Olympian Molly Huddle takes you inside her training partner’s workouts, meals, exercises, mental practices, and dogs.
What does it take to break the American record in the
marathon? A big factor is nailing the day-to-day details that enable great training and racing. Here’s what I saw when I shadowed my friend and training partner Emily Sisson on Sunday, October 2, seven days before she set the U.S. record of 2:18:29 at the Chicago Marathon. There’s a lot here for all marathoners to learn from.
7:30 a.m.: Emily wakes up for her 10 a.m. workout to hydrate, fuel with UCAN Energy Powder, and eat breakfast with time to spare on some prerun activation exercises and drills. I meet her at 9:20 to warmup.
“Do you have an extra hat?” she messaged me before we arrived. Like a little sister, she is often asking to borrow things.
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It’s a cool and damp day at the 14-mile bike path we use for many of our road workouts. Emily’s buildup has gone very well. This is not to be confused with effortless, though. There is a lot of intentional steering in the decision-making and work that goes into keeping your body moving well under the load of marathon training. She has made long-haul flights to nip the buds of injuries at the best chiropractor’s office in the country, done endless minutes of corrective exercises in the gym, and foam rolled and massaged the cranky soft tissue in her legs in between actual time spent on the road. The body work is its own part-time job.
As I look at her across the baby stroller I’m pushing on the warmup jog, I see shades of my own best seasons. I can tell things are lining up between body and mind in an exciting way, to the point where what before felt like a swing for the fences is actually the next logical progression.
10 a.m.: Our coach, Ray Treacy, shows up as Emily is doing final preworkout strides. Shane, her husband, prepares to pace most of the workout so Emily can cruise on autopilot some of the way. Emily’s support bubble is small but effective: Shane as sometimes pacer and always moral support, Ray, and her chiropractor, John Ball.
First, they examine her shoe options; this is an ongoing thought project. She tries one pair for half the workout and the other for the last two reps. She’s still deciding which to wear on race day. Today’s workout is the last of a two-month training cycle, intentionally a little shorter than the norm in an effort to get to the race fresh and healthy, which has worked.
The workout: Emily does 4 by 2 kilometers, at 5:00-per-mile pace on the flat path. It should feel easy and looks like it does. “She’s really ready,” says Ray, thinking back on the last few weeks of workout splits. This means a lot from someone who has seen decades of splits from dozens of great athletes.
Afterward, having cooled down and completed her morning workout total of a relatively short 11 miles, she makes it a point to fuel in that well-known 30-minute postworkout window as she has another UCAN drink in the car on the way to lunch. Being mindful of getting in the extra carbohydrates and hydration is a big focus for the week before a marathon, and these are her staples.
The thing about the marathon, though, is it often takes a few of them to learn how to race the event and really maximize your potential. Emily had the fastest American marathon debut on a record-eligible course, 2:23:08, much of it run alone (and in skimpy flats), in London back in 2019. In May, she set the U.S. record in the half marathon, 67:11.
It’s the next realistic step to put herself in the mix for a record, medal, or win at the Chicago Marathon, but at the end of the day a shiny personal best would be great too. This will be only her third marathon, so the experience is compounding each time, and the best is soon to come. “Soon” is likely “now,” but she’s learned of the other variables apart from fitness that play into a peak marathon race. Most we can control, but some are down to luck. It’s an intoxicating fact about the marathon that makes each one feel like 90 percent grind and 10 percent gamble.
COVID (race cancellations and getting the illness) and injury derailed quite a few recent marathon and learning opportunities, but the one ahead feels ripe with possibility. The Chicago Marathon is, like London, a fast course. The weather looks favorable. Emily turns 31 a few days after the marathon, further stepping into what I like to call a gal’s “marathon era.” You’ve built up enough endurance and wisdom to really see what you can do over that long of a race, but in an event relying on slow-twitch muscles, your body is still young enough to PR all through the decade.
12 p.m.: Shane and Emily park at the coffee shop and grab coffee, cookies, and sandwiches. Seven Stars is a favorite stop for many runners and locals on Providence’s East Side. I bump into Emily there often. We runners are entrenched in our routines; they save her mental energy. Emily runs a lot of miles on the same few loops, and eats meals at the same round of shops, and runs at the same times of day, with the same few people.
2 p.m.: Emily takes a nap to recharge for her 4-mile evening run, likely one of her last doubles of the buildup. Soon she’ll run only once a day, which feels disorienting after weeks of doubles and long sessions burning off all the hours and energy of the day.
She is entering an ironically difficult phase of marathon training: the resting portion. Your schedule opens up, and energy starts to return, but you can’t spend it yet. Some of it, having no outlet, fuels latent anxiety, like sugar to a cavity.
This is especially true if training has been smooth, which may surprise people. Few athletes have come upon the privilege of the semi-neurotic bubble wrap phase. It happens when the training has gone very well, and the potential of your biggest goals is like a mirage in the distance. It’s not real yet, but you can see the form of it. Having made it through the training gauntlet in one piece, you can let yourself believe it can really happen.
Just getting to the race healthy is the new mission of the week now that fitness is buttoned up. No accidents allowed! The physical therapist is on speed dial. There is hyper-vigilance for every rock and curb. No germ will enter your personal bubble. No strange food will touch your lips. There is little room for plans and proceedings occurring after the race because there is no “after” when the blinders are on. There is only between here and the start line, and then, from the start to the finish line. It’s a precious opportunity.
“Shane got me Legos,” she laughs, noting they are a fun and meditative free-time activity. He may have been tapping into his counseling knowledge base with that gift idea, although who doesn’t love Legos?
6 p.m.: An evening jog of 4 miles, around 7:00-per-mile pace, along a soft, flat surface in Providence.
7:30 p.m.: Dinner is chicken and gnocchi while watching House of the Dragon curled up with her dogs, a golden retriever named Desmond and a three-legged fluffy white Samoyed mix named Tori. This kind of mental rest is as important as the physical taper. A lot of ambitious people become good athletes because of their drive, and a lot of them don’t rest enough because of it.
Recognizing this reality is one of Emily’s strengths. She locks away every lesson she’s learned and piece of advice she’s heard into a mental file, and that informs every new attempt at a goal. She knows rest is important, so she can’t go to a lot of events with friends and family in these buildups, or do anything too adventurous. She knows how to focus on one thing hard, and block out the noise–both in the buildup to the race and in the race itself. She aims to be the eye of the hurricane. She knows this works.
I try to remember the things I’ve told her, and wonder what or if anything made it into the file. I remember a run years ago where I noted how when I felt my best running, my life was simple; that fun projects are worthwhile but they can make me tired. Running and then spending time in front of a TV or reading a book is actually re-stocking the energy it costs to reach peak performance.
“It’s okay to go all in on something,” I remember telling her. “Well-rounded is great, but ‘pointy’ is a cool extreme too.” I meant that there’s a short time in life when you can try to be great at something. Many people never even get a chance.
I think that advice might have made it in there, as I watch her squint down the road, considering only what’s ahead. Sharpening her tools. Ready to carve her place in history.
Molly Huddle is a two-time Olympian who holds the American record at 10,000 meters. She placed fourth at the 2018 New York City Marathon in a personal best of 2:26:44.
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