in my future. But apart from the obvious fact of someone splitting 1:15:14-1:12:32 on a blistering day plainly having a much faster race in her on a cool day, the combination of more consistent good nutrition and the confidence that comes from treating yourself with care and compassion—which is not divorced from wanting to be as badass a runner as possible—can take minutes off a revitalized sufferer’s time in a longer race. And most important, at least for everyday yutzes, it makes the whole pursuit more fun and more worth the effort.
Molly Seidel doesn’t have to run 2:21 to remain one of my favorite runners of her generation. She’s fucking amazing. But I bet she will, and I may even be underselling her capabilities, depending—or perhaps not—on what Saucony has rolled out for a marathon flat.
It seems a strange thing to want to thank an Olympian for delivering a terrific performance when doing exactly that has been her overriding, even sole concern for years on end. But when someone running down a paved road in Asia makes you cry, not over a medal or really a result but over the totality of the life trip that allowed it, how else can anyone feel? I never got close to the Olympic level, but because my and Seidel’s fastest times are similar—even if the environments producing them were vastly different—and because I know what even a nobody must push through just to generate the basic conditions for marathon success, much less a public figure, I felt nothing but savage happiness for Seidel yesterday. There is often no forgiveness in running, but there are formulas for smoothing out personal rough spots, and at 26, Seidel has captured hers.
Thank you, Molly Seidel, for being the most superhuman human being in running right now, and for reminding me in that role that devastating mental obstacles, some with their own human-like tenacity, are worth navigating. And winning a bronze medal yesterday didn’t start that idea, or that reality; it only helped continue it.
(Note: The original version of this post wrongly identified Seidel’s sponsor, which is most definitely Puma, in the photo caption.)
Brilliant, and congratulations to Ms. Seidel's amazing feat in all aspects of win and life. Having been captive with an eating disorder or loving to run so much that it compromised my skeletal system, I would urge every young women in this arena to have a DEXA test to confirm that your excesses are not compromising your physical body. Your health in every aspect is what will continue your successes throughout your life.
really like this post. thanks.