With a little over a year to go before the U.S. Olympic Trials take place in February 2020, it’s anyone’s guess who will make the women’s marathon team. On the one hand, there’s the old guard: Des Linden, Amy Cragg, and Shalane Flanagan, the trio who all finished in the top ten at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Though Flanagan’s plans for 2020 remain a mystery (take what you will from this Instagram post), Linden and Cragg will almost certainly be looking to secure another Olympic team spot next February in Atlanta. They will face formidable competition in the form of multiple national record holder Molly Huddle, 2:20-marathoner Jordan Hasay, as well as runners like Allie Kieffer, Kellyn Taylor, and Sara Hall—athletes who perhaps have yet to reach the limits of their potential.
And then there’s Emily Sisson. To some, it might feel presumptuous to include the 27-year-old Providence College alumna among a list of contenders. She has, after all, never run a marathon and will taking her first crack at the distance in London on April 28. But if Sisson’s performance at the Houston Half earlier this month is any indicator, we can expect great things. In that race, in what was only her third half marathon, Sisson ran 1:07:30, coming within six seconds of breaking Molly Huddle’s American record. Based on that result, Sisson might even have realistic shot at running sub-2:23 in London, which would make her the fastest marathon debutante in U.S. history.
We spoke with Sisson as she gears up for her first marathon, seeking her wisdom about racing and training.
Always Be Flexible
Despite her recent road racing success, Sisson believes she can still improve on the track. Needless to say, she’s already pretty good at running fast laps around the oval; in 2017, she competed in the 10,000-meters at the IAAF World Championships, and finished 9th in the final.
Regardless of how she fares in her marathon debut, Sisson definitely plans to compete in next summer’s 10,000-meter Olympic Trials. Since these will be held in Oregon in June (on a brand new, space age Hayward Field), it means that, like other ambitious runners, Sisson could conceivably make the Olympic team in both the marathon and the track 10K. Not that Sisson herself is thinking that far ahead.
“If the marathon goes well in London, then I’ll probably try to run the Olympic Trials next February,” Sisson says. “If it doesn’t go as well as we hope, then, well, I’m still pretty young and don’t feel that much pressure. It’s not as if this one race is going to be some huge deciding factor.”
Set Goals That Are Ambitious, But Realistic
Although her impressive half marathon in Houston caused a number of people to theorize about her potential over 26.2 miles, Sisson is hesitant to give a specific time goal for London.
“I can’t say right now what my time goal is, because I’m just too far out and haven’t really gotten into the marathon training yet,” she says. “I would like to be in the lower 2:20s and it would be a successful marathon for me if I could run around 2:23, but I’ll know a lot more based on how I handle this training. That will give me good feedback on whether that’s a reasonable goal to go after.”
Resting Is a Talent, Too
After a successful college career that included an individual NCAA title in the 5,000-meters in 2015, Sisson turned pro later the same year. At first, the transition from competitive collegiate athlete to full-on professional was a little disorientating, since Sisson suddenly found herself with a lot more free time. Along with learning to adopt a more professional approach to her sport by incorporating things like core work and massage therapy, this meant learning to take it easy.
“Some people like being really busy and having things to do and can get pretty restless. But I’m pretty good at resting in between runs. I’m fine with that,” Sisson says.
Find a Mentor (Ideally a National Record Holder)
Providence might not be as vaunted as a running hotspot as Eugene or Flagstaff, but, for Sisson, there was at least one major benefit of staying in her college town after graduation: Molly Huddle. The national record holder in the 10,000-meters also lives and trains in the Rhode Island capital. In recent years, Sisson and Huddle have become on-and-off training partners. Huddle is also running this year’s London Marathon and, though that technically makes her competition, Sisson says their relationship is weirdly non-competitive.
“I guess I’ve always viewed Molly as a bit of a mentor, so I feel like there wasn’t all that much competitiveness between us because I just kind of looked up to her and wanted to learn off her,” Sisson says. “I have learned so much, especially about how she conducts herself when something goes wrong. I think a lot of people look at athletes like Molly, who are so consistently successful, and think they must not have any hiccups, or anything, but that’s just not true. I’ve seen how she’s handled sickness and injuries. It’s never easy, but she’s just really good at making it look easy.”
Don’t Be a Slave to Your Watch
Among the many remarkable details of Emily Sisson’s career is the fact that, until last year, she didn’t own a GPS watch. (Sisson wasn’t wearing a watch when she raced in Houston, which might have cost her the half marathon record.) She says she has always had good “race instincts” and prefers to run against the people around her and not the clock.
“I know it sounds a little cheesy, but I do think I’m more dialed in and present, when, instead of trying to run certain splits, I’m trying to win,” Sisson says.
Of course, in London, where the elite field will include five women who have run under 2:19, winning probably won’t be in the cards.
“I’m probably going to race with a watch from now on, because I really wish I had one in Houston,” Sisson says. “I’ll definitely wear one in London.” Look out.