What is it that even deems an athlete one of the greats? Maybe, it’s the number of wins they have to their name. Then again, a win doesn’t take into account the competition. Maybe, it’s the awards and accolades. Possibly, but awards and accolades disappear in time and their value fluctuates. In my mind, there’s really only one way to even get an idea, and it’s by meeting an athlete that’s been deemed a great.
Molly Huddle is an athlete who’s been to, and remains at, the top. Not only is she an American Record Holder in the 5K with a mindboggling 14:42.64, but she has 19 US Championship titles to her name, stretching from the oval track to the roads to the cross country course. I had the opportunity to interview Molly Huddle and, in a sense, got to step into the mind of a great. Though I’m no expert, I think I got a glimpse of the soft spoken person behind the unreal times, confident racing style, and a win streak that leaves opponents baffled.
Where do you see running beginning for you, in terms of training so you could become competitive?
I became a serious runner my junior year of high school – I set my first big goals of trying to win the NY state meet and then trying to qualify for footlocker xc the next fall (my senior year). It was eye opening to race against the best high school kids in the country, but rewarding to be able to hold my own!
At what point in high-school did you see yourself as someone to beat? Did you ever see yourself as that freak athlete others struggled to win against?
I became harder to beat once I started to run year round (well, most of the year anyway). The cross country season and summer running I did my senior year of high school paid off all the way through June. I still got my butt kicked at Footlocker, though, so I knew I had to work hard, and couldn’t rely on being good enough to win home meets if I wanted to win Nationals during track season.
College and transition
When in your college career did you make that shift from good to really one of the few, a title winning type athlete?
Although that NCAA title eluded me in college, I did win a few things and learned early on that I wanted to try to run with the pro women I was so inspired by. I think running 15:36 in the 5000 my freshman year, then running the Olympic Trials my sophomore year of college gave me the confidence that I wasn’t far off that dream of running after school.
When in your professional career did you go from ‘I want to compete against these ladies’ to ‘I want to get these titles’, ‘break these records’, and practically become unbeatable?
The 2008 season was my first year out of college, and I made big improvements to be one of 4 women at the Olympic Trials with the A standard in the 10,000 Meters. I had a terrible meet at the Trials, and then was injured in early 2009. I watched Shalane medal at the Olympics on TV, and had watched my new teammate Kim Smith crush her races as well that year. During that time, I decided I want to learn from as many great athletes as I can (fortunately I was surrounded by them in Providence!), and that I wanted to be that good. I was all in from then on!
What pr/title/record/race are you most proud of?
I think I’m most proud of the American Record in the 5,000 Meters. It won’t last forever, but a lot of talented American women have tried to run faster so it puts things into perspective, and I try to remember it on my bad days.
Do you have a race or event that you go back to mentally, where you think ‘put me be back there’?
If there were do-overs, I would definitely re-run the world championships this year.
What is it about the roads that makes you so hard to beat?
I used to not feel as comfortable on the road as I did on the track. I enjoy road racing, though, so I did a lot of it and eventually found a comfort zone there. I think I do well there because the roads are less tactical.
If you were going to sum up what it took to reach the top like you have in one word, what would it be?
One word is hard, but if I had to choose I’d say accountability. I’m lucky to have a small team of people helping me chase my dreams, but at the end of the day it’s up to me to make things happen, both in the race and in the training leading up to it. In the same vein, if things go wrong I have to figure it out and not blame others.
How many years has it been? Do you ever stop, look up and wonder how you ended up where you are?
It’s been a good 9 years so far, with more ups than downs. I feel like I’ve been able to improve on at least some event every year. The goals and dreams have changed a lot along the way- I never would have thought at the beginning that I’d be laying out the plans I’m making for this year! I’m grateful to have people like Ray Treacy, Saucony , my teammates and Kurt who want to support and encourage me along the way!
If you weren’t to be a competitive runner, what do you see yourself doing?
I had originally hoped to go to med school, so if I weren’t running I may have been a doctor by now but who knows!
Kurt (Molly Huddle’s husband, Kurt Benninger), as both a coach and former athlete watching Molly, what is it that separates her from her competitors?
Molly (with the help of Ray Treacy) does a great job at looking at the big picture and focusing on gradual and continual development each year. I have also noticed with Molly that she does a better job than the vast majority of athletes I have been around in doing the “little things” that go along with training that aren’t fun, and there is most often no one there to help with. You do not always see athlete,s even at the highest levels, not cutting supplementary work short, or skipping foam rolling before a run even when they are tight and sore. It is incredibly difficult and time consuming to be prepared for each and every run. Molly’s training group is small, so she often trains alone. She does not need others to hold her accountable. She is the ultimate professional.
Taking everything about Huddle into account, you have to draw a line from her standout career back to who she is. She has a slew of performances that one could point to, and say that she was cementing her legacy, but I think it’s by looking at the races she didn’t win. Here’s an athlete who is a three-time USA Outdoor runner-up, a two-time USA XC runner-up, a 2011 NCAA Outdoor 5k runner-up, and stood third on the NCAA Outdoor podium two times. This is an athlete who knows what it’s like to cross the finish line, and see the winner just meters in front of her. This is an athlete who knows what it’s like to not podium at a World Championship by mere hundredths of a second.
What makes Huddle a great runner, and no doubt a legendary performer, is her ability to take the hard losses, not give reasons or an explanation, but instead silently come back and rip titles away from her competitors. Her one word attributed to her journey was accountable, but I have to add relentless. It’s what has set her apart as one of the greats. A relentless athlete trains with a vengeance; trains with a passion; trains to win. When that athlete is let loose, competitors are left in a wake where they do not soon forget that athlete’s name. Molly Huddle is relentless.