This past Sunday, much of the running community had their eyes on a handful of prominent American women making their marathon debuts in New York City: Molly Huddle, the American record holder in the 10K; Gwen Jorgensen, gold medalist in the triathlon at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro; and Kim Conley, two-time Olympian in the 5K. All three are among the country’s best endurance athletes, and their respective specialties—longer track races and the triathlon—led to rampant curiosity about how their fitness would translate to the marathon.
On Sunday, the results were a mix of success and disappointment. Huddle finished third—the top American woman—with a time of 2:28:13. She was just 12 seconds behind second-place Sally Kipyego of Kenya. Jorgensen finished 14th with a time of 2:41:01, and Conley placed 16th in 2:41:38.
While the three women were lumped together in much of the prerace coverage, the trio approached Sunday’s event with drastically different training strategies, goals, and expectations. To judge their performances based on their finish times alone would be an oversimplification, so we caught up with each of them to gain a little more perspective on their performances and to find out what makes a successful first marathon.
OUTSIDE: What was your goal going into this race?
Molly Huddle: It was my first marathon, and New York is a hard course. My goal was to make sure I finished hard and to have a smooth run, to not have any disasters as far as fueling or pacing. I was more focused on place than time.
Gwen Jorgensen: I didn’t have any goals or expectations. I was excited to race because it was something different and something out of my comfort zone. It was so nice to go into a race with no expectations or pressure to perform.
Kim Conley: My biggest goal was to finish the race well and to be excited about my future in the marathon. I had trained as if I could run under 2:30, but I knew that depending on the conditions and how the race played out, running that time might not happen.
How do you feel about your performance overall?
Huddle: I am mostly happy with it. I was 12 seconds away from second place, so I maybe could have run a bit smarter at the beginning. I finished feeling like I want to do another one.
Jorgensen: I was disappointed with my result, but I’m not sure what I would have been happy with. I know I gave it my best, so that’s all I can ask of myself, but I still wanted to be better. I think that’s what makes me an elite athlete.
Conley: It was the hardest race I have ever run. My goal was to finish strong and excited about future marathons, but the whole second half was a struggle, and I was very relieved to have finished at all by the time I crossed the line. It was humbling, to say the least.
How did you change your training for the marathon distance?
Huddle: We had to adjust my mileage. It was a bit of a cram between Rio and the marathon. I came home, took a down week, and then had about ten weeks to train. I had a little injury flare-up with tendonitis, but then some solid weeks where we had the appropriate mileage: 20 or 30 miles a week up from my norm.
Jorgensen: I only had four weeks to prepare for the marathon, so we didn’t change much. I started increasing my long run from 11 miles to 15.5 miles, and I did one marathon workout a week, which was usually 3x6–7K.
Conley: I ran higher volume more consistently than I ever have and did much longer strength-oriented workouts.
Do you think you’ll continue to run marathons?
Huddle: Next year, I’ll focus on track. So I won’t run one next year, but probably in 2018.
Jorgensen: Right now, I would like to have a family with my husband, Patrick, and then focus on the Tokyo 2020 Games. We have a very good formula with the triathlon and my current coach, Jamie Turner.
Conley: I really enjoyed the buildup, and despite the outcome of this race, I do believe I can run a better marathon. I’m not in a rush to put another one on the schedule, but it’s definitely a challenge I intend to tackle again.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently to prepare?
Huddle: I’d say I probably could have done a little more work on hillier terrain. Sally [Kipyego] passed me on the uphills—on the Queensboro Bridge. And I wasn’t that strong on the hills in Central Park, but I think everyone, even the winner, felt that. I’d also probably allow for an extra week or two of training.
Jorgensen: I would have loved to have run more, run harder, and had more time. But the reality is I didn’t have time, so I couldn’t have changed anything with the time I had to prepare. I do think I underestimated the hard surfaces we had to race on. I should have done some more training on the pavement and less on trails.
Conley: Next time, I will enter the race with more specific parameters about pace and commit to staying within them. I felt great in the early miles and allowed myself to connect with the lead pack and run splits that were just a shade faster than I had prepared to run. It didn’t seem like a big difference in the moment—roughly five seconds per mile—but I think that caught up to me, and I paid for it mightily in the second half of the race.
What aspect of this race are you most proud of?
Huddle: Closing well, rather than fading into the finish. I wasn’t sure how that would go.
Jorgensen: When the pace was too quick between miles three and six, I sat up and began to just run my race.
Conley: I think having this experience under my belt will be a source of strength in the future. Although many people tried to warn me, I really had no idea how hard it would get, and I think the only way to fully understand what to expect in a marathon is by suffering as much as I suffered in the last ten miles.
What, if anything, took you by surprise?
Huddle: How early and quickly the race broke open. It really broke down to two or three women up front. I thought I’d have more of a pack to run with and was surprised to run totally alone for so long.
Jorgensen: I was shocked with how many fans lined the street. I saw signs for me and heard so many cheers. I wish I would have had more energy to thank them while running.
Conley: The onset of fatigue occurred much earlier than I had anticipated.
What’s next for you?
Huddle: I have a bit of downtime, and then we’ll plan my next race. I usually do a half in early spring. We’ll do that, but the only solid thing is track season. I have my eye on the world championships in the 10K.
Jorgensen: Patrick and I would like to start a family, but that is not something you can just say you want to do and make it happen. We will see what happens, but that’s something that we both want.
Conley: I’m taking a break from training now and will return to the track in the spring.
What advice would you give to others making their marathon debut?
Huddle: Try not to go in undertrained. The key workouts are obviously the long runs, but also make sure you take care of yourself in nonrunning ways, like massages and physical therapy, to avoid injury.
Jorgensen: Enjoy the run. It’s very challenging, but you get to run through some amazing streets, crowds, and fans. Enjoy the moments, and take in your surroundings.
Conley: Be patient, and don’t get lured into running faster than you’re prepared to during those early miles.