Feature09 May 2022

Big goals, balance, self-belief: The rise of U.S. women’s marathoning


Sara Hall - Next Stop Oregon (© WCH Oregon22)

Molly Seidel, Sara Hall, and Emma Bates are part of a generational shift in American women’s marathoning.
It’s a special time in the United States for women’s distance running and, specifically, the marathon.  
Molly Seidel’s bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics marked a high point for the United States as she captured Team USA’s first Olympic medal in the women’s marathon in 17 years. That moment in Sapporo, Japan, was the culmination of a patient progression for Seidel — who nearly gave up the sport after a decorated prep and collegiate career — and for American women — who only returned to prominence in recent years after Deena Kastor’s bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics. 
With the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 scheduled to take place in Oregon this summer, the stage is set for the American women to contend with the world’s best in their own backyard. 
At those Championships, Seidel will be joined by Sara Hall, the former American record holder in the half-marathon and runner-up in the 2020 London Marathon, and Emma Bates, runner-up in the 2021 Chicago Marathon. 
“To be able to do a World Champs in the U.S. with women like Sara Hall and Emma Bates, it’s just one of those things where you know that you’re going for something bigger than yourself,” Seidel said.

A chance at history in Oregon: ‘We can do this’ 
When Amy Cragg earned the bronze medal at the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London, she was the first American woman to medal in the marathon at the World Championships since Marianne Dickerson’s silver at the inaugural 1983 Championships.  
In the streets of Eugene and Springfield, the American trio will have a chance at adding to that legacy. 
At 27 years old, Seidel has already found herself in rarified company as the third American woman to medal at the Olympics in the marathon alongside Kastor and Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won gold in the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon in 1984. 
“I think my medal, if anything, was the next logical step of what has been happening,” Seidel said. “Deena (Kastor) and Shalane (Flanagan) and all these guys, they really broke through and showed, ‘OK, we can do this.’” 
Flanagan, now a coach for the Bowerman Track Club since retiring from competition, joined her former teammate Cragg in raising the bar for American marathoners when she ended a 40-year U.S. title drought at the New York City Marathon by winning it in 2017. In 2018, Des Linden became the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon since 1985.  
Bates cites Linden as a major influence in her running, years before she made her own 26.2-mile debut. 
“When (Des) took second at the Boston Marathon (in 2011), that’s when I was like, ‘Holy cow,’” Bates said. “I loved the way that she went about training and grinding away and having the patience. She knew it was going to take her five years to get really good.  
“She wasn’t that stellar in high school or college, so I was really inspired by (the fact that) you don’t have to be an amazing, national-caliber athlete to work really hard and put in the time in order to get to a place in the marathon of being really, really great.” 
Bates, now 29, won the 2014 NCAA title in the 10,000 meters for Boise State (one year before Seidel would win for Notre Dame), but did not have immediate success on the track professionally. In 2018, buoyed by Linden’s gritty victory in Boston, Bates won the California International Marathon in her debut at the distance. 
“When she took first in the Boston Marathon, that was something that completely changed the mindset for me,” Bates said. “We can, as American female distance athletes, go and win these things. Her performances are always very inspiring because she doesn’t race a lot, she doesn’t do a lot of the shorter things, but when it comes to the marathon, she just always performs really well, and has the patience and longevity. That’s how I want to model my career.” 
Hall, the veteran of the group, actually sees Seidel as a role model. 
“Watching Molly medal in Sapporo was super inspiring,” Hall said. “I have gotten to know Molly a little bit in Flagstaff (Arizona) and see some of her process before that race, so it inspired me that you don’t necessarily have to have a perfect buildup to do something incredible.  
“It was awesome to see her poise and execution out there and seizing an opportunity when others who had run 7-plus minutes faster than her in the marathon crumbled. I always remember that when I line up and the field is loaded on paper, that rarely is how it all shakes out — you always have a chance to win the race or get on the podium, no matter who’s in the race.” 
Balance is key to success  
At 38, Hall is peers with Flanagan, Linden, and Cragg — the generation ahead of Seidel and Bates. Both Linden and Hall are still at it, and Hall has gotten better as she’s gotten older.  
An Olympic Trials competitor in every event from the 1,500m to the marathon, Hall is a versatile athlete who has improved from a 2:48:02 debut at the 2015 Los Angeles Marathon at age 31 (she lowered her time to 2:31 in Chicago later that year) to 2:20:32, the third-fastest time in U.S. history, at the Marathon Project in 2020. In January, she had her most impressive performance yet, clocking 1:07:15 to break the American record at the Houston Half Marathon. That mark has since been eclipsed by Emily Sisson, who ran 1:07:11 at the USATF Half Marathon Championships in Indianapolis on May 7. 
Hall has done it all while adopting four sisters from Ethiopia in 2015 with her husband, Ryan Hall, a former professional marathoner, and her coach. Ryan Hall holds the U.S. men’s marathon record, set at the 2011 Boston Marathon. 
“It’s a constant challenge to do everything I need to to compete at the highest level and be very focused on myself while also being focused on them and being selfless,” Hall said of balancing 100-plus mile training weeks with motherhood. “It’s a juggle, it’s being intentional with what the focus is in the moment, and also different seasons throughout the year. But I deal with mom guilt at times, and other times, I wish I could be more dialed in or make a different choice that aligned with my athletic goals.” 
Hall is also working to raise awareness and funds for homeless girls in Ethiopia through The Hall Steps Foundation, her nonprofit created with husband Ryan. As Hall wrote in an Instagram post on International Women’s Day, life for her daughters might have meant losing access to education or being forced into marriage at a young age had they not been adopted. Their strength inspires her in all aspects of life. 
“They’ve overcome a lot of trauma and are very resilient in how they’ve processed it,” she said. “They have a strong faith that has helped this process and they inspire me in (that), despite all they’ve gone through, they don’t lose their faith in God’s goodness.” 
Hall was part of a record-setting day in Houston, as Keira D’Amato broke the American record in the marathon in 2:19:12. D’Amato is 37, and also balances elite running with parenting two young children. 
Bates said the successes of Hall and D’Amato has her wondering if the demands of motherhood creates a healthier relationship with running. 
“There's so many women (who) have children and have all these other things going on in their life and other aspirations, and so it's not just so running-focused,” Bates said. “Women have proven that they run better the older they get, and I think the older you get, the wiser, you get the balance that you realize that you need.” 
Bates has seen firsthand that she needs balance in her life to run and compete well. 
“When I first started running, it was because I had so much fun with it,” she said. “I lost sight of that for many years, basically, until just a few years ago. I just want my younger self to know you don’t need to take it so seriously; the less serious you take it, the better it will go, really.” 
Seidel — whose “well-behaved marathoners seldom make history” riff on the classic quote is sold on T-shirts — has become nearly as well-known for her endearingly goofy personality as for her racing acumen. After batting injuries and mental health issues that nearly forced her out of the sport, which she’s been open about, Seidel knows that the best way to thrive is to be unapologetically herself. 
“I approach this sport the same as I always have where I'm going to go out and I'm going to continue to work hard in a way that's very authentic to me,” she said. “I hope that that resonates with people, but, no, honestly, I don't do this day-to-day to try and be a role model. I hope that I behave in a way that would make me a role model and that can be inspiring, but I just try to live a very authentic life and go after some pretty big goals. 
“I think women's running, specifically, right now is kind of approaching that point of like, ‘Hey, we've got a lot of different, really cool women in the sport, having success with different avenues.’ My approach to the sport is very different from Sara Hall’s approach to the sport, and we have different careers, we have different personalities. And I think that's great because it shows people like, ‘Hey, there's more than one way to cook a potato.’” 
‘Preparation meeting opportunity’ 
What Seidel is looking forward to most about Eugene is that it won’t be anything like Tokyo’s Olympic bubble, which enforced strict sanctions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Not that she has any regrets about her historic Olympic experience — which she said allowed her to become closer with teammates Aliphine Tuliamuk and Sally Kipyego than she otherwise might have been. 
“It's the kind of thing where I wouldn't have had it any other way because it made that Games really special in a very specific way,” she said, “and that feeling of like, we got through a freaking year-and-half postponement, a global pandemic, flew over to Japan, had to quarantine in a hotel and could not leave for a full week, ran around an 800-meter concrete loop and somehow we came away with a medal for Team USA. And I think that's what made it really special.” 
“I’m glad that I experienced that once in my life, but frankly, I hope I never have to do something like that again.” 
With an Olympic medal in hand, there’s only one place to aim for at the World Championships: the podium. And Seidel is up for the challenge. 
“The World Champs have been such a huge star on my calendar for a really long time,” she said. “Obviously, the world majors are huge. They're very important markers of the year. But there is something about the championships — the Olympics, the World Champs — that is just a very different feeling.” 
For Hall, Eugene will be her first appearance on an outdoor global championship team for the United States. She’s determined to soak up every moment of it. 
“I see the experience being a highlight of my career I’ll always remember,” she said, “and one I’m highly motivated to have my best marathon ever on that stage… I think we all dream of winning a medal on home soil. I think that’s possible and would take preparation meeting opportunity, similar to Molly winning bronze. It’s not an easy goal, and I don’t have a ‘medal or bust’ mentality. I want to finish feeling I gave everything I had and was fully present enjoying the moment, and if I do that, it will be a success.” 
Hall makes it clear she intends to compete through 2024 for the chance to make an Olympic team. Bates is similarly forward-thinking with her goals. 
“(My goal is) definitely to medal,” Bates said. “Watching the women over the past year, year and half… Molly taking third at the Olympics ... That is something that is in sight for American females. So, if it's not me, I hope it's one of (Molly or Sara), but taking top three would be incredible and that’s a goal of mine for sure.” 
By Johanna Gretschel 
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