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Coming Full Circle, Huddle Hopes for NYC Marathon Magic Again on Sunday

By David Monti, @d9monti
Reproduced with permission from Race Results Weekly

NEW YORK (02-Nov) -- Twenty-sixteen was a magical year for 28-time national champion Molly Huddle.  The former Notre Dame star won the United Airlines NYC Half for the second time (setting a national record for an all-women's race), claimed the USA Olympic Trials titles at both 5000m and 10,000m, and finished sixth at the Rio Olympic Games in the 10,000m where she set a North American record of 30:13.17, a mark which would stand for more than six years.  She also made her long-awaited marathon debut at the TCS New York City Marathon, and finished third in 2:28:13, a very credible time in the pre-supershoe era.

"I love racing in New York," Huddle told reporters today in advance of Sunday's TCS New York City Marathon where Huddle hopes to finish her first marathon in more than four years.  "I feel like the energy always pulls a good performance out of me."

Indeed Huddle, 39, has been very successful racing in this city.  She made her half-marathon debut here in 2014, then proceeded to win the NYC Half the next three years in a row.  She won the Mastercard Mini 10-K in 2014 setting a then national record for an all-women's race (31:37).  She ran the New York City Marathon a second time in 2018, clocking a then personal best of 2:26:44 and finished fourth (she missed the podium by 22 seconds).  She also won the Abbott Dash to the Finish Line 5-K in both 2013 and 2017, the second win giving her yet another national title.  She even made the top-5 at the New Balance Fifth Avenue mile back in 2019, running 4:26.

"I think, maybe, my first marathon here was the most memorable," Huddle continued.  "It's so daunting to run your first marathon and this is a hard course to debut on and I just wasn't sure what would happen.  So, to finish on the podium was really confidence-boosting.  It was just a great day."

But a lot has happened for Huddle since that great day seven years ago.  After running a career best time of 2:26:33 at the TCS London Marathon in April, 2019, Huddle's next marathon was a disaster.  At the hilly, chilly, and windy USA Olympic Team Trials in Atlanta in February, 2020, Huddle was forced to drop out in the 21st mile because her "legs just got beat up really early and I was going backwards around [mile] 19," she told RunnersWorld.com.  By dropping out she was trying to save her legs for the Olympic Trials on the track, but because of the pandemic shutdown she never got the chance.  She also scratched from the 2021 Olympic Trials with hip and ankle injuries killing her chance of making a third Olympic team.

Late in 2021, Huddle became pregnant and she and husband Kurt Benninger welcomed a daughter, Josephine Valerie Benninger, on April 26, 2022.  Huddle did not return to competition until September, 2022, and after a solid fall season of racing and two good half-marathons in January and March, respectively, Huddle faced another setback last spring.  Late in March she suffered a grade three femoral shaft stress fracture and had to use crutches.  Plans to run the Ottawa Marathon last May were scrapped.

"Disappointed about this setback," she wrote on Instagram at the time.  "What I thought was a hip flexor strain last week turned out to be a stress fracture, so I'm out for a while."

Huddle got back into racing last September, running a strong 32:50 at the Long Gull 10-K in Gloucester, Massachusetts.  She hasn't raced since then, keeping her head down as she prepared for New York.  Looking back to that successful debut in 2016, it was impossible to know what would follow.

"I didn't know what to expect the first time; that's where you find out if you're suited for that distance and what your potential could be," Huddle said.  "I felt like after that day we thought it's something I could handle, something I wanted to explore more.  It's been a little bit up and down since then.  I feel like I ran well in New York the second time I was here, but I did kind of bounce back and forth between the marathon and the track and I feel like I'm at the phase now where it's just focusing on the marathon the last two years of my career and see what I can do.  That fits best with where my body's at."

It's a well-worn cliché to describe a marathon field as "loaded," but it's true of Sunday's race.  Huddle will line up with some of the history's best marathoners, including Kenya's Peres Jepchirchir, the 2021 NYC Marathon champion and three-time World Athletics Half-Marathon champion; Sharon Lokedi, the reigning race champion; Hellen Obiri, the 2023 Boston Marathon winner and a four-time world champion; and Brigid Kosgei, the former world record holder for the marathon (2:14:04).  Ethiopia's Letesenbet Gidey, the 10,000m world record holder, and Israel's Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, the 2022 World Athletics Championships Marathon bronze medalist and last year's runner-up here, are also in the field.  Huddle won't be benchmarking her performance against theirs.

"This is such a compelling women's field," Huddle marveled.  "The race for the win is going to be really exciting.  I'll definitely be watching the race to see what happened after I'm done, but I don't think I'll be mixing it up up there this year."  She continued: "I think I'm just trying to have my best possible race on the day.  I know what I can do and where I need to stay, pace-wise.  I'm just going to focus on that."

Huddle said she didn't want to go into next February's USA Olympic Team Trials Marathon without having a fall marathon under her belt.  She had hoped to run earlier in the fall, to give her more time to recover before the Trials, but with last spring's injury she needed more time to get ready.

"We had ideally hoped that I could run a marathon in the September time frame, but I got a stress fracture in March and I don't think I'd be ready in time," she explained.  "We didn't want to not do a fall marathon because I just haven't finished a marathon in a long time.  So, when the opportunity to run New York came around we thought, you know, we'll take that and do a little bit of a conservative build-up, and get across the finish line, have a good experience, and have a marathon under my belt."

As for a time goal, Huddle is hoping to achieve what is effectively the "B" standard for making the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.  Under next year's qualifying system the United States can send one athlete who has not achieved the full entry standard of 2:26:50 as long as at least three American women have made that standard and two of the three women named to the team have the full standard.

"Hopefully, run under the 2:29:30 time you need and then get ready for the Trials," Huddle said when asked about her main goals for the race.

Sunday's marathon will be Huddle's first as a mother.  New York Road Runners, the race founders and organizers, have given Huddle two rooms so Josephine can sleep with husband Kurt the night before the race and give Huddle more time to rest.  

"I'm hoping I get a boost from, like, sleeping and, like, having some space on Saturday," Huddle said.  "I got to sleep last night, too, which is great."