Give Molly Seidel room to run, to race, to get out in open space and all feels right in her world.
It’s long been that way for the former Notre Dame distance standout.
First time was in middle school when she battled obsessive compulsive disorder and needed an outlet so she could breathe, could relax, could learn, could live.
A native of Hartland, Wis., 26 miles west of Milwaukee, Seidel discovered that the best way for her to concentrate was to walk and read a book at the same time.
Often before drafting an essay for English class, she’d set off on a run. Back from that, she could settle in and focus and find her voice.
Running requires so little prep time or equipment or anything else. Just slide on a pair of shoes and stretch and go. Into the woods. Through trails. Around subdivisions. Up and over hills. Out and about. It often carries Seidel to her peaceful place.
“It gets my brain in a place where I can think,” the 25-year-old said last week from her home in Boston, where she’s a professional runner for the Saucony/Freedom Track Club. “I feel like there are times where my brain doesn’t fit inside my body. Like, it’s all over the place.
“I go for a run and the world makes sense again.”
Even when it didn’t, it did. Like when Seidel arrived at Notre Dame a highly-decorated high school runner, someone who won 12 state titles in three different race categories in her four years. That earned her 2011 Gatorade National Female Cross Country runner of the year.
She was someone who had all the talent and drive and determination that a college freshman could want. Someone with no limits on potential, until there were limits.
Seidel showed so little of her successful side those first two years. She struggled to stay consistent and persistent with her times. She wrestled with confidence. With a little doubt. With a lot of fear. She couldn’t crack the team’s top five. Too often, she was just another face in many a race.
There were insecurities. There were injuries. There were times when Seidel wanted to do something she’d never before wanted to do — just stop running. Forget the focus. Forget the finish line. Just stop striving to be great and be somebody, something, else. Move on to the next chapter in her life, one that didn’t involve running.
Nobody would’ve argued. Nobody would’ve complained. Everybody would’ve wished her well as she sought to see what else the world held for her. Go do it, she kept telling herself. You can.
She couldn’t. Walk away from the one constant in her life that made the most sense? Then? Now? Couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t do it. Didn’t do it.
“I think I’m too dumb to quit,” she said with a laugh. “With all the times that I’ve been knocked down, maybe I’m just too stupid to know that it’s my time to give up. I love running more than anything.”
A sustained struggle
Seidel’s college career — her running career — turned the proverbial corner the summer before her junior year.
Two disappointing seasons already were behind her; two seasons of unknown beckoned. But the unknown became known once Seidel started working with Matt Sparks, then the cross country and track and field programs’ associate head coach.
Sparks knew of Seidel’s history and took a bare-bones approach to coaching her. They weren’t going to ease off training requirements, which can be unrelenting and brutal and at times, overwhelming. But they stripped everything else away to the simplest of terms — run to have fun. That was it.
Just go out there and go. Run free.
“Once she did that, that’s when she started to really grow as an athlete and get back to where she was in her high school days,” Sparks said. “That’s when Molly had success — just letting Molly be Molly. Let’s train the Molly Seidel way.”
The approach allowed Seidel to get back to her winning ways. She was the NCAA indoor champion in the 3000M and 5000M. She won the 2015 NCAA cross country national championship. She was the top female cross country runner in 2016. By the time her college career was complete, the 2016 Notre Dame graduate was a six-time Atlantic Coast Conference champion.
She was good again. She was Molly Seidel again.
What flipped the switch? Better yet, who flipped the switch?
“Sparks,” she said of her former coach, someone who today serves as more sounding board/counselor. “My college career was basically on life support. He came in and helped me see myself in a different way, got me to believe in myself again.”
Doing that should seem so easy for someone so accomplished, but the opposite was true. Seidel’s struggles away from running affected her running.
She battled depression. She battled an eating disorder. Hip surgery once threatened her future. She had a back injury. She had her dark days, ones that couldn’t be brightened with another 10 miles here or 15 there. She was in a bad place and could only run her way out.
A whole lot of therapy helped. So did having a solid support system. She would run again, but learned to lean more on others. She had to.
A lot of what she struggled with then away from running she still deals with today, and likely always will, but she also knows she can ask for assistance. Running is such an individual sport, but that doesn’t mean life has to be as well.
“I have a lot of people around me who are willing to help,” Seidel said. “They help me be the best version of myself.”
An Olympic moment
Nowhere was that version more evident than on the afternoon of Feb. 29 in Atlanta.
Having spent the previous months training at altitude in Arizona, where her weekly workouts peaked at a staggering 120 miles, Seidel prepared to do something she’d never done at any level, for any reason. Run a marathon. Not just any marathon.
Covering those 26.2 miles across Atlanta, Seidel raced for one of three spots on the 2020 national team that would represent the United States at the (since delayed) 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Seidel approached her Marathon debut with a completely different mindset. In high school, in college, anywhere, nerves would often overwhelm her at the start line. She had to do well. She had to dominate. She had to win. She often did.
It was that constant pressure to perform, that worry that she wasn’t good enough, that allowed her to be great.
There again were nerves in Atlanta, but the expectation level Seidel carried on that cool day was near zero. She was just one of 465 Olympic hopefuls shooting for one of three spots. Those odds could’ve been overwhelming. Seidel didn’t let them.
“I was excited to try something new,” she said. “This was more to get experience for four years down the line and then actually try for it.”
Really, Seidel did have one expectation that day. She didn’t even plan to finish. Maybe the end would come at Mile 18 or 19 or 20, but it would be before the finish line. She was fine with that. Chalk it up to getting the experience and being better the next time out. Just have fun that day in Georgia.
She was prepared to watch the pack eventually leave her behind. She was fine with it.
“I was in this weirdly Zen state,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is going to be what it’s going to be.”
Something happened on the way to that DNF. Seidel settled in and ran well. She stayed in the lead pack, then broke with her good friend, Aliphine Tuliamuk, the eventual race winner at 2:27:23.
Seidel finished second in 2:27.31 with an average mile pace of 5:38. It earned her $65,000. It also earned her a trip to Tokyo. First marathon ever, first Olympics trip ever.
“So many times, it would’ve been easy for her to move on in life,” Sparks said. “It’s never over for her.”
Seidel wanted it to be over around Mile 20. Her entire body ached. Her legs burned. She was six miles from the dream, but wasn’t sure she wanted to keep chasing it.
“I definitely had a thought when I was really in a lot of pain of just, like, you hurt too much to get to the point to give up,” she said. “I was like, ‘You’ve been through so much worse than this. You can get through the next six miles.’”
Seidel’s Olympic story ended barely two weeks after she’d cemented her spot. That’s when the 2020 Games were pushed to 2021.
She’s taken the postponement as a silver lining. It gives her time to heal the plantar fasciitis that’s flared in her foot. It gives her more time to train. She cut it back to only 90 miles last week. She might run another marathon in the fall. She can’t wait for 2021.
Given everything Seidel’s overcome in her running life, pushing pause on the Olympics is nothing. Seidel barely had time to embrace the accomplishment, and still finds it odd today when someone mentions that, whoa, you’re an Olympian.
Yeah, she’ll remind herself, I am. How cool is that? Pretty darn cool.
“It gives you a lot of perspective,” Seidel said. “On the scale of things, this is easier to compartmentalize. Yeah, this sucks right now, but life kind of moves on and you’re going to get over it.”
And keep running. Always.