Molly Seidel: First come, first served 

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 29:  Molly Seidel reacts after finishing second in the Women's U.S. Olympic marathon team trials on February 29, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 29: Molly Seidel reacts after finishing second in the Women's U.S. Olympic marathon team trials on February 29, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

It’s 29 February in Atlanta, Georgia. Some of the biggest names in running are about to take part in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, hoping to book their ticket to Tokyo 2020. Among the field of seasoned and decorated athletes is someone who is running their first marathon. Ever. 

Her name is Molly Seidel. 

She’s 25 years old, holds down two jobs and, after her 2nd place finish that day, has qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

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So, that happened 🇺🇸 #olympicdream . . I can’t put into words the happiness, gratitude, and sheer shock I’m feeling right now but I’ll try... . Thank you @atlantatrackclub + @usatf for putting on an incredible race. Logistically managing that was a feat and you somehow pulled it off . Thank you to all the amazing women competing yesterday. It was an honor to race in the deepest field in marathon OTs history; many of these women are the heroes I grew up cheering for, and I’m continually inspired by the greatness of the women I’m surrounded by . Thank you to my family and friends for coming to Atlanta to support me, and for supporting me in all the other less-glamorous moments. These are the people that drove me to XC meets, made me PBJs, picked me up when I fell, and now get to share this incredible joy with me . Thank you to my coach & friend Jon Green. Thank you for helping me get to the line healthy and fit, and for being just as dumb as I am to think I could go out and compete in the marathon Olympic trials. #fullsendpjct forever 🤙🏼 . Thank you @saucony for supporting me regardless of whether I was injured or healthy. And for putting me in the greatest pair of shoes a marathoner could ask for . Finally, thank you to everyone out there cheering yesterday. It was incredible to run 26.2 miles and not hit a silent spot along the whole course. I will never forget this race as long as I live #teamUSA #olympictrials #teamtotal #runforgood PC: @justinbritton

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Promising beginnings 

To say that Molly Seidel shocked the sporting world that day would be an understatement. But the idea that she appeared out of nowhere is also a little off the mark. 

Only four years ago, Seidel was the leading female distance runner in the NCAA with four national titles to her name. She’d looked destined to make a breakthrough in a big way, but injury and personal issues took their toll on a highly promising career.

Before the U.S. Olympic Track Trials in 2016, Seidel was sidelined with a sacral stress fracture - or as most people would say, a broken back. She had also been quietly struggling for a long time with OCD that had led to the development of an eating disorder. 

As she told Runner’s World in a recent interview: “With OCD, you just have this anxiety all the time and feel like you can’t control anything, so you develop patterns and behaviours.”

“I would compulsively knock on things in specific patterns because you feel like you have some control over the universe. Over time with running, it developed into turning my eating or my running into a control mechanism.”

In the end, instead of embarking on a career in athletics, Molly Seidel sought treatment for her eating disorder. She checked into the REDI Clinic in Wisconsin for a period of four months, going on to spend a total of two years in therapy. 

It must have seemed at that time that her running career was over.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 29:  Molly Seidel reacts as she crosses the finish line in second play during the Women's U.S. Olympic marathon team trials on February 29, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 29: Molly Seidel reacts as she crosses the finish line in second play during the Women's U.S. Olympic marathon team trials on February 29, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
2020 Getty Images

26 miles from glory

Fast-forward to 2020 and Molly Seidel is about to compete against an all-star field at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. It was only two months earlier that she had qualified for the race after an impressive win in the Rock ’n’ Roll San Antonio Half Marathon. But going into the race, her expectations were modest.

Realistic, some might say.

“Tenth to 20th range would be a good day for me. All of these women are really good and have the times. I want to go out and be realistic, but not count myself out”, she told Runner’s World.

What happened next made history.

After a relatively quiet first 21 miles that even included her high-fiving her sister at the 7 mile mark, Seidel broke from the pack. Alongside Aliphine Tuliamuk and Sally Kipyego the break created daylight between the frontrunners and the chasing group.

It was a move that was destined to end in glory or spectacular failure, with Seidel acknowledging she would either “make the team or spectacularly go down in flames.”

By the time the race ended it was clear to everyone that the gamble had paid off. And in breathtaking fashion.

Not only had Seidel run the 10th fastest ever marathon by an American woman, she had also finished second.

And, by doing so, she fulfilled her dream of qualifying for the Olympic Games.

From ordinary to extraordinary

One of the most endearing parts of Seidel’s story is the fact that her life before the race appears to have been so normal. She still holds down two jobs, including one in a local coffee shop.

“I usually get up, do my main training session, come back, work a couple of hours at the coffee shop or go babysit, then can run later in the day,” she told the New York Times.

And it seems her customers have been far from wowed by her Olympic trials success.

“I told them I qualified for the Olympic trials, and they were excited, but they’re also like, ‘You’re a nerd who runs.’”

But if life beforehand was normal, it is about to take a spectacular turn as Seidel prepares to compete with the world’s best on the greatest sporting stage of all ⁠— the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Will there be another twist in the tale of the first-time marathon runner who shocked the world?