Molly Huddle humbled herself to the marathon’s distance, and the New York City Marathon was all too happy to raise its native daughter up.
The Olympian said this past week that she’d be thrilled to finish fifth or sixth in Sunday’s marathon, her first ever. It was important for her to be the top American finisher, said the native of Elmira, New York, but realistically, Huddle’s goal was the same as the 50,000 or so amateurs who started their morning on the Verrazano Bridge.
“Just finish my first marathon,” she said Sunday. And she did. With gusto.
Huddle — who won the previous two NYC half marathons and came in sixth in the 10,000 meters at the Rio Olympics — bested a slew of professional marathoners, coming in third at 2:28:13. She was the first female American finisher and was 12 seconds behind Sally Kipyego, who finished second in 2:28:01. Huddle, 32, also was the first American to finish in the top three since 2010.
“I was just thrilled to get through the race smoothly,” she said. “I thought it was a big step in learning how to race the marathon. It seems like about who manages themselves the best. I feel like I learned a lot today. I’m glad I had a good experience, and I’m really happy to be third.”
If it sounds as if she’s taking notes for her next marathon, it’s because she is. Though Huddle said she has no immediate plans, the running community had long anticipated her marathon debut. She previously expressed interest in competing in the marathon in the 2020 Olympic trials, and her half marathon times — 1:07:41 last year and 1:08:31 the year before — indicate that if she can wrangle the beast that is 26.2, she could be one of the best American marathoners competing today. She also holds the American record in the 10,000 meters and the 5K road.
The United States’ best female marathon finisher in Rio was Shalane Flanagan, who was sixth in 2:25:26.
One thing Huddle learned — the thing she repeated a few times after crossing the finish line — is that by the end, it’s simply about survival. It was the lesson of the day Sunday, when the men lost two favorites to injury. Stanley Biwott, last year’s winner, left shortly after mile nine because of a pre-existing calf injury that picked the worst possible time to reintroduce itself. American Dathan Ritzenhein, who led the pack for the first half, succumbed during mile 19 because of an injured heel.
Huddle broke away around mile nine and quickly learned that in long-distance running, being among the very best means being very much alone.
“The wind is really strong when you don’t have a pack,” she said. “I was kind of just surviving at the end and looking ahead and really trying to catch Joyce [Chepkirui, who was fourth] and trying to catch Sally, but [she was] too fast. So just kind of flailing the last 10K probably — well, probably the last 10 miles, actually.”
Be that as it may, she gained ground on Chepkirui toward the 25th mile and made her move shortly after, “flailing” her way to the end of the marathon and possibly to the beginning of a new career.
“I think I saved a little bit for the end,” Huddle said. “So just some fine-tuning on pacing myself and kind of navigating hills. I’ll probably train more on harder terrain next time.”
Running community take note: For Molly Huddle and the marathon, there will be a next time.