With major marathons canceled, Emily Sisson chose a virtual one

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When Emily Sisson stepped off the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials course on Feb. 29, she would not have predicted the wait would be eight months until her next race.

Even more unusual: Sisson will contest her next marathon as a solo runner.

She’s a headliner among the elites signed up for the Virtual New York City Marathon, where runners can cover a distance of their choice any time and any place between Oct. 17 and Nov. 1. The in-person five-borough event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sisson, a 28-year-old based in Arizona, plans to run exactly 26.2 miles for the virtual competition with no prize money (Sisson is sponsored by New Balance, which is a New York Road Runners partner). She said last week that she was still deciding on her route.

“It’s hard to find somewhere where I can get 26.2 miles without having to stop for traffic,” she said.

Sisson originally planned to race the in-person New York City Marathon. When it was canceled in June, she was left in a foreign state — training without any competitions on the horizon. She was eager once told about the virtual option.

“Obviously, a virtual race can’t completely replace the New York City Marathon,” she said. “But it’s something to put on my schedule, to work towards and train for right now.

“That’s the reward for working really hard.”

Sisson, after her marathon debut in London in April 2019, spent last fall and winter with Leap Day circled. She flew to Atlanta among the contenders to make the three-woman U.S. Olympic marathon team. Many tapped her the overall favorite.

But her legs felt off early on the hilly course, Sisson shared on the Ali on the Run podcast in April. Tightness crept up around mile 11. She looked at the elites around her. Laura Thweatt was bounding. Des Linden was floating.

Sisson’s quads were taking a beating. She was dropped around mile 20 and, by mile 22, stepped off the course and into the arms of her husband, Shane Quinn.

“It sounds dramatic, but that was probably the most disappointing race I’ve had in my career,” she said last week. “I’ve never had to drop out of a race before. I’ve also never blown up like that in a race before. Take that back, I fainted once. I’ve never had a race where I performed so far off where my fitness level was.”

Sisson implemented the plan B that coach Ray Treacy discussed the night before. If your chances of finishing top three are done, pull the rip cord and save your legs for the 10,000m at the track trials in June.

Sisson’s legs were “destroyed.” She took three weeks off from running, consulting with a chiropractor while weighing the risk of that long of a rest. She also knew that the Olympics were under threat of postponement, which eventually was announced on March 24, three and a half weeks after the marathon trials.

The U.S. Olympic marathon team of Aliphine TuliamukMolly Seidel and Sally Kipyego is expected to remain in place for next year. The track trials are now in June 2021. Sisson will race this virtual 26.2 miles, then will probably focus on the 10,000m. Her unfinished business in the marathon — the in-person variety — will be on the agenda after the Tokyo Games.

Sisson will set at least one personal best this year. Her virtual marathon will be her longest-ever solo run, though Quinn will likely ride a bike alongside her. She will put on headphones and probably listen to music.

“It’s hard hitting pause on a low,” Sisson said, reflecting on the Atlanta trials. “It’s nice to have something else right now.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Sisson ran her first marathon in London in 2018. Her first marathon was in London in 2019.

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