Emily Sisson

A U.S. Olympic women’s marathon team of surprises, unique stories

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ATLANTA — The U.S. Olympic Women’s Marathon Trials produced an unpredictable team for the Tokyo Games, one with three striking personal stories.

Aliphine Tuliamuk, who won in 2:27:23 and by the smallest women’s margin in trials history (eight seconds), was seeded 10th of 510 qualifiers. Kenyan-born Tuliamuk, who has 31 siblings (dad had four wives), was driving an Uber and crocheting while sidelined by injuries the last two years.

“I did not see this coming,” she said.

Neither could runner-up Molly Seidel, also a first-time Olympic qualifier. Seidel made her marathon debut Saturday, three and a half years after receiving treatment for an eating disorder.

Third-place Sally Kipyego has Olympic experience, taking 10,000m silver for native Kenya in 2012. She gave birth to daughter Emma in summer 2017 and became eligible to represent the U.S. last August. She came to Atlanta seeded sixth, turning out to be the least surprising woman to make the team.

Missing the Olympics: 2018 Boston Marathon winner Des Linden (fourth place), American 10,000m record holder Molly Huddle and Jordan Hasay, the second-fastest U.S. female marathoner in history.

MORE: Olympic Marathon Trials Results

Soon after crossing the Centennial Park finish line, Tuliamuk grabbed a red, white and blue hat from her boyfriend. She had crocheted it for this day to show the love of her new nation.

“When I came here over 10 years ago, I didn’t even think that I wanted to stay here,” said Tuliamuk, who earned a public health degree from Wichita State in 2013 (and was a nine-time All-American for the Shockers). “When the chance came [to become a U.S. citizen], at that point I realized just how fortunate I am. I didn’t even second-guess myself. Now I get to live the American dream.”

Tuliamuk earned citizenship in April 2016. Last June, she was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her right femur. Tuliamuk barely ran until late August, instead developing a side business selling hand-made beanies on Etsy.

In her first race back in November, Tuliamuk established herself as an outside Olympic team contender by placing 12th at the New York City Marathon.

“I knew that I was fit,” she said. “I just didn’t know the extent of my fitness.”

Seidel was a can’t-miss kid. In fourth grade, she had a class assignment to write her biggest wish and dream. She wrote, “I wish I will make it into the Olympics and win a gold medal.”

Later at Notre Dame, Seidel earned NCAA indoor, outdoor and cross-country titles. She also developed an eating disorder, hitting rock bottom while attending the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore., as a spectator. She broke a vertebra earlier that year because she was so weak from losing so much weight.

One of her best friends sat Seidel down in a hotel room in Oregon.

“I think she straight up told me, you look like you’re dying,” Seidel said on the Running On Om podcast. “That was the moment I got help.” Two days later, Seidel checked in for eating disorder treatment.

“I hate seeing photos of myself from that time,” Seidel said on the podcast, noting how she looked when she swept the NCAA Indoor 3000m and 5000m in early 2016. “Knowing that those are out on the internet, and people are seeing those and associating those with winning a national championship, that’s what kills me. There’s some little girl who’s running somewhere that might see the photo and think that’s what I have to look like to win a national championship. And I hate that. I hate that more than anything.”

Seidel had more recent obstacles. She said she was on crutches after placing 13th in the Peachtree Road Race 10km on July 4 in Atlanta.

“My coach and I just had a crazy idea that we might try this and see how it went,” said Seidel, who qualified for trials via a December half marathon. “We had nothing to lose. I’m really grateful for the people around me who are just as dumb as I am.”

Kipyego, the lone qualifier with Olympic experience, moved to the U.S. from Kenya 15 years ago on a college scholarship. She became a U.S. citizen in 2017 but her competition representation switch from Kenya wasn’t finalized until August.

“I always knew that I wanted to be an American,” Kipyego said. “That had little to do with running. … I’ve been able to pay for tuition for children back in Kenya. I’ve been able to support my family, my extended family.”

Kipyego said it took more than a year to recover from childbirth. She couldn’t put together a month straight of training without getting fatigued or ill. She considered quitting often.

“A lot of women have children, they come back and they run and they’re fantastic,” she said. “That was not my story.”

On a podium with Tuliamuk and Seidel to her right, Kipyego closed the post-race press conference with a line applicable to all three.

“I have struggled,” she said. “Today, I was victorious. I was victorious because of where I came from.”

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At U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, competitors also include shoe companies

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ATLANTA — The story of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, for so long about who finishes first, second and third to qualify for the Games, has an added primary question here on Saturday.

What shoes will those runners be wearing?

An arms race within a foot race, as two-time Olympian Des Linden put it, was, unknowingly at the time, sparked at trials four years ago. There in Los Angeles, some Nike-sponsored runners raced in unreleased prototypes of what later became known as the Vaporfly.

Reported studies claim the latest version — the unusually tall Alphafly with extra foam and a carbon fiber plate — can boost a runner’s efficiency by several percentage points.

Other shoe companies have been playing catch-up to the technology, releasing their own prototypes and new versions ahead of Saturday’s trials (12 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

In versions of the Vaporfly: Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge broke the marathon world record by 78 seconds in 2018. Kipchoge became the first person to break two hours for a marathon in 2019 in a non-record-eligible event (in an Alphafly). The next day, Kenyan Brigid Kosgei lowered the 16-year-old women’s marathon world record by 81 seconds.

“[Marathon] times don’t make sense anymore, necessarily,” Linden, who is sponsored by Brooks Running, said Thursday as she bids to become the first woman to make three U.S. Olympic marathon teams. “It’s hard to figure out if it’s the athletes, if it’s the shoes or what combination it is that you’re watching.”

The shoes caused World Athletics, the sport’s international governing body, to say that there was “sufficient evidence to raise concerns that the integrity of the sport might be threatened.”

On Jan. 31, World Athletics ruled that, for this spring and beyond, any shoe must have been available to buy for at least four months prior to competition use. It also limited the height of shoes, though, according to Nike, its Vaporflys and Alphaflys, including the version Kipchoge wore for his sub-two marathon, meet those limits.

“I feel like every conversation I have is: What shoe is that person wearing. Do you think that helped them run faster? I feel like the conversations are taking away from the athletes,” said Emily Sisson, a New Balance runner among Saturday’s favorites. “People don’t really still know even how much work these shoes are doing. Innovation is great, and can be great for the sport, but at the same time, I don’t like seeing shoes getting bigger and bigger and with more plates and things like that. … I’m hoping eventually the conversations will start drifting back to the athletes, not what shoes are they wearing.”

A tweet this week suggested that Nike is offering every one of the men and women racing on Saturday a free pair of Alphaflys. A record 771 runners qualified.

Most of the Olympic team contenders are not sponsored by Nike. Many intend to race in recent versions of their own sponsors’ shoes, believed to have similar technology to Nike’s.

“Three or four years ago, the shoe industry was turned on its side with the shoe that was released that was 15 years ahead of its time,” said Saucony-sponsored Rio Olympian Jared Ward, one of the favorites in the men’s race, along with Nike-sponsored Galen Rupp. “For decades, I feel like the emphasis was on making shoes lighter and lighter and lighter, and that was all we were focused on. Then, all of a sudden, there was this idea that maybe adding weight the right away is going to actually help performance.”

Ward, a BYU adjunct statistics professor, did his own research on the Nike effects, though he said he has never worn them.

He plans to race Saturday in a version of a Saucony shoe that he first competed in at the New York City Marathon on Nov. 3. He was the top American male runner in sixth place in his fastest time in three New York City starts by 99 seconds.

“I feel like the Saucony is very much competitive,” Ward said. “The results that I’m seeing in terms of energy-cost benefit are enough to make me smile.”

Linden said she will wear a Brooks shoe version that will soon be available for purchase. She has had them for about a month. Before this high-tech shoe era, Linden never had such a short amount of time with her race shoes before a major marathon. Linden, the 2018 Boston Marathon winner, starts her 20th marathon on Saturday.

“That’s the thing with the shoes right now. It’s not only does the athlete’s speed matter, the company’s speed matters,” said Linden, noting at a recent Boston Marathon that she had her shoes six days before the race. “How quick are they turning around the new innovations and the newest, greatest thing? It’s a bit of an arms race within a foot race.”

Two of Nike’s top male U.S. marathoners, Bernard Lagat and Leonard Korir, said as of Thursday night they had not decided whether they will race in the new Alphafly or a previous Vaporfly version.

“The most advantage that I get is that when I run 20 miles, or even 25, if I wear that, I can recover faster,” Lagat said of the Alphafly.

There’s no defined answer as to how much a specific shoe can boost a specific athlete — same as it’s always been. Saturday will crown six U.S. Olympic team members and provide another set of data to analyze.

“I’m sure studies are going to surface everywhere comparing everybody’s versions of the shoe,” Ward said. “So we should have answers to that before long.”

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Emily Sisson a U.S. Olympic marathon trials favorite, thanks to Ireland

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Emily Sisson didn’t think she would become a professional runner until her last year of college. Now, at 28, she goes into the U.S. Olympic marathon trials as a contender for one of three Tokyo spots, if not the overall favorite.

“I’ve only done one marathon, so I definitely don’t feel like I’m an experienced marathoner,” Sisson said by phone last week from her Arizona base. “That’s the one question mark I’ve had all build-up.”

Predicting a marathon can be a crapshoot, but a Podiumrunner.com experts panel pegged Sisson to win. She is younger than any female U.S. Olympic marathoner since Anne Marie Lauck in 1996 (though fellow contender Jordan Hasay is a month younger).

Confidence stems from last April 28. Sisson clocked the second-fastest debut marathon in U.S. women’s history, a 2:23:08 on a windy day in London, where the early pace was slow. She finished sixth — behind five East Africans. She crossed 3:25 ahead of sometimes training partner and mentor Molly Huddle, also a headliner at trials in Atlanta on Feb. 29 (12 p.m. ET, NBC).

“We wanted to run faster,” Sisson said that day in London. “There’s a lot of room for improvement.”

Sisson later mentioned a pre-race scare on the “Keeping Track” podcast. She tripped over a carpet jogging back from a bathroom, banged both knees 15 minutes before the start and got checked out physically by a chiropractor and mentally by her husband, who has a master’s degree in mental health counseling.

Sisson then covered the final half of that marathon alone, a foreign feeling for the longtime track runner. At one point, she thought about having never before run more than 23 miles.

Her mind could have also wandered to sports memories that led her to the world’s strongest marathon: Attending a 1999 Women’s World Cup match and seeing her hero, Mia Hamm. As a soccer-playing teenager, being asked by a friend to join a track relay team. Or being told during a record-breaking high school career that she was reminiscent of 2004 Olympic marathoner Jen Rhines.

Sisson, whose dad ran and mom did gymnastics at the University of Wisconsin, transferred after one year in Madison to Providence. She had a best NCAA Championships finish of fourth going into her last year. Before that final season, Sisson was prepared to leave competitive running once her NCAA eligibility exhausted in pursuit of an MBA.

“I had been going through a bit of a funk with running,” she said. “I was getting a little tired.”

Things changed the summer before her senior year. She vacationed with then-boyfriend/now-husband Shane Quinn, a fellow Providence runner, in Quinn’s native Ireland. At one point, they altered training, ditching tempo runs for local road races. Sisson never before competed on the roads. She doesn’t remember the distances being exact. She does remember winning.

“That was a new, fun thing that kept the sport kind of fresh for me,” she said. “You finish, and you go into a local pub and have sandwiches.”

Providence coach Ray Treacy put Sisson in more road races that fall. The opportunity was right. She had no cross-country eligibility left while she readied for the winter and spring track seasons. She went on to win the 2015 NCAA Indoor and Outdoor 5000m, a springboard to the pros (while still going after the MBA).

Sisson was set back by injury in 2016 and placed 10th in the Olympic trials 10,000m. She kept training under Treacy, and perhaps just as important, with Huddle, the American record holder at 10,000m. Huddle, seven years older than Sisson, made her marathon debut after the Rio Olympics.

“Emily really looks up to her and is inspired by her,” Treacy said. “Molly has helped her out in numerous ways in training. … Making sure she’s not going overboard with the training, not running too fast. She kind of keeps her under control.”

Sisson made the last two world championships teams in the 10,000m, but Treacy thought marathon since 2015. They signed her up for the 2019 London Marathon, in part because Huddle was going to race it as her third career 26.2-miler. And in part to get Sisson ready for the Olympic trials in 10 months’ time.

The build-up was better than ideal. Sisson ran the second-fastest half marathon in U.S. history (on a record-eligible course) in January. She became the third-fastest U.S. woman all-time at 10,000m in March.

Come April, Treacy was impressed again just by watching Sisson after she crossed the London finish line in what would be the second-fastest marathon for a U.S. woman in 2019.

“It didn’t look like it took anything out of her,” Treacy said. “She recovered really fast. Within minutes, she was feeling pretty good. That was a good sign.”

Sisson returned home to Quinn and their golden retriever, Desmond, who has 1,400 Instagram followers. She skipped a fall marathon to compete in the 10,000m at track worlds in Doha, placing a respectable 10th.

The recent marathon build-up for trials went just as well, if not better, than the training for London.

“I’m definitely putting a bit of pressure on myself with this one,” Sisson said. “But at the same time, I don’t get caught up in so much what other people say. I don’t really read the articles about who’s the favorite or what chance you have of making the team.”

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MORE: Galen Rupp, after tumult, finds familiarity before Olympic trials