A U.S. women’s marathon era nobody predicted hits Boston

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New U.S. road running star Molly Seidel streamed the Houston Marathon on Jan. 16 and saw another American, Keira D’Amato, break the 16-year-old national record in the women’s marathon.

Seidel could have been jealous. Instead, she texted D’Amato to tell her how incredible it was that she ran 2:19:12. D’Amato responded with a throwback to the previous generation of U.S. women’s marathoning.

You’re next.

This weekend was supposed to mark the gathering of an emerged trio of American stars in, of all places, Boston, home of the world’s oldest annual marathon set for its 126th edition on Monday (broadcast schedule here).

Seidel, the surprise Tokyo Olympic bronze medalist, signed up for her first Boston Marathon. Sara Hall also entered, coming off major marathon podiums the last two years and an American record in the half marathon on that same January day in Houston. D’Amato races in the Boston Athletic Association road 5km on Saturday.

Hall withdrew last week, citing a knee injury, but it doesn’t change what took place over the last two years. A new era of U.S. women’s marathoning dawned. It’s one nobody predicted.

For much of the 2010s, Shalane FlanaganDes LindenKara Goucher and Amy Cragg occupied that elite tier. They made up the top four at the Olympic Trials in 2012 and 2016. Cragg won a world championships bronze medal in 2017. Three months later, Flanagan became the first U.S. female runner in 40 years to win the New York City Marathon.

Linden watched that broadcast from home in Michigan. Five minutes before Flanagan crossed the Central Park finish line, she tweeted from her iPhone, crying, “Thank you @ShalaneFlanagan for giving us something to believe in.”

Flanagan responded, “Now it’s your turn,” with emojis of a fist, a flexed bicep and an American flag.

Linden heeded the call. Five months later, she broke a 33-year victory drought for U.S. female runners at the Boston Marathon. Now Linden is the lone remaining active marathoner from that 2010s quartet, set to race her ninth Boston Marathon on Monday.

“The future has arrived,” said the 38-year-old Linden, who does not know how much longer she will race marathons at the elite level. “I’m watching the youngsters take over and push the sport forward, and sort of hanging on and, hopefully, having a moment here and there where I can compete with them.”

They’re not all young in the traditional sense. Hall turns 39 on Friday. D’Amato turns 38 next Thursday. Emma Bates, second at last October’s Chicago Marathon, is 29. Seidel is just 27, but like the others took an unexpected path to marathon stardom.

In her 26.2-mile debut, Seidel finished second to Aliphine Tuliamuk at the Olympic Trials on Leap Day 2020. That came after she spent much of that Olympic cycle in therapy following checking herself into a recovery program for disordered eating.

Then at the Tokyo Games, she finished within 30 seconds of Kenyan superstars Peres Jepchirchir and Brigid Kosgei to earn the first U.S. Olympic women’s marathon medal since Deena Kastor‘s bronze in 2004.

Seidel was an NCAA star at Notre Dame, but unlike Flanagan, Goucher and Cragg, she didn’t make any U.S. national teams on the track before her marathon breakout.

Reaching the Olympics and winning a medal may have surprised many, but her primary goal has always been the same: the podium at major marathons. She nearly did it again at New York City on Nov. 7, running the fastest time ever on that challenging course for an American woman (2:24:42) and placing fourth.

“If anything, [the success] maybe happened a little bit earlier than I thought it might,” said Seidel, whose media requests have been through the roof leading into Boston. “But it’s given me a lot more confidence to go after some of these big scary goals that I have for myself.”

You could say that manifested outside of running. Formerly a barista and babysitter, Seidel is now working toward her MBA and a pilot’s license. She has also trained with Hall, who with husband Ryan has raised four adopted Ethiopian sisters since 2015.

In those last seven years, Hall transformed from a track runner whose best outdoor nationals finish was fifth into the only American woman to break 2:23 in the marathon on four occasions. All came after turning 36.

“I almost walked away from the sport multiple times,” before turning to the marathon in 2015, Hall said. “In track, I always had these high expectations for myself … but my marathon career, I had very low expectations.”

Hall called her first marathon a disaster — a 2:48:02 in Los Angeles in 2015, now 27 minutes, 30 seconds, off her personal best. She kept at it, breaking 2:30 for the first time in 2017, then breaking 2:23 in four of her last five marathon finishes. That included a runner-up in London in 2020, seven months after the biggest heartbreak of her career, dropping out in the 23rd mile of the 2020 Olympic Trials.

If Hall could accomplish one more thing in the sport, it would be to make her Olympic debut at age 41 in 2024. She would be the oldest U.S. Olympic female runner in history, according to Olympedia.org. She has competed in six different Olympic Trials events — the first in 2004 — spanning the 1500m, 5000m, 10,000m, 3000m steeplechase and the marathon.

“This sport’s never been just about the Olympics for me, but at the same time, it’s something I would love to experience,” said Hall, whose husband ran the Olympic marathon in 2008 and 2012.

D’Amato was also disappointed with her 2020 Olympic Trials. She toed the Atlanta start line believing, when few others did, that she could make the three-woman team. She finished 15th.

Ten months later, she went 11 minutes faster at The Marathon Project, finishing second to Hall in a specially created event to produce swift times amid cancellations or postponements of major marathons due to COVID.

She followed that by placing fourth at the October 2021 Chicago Marathon, part of an American two-three-four behind Bates and Hall.

Then came Houston on Jan. 16. D’Amato lowered her personal best by 3 minutes, 44 seconds, to break Kastor’s American record by 24 seconds.

D’Amato got a phone call from Kastor before her post-race press conference.

Joan Benoit Samuelson had called [Kastor] back in 2003, when she broke Joan’s record, and said, ‘Congratulations, I’m officially passing the torch on to you,'” D’Amato recalled. “And so [Kastor] said, ‘I’ve been waiting a long time for this call. I thought it was going to come sooner. But congratulations, I’m passing the torch on to you.'”

Like Seidel and Hall, D’Amato did not have a linear path to success. She went nearly a decade between competitive races after a middle-distance career at American University. She got married, had two kids and worked in real estate before returning to running to lose baby weight.

D’Amato started the 2017 Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach with three goals. The first was to complete it without walking. On that day, the woman who five years later would be the fastest American in history ran 3:14:54 in sleet, hail and wind that tossed sand from the beach into her face.

After that record-breaking January day in Houston, D’Amato and Hall got into a casual conversation of just how fast an American woman in this era could cover 26.2 miles.

Hall believes something in the high 2:18s, thanks in part to the global gains in shoe technology. D’Amato thinks it would be cool to hit the qualifying time for the Olympic trials men’s marathon. That’s 2:18:00. Eleven women have done that, but of course none from the U.S.

“There’s a lot of ways to get there,” Linden said of the top of U.S. marathoning. “I certainly admire all of them.”

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