A few minutes with Molly Huddle

2010 was a great year for 5000 meter specialist Molly Huddle. In February she placed second in the USA Cross Country Championships behind Shalane Flanagan, then garnered another second place behind Lauren Fleshman at the USA Track and Field Championships in Des Moines in June.

Both could be considered breakout races, but the best was yet to come in Brussels in August. In that race Huddle squeaked just under Flanagan’s previous American record by less than half a second, running a 14:44.76. I caught up with the new outdoor 5K record holder when she was in New York for the Fifth Avenue Mile back in September. The soft-spoken Huddle made clear that, while she’s got her sights on the marathon eventually, she and her coach are taking an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to her status as a 5K competitor.

You’d mentioned earlier in the year that you wanted to run the 20K road championship in New Haven. But then you didn’t. How come?
My plan for the year, since there weren’t any World Championships on the track, was to just do a lot of those US road races and try a lot of the longer distances — New Haven would have been the longest race I’ve ever done — just as a way to look forward to the marathon and things beyond 2012. Just to see how I would handle it. But then I was over in Europe and I ran faster than I thought I would on the track. So I thought I would just stay over there, and was still there the day of the New Haven race.

Yes, it seems like you’re hitting your stride at the 5K, so was the feeling, “Why think of longer distances now?”
Yeah. The surest possible one I can stay at, I will.

Your coach didn’t believe that you could break Shalane Flanagan’s American record.
No. I didn’t either. No one really did. My workouts weren’t that great. If you were watching them, you would never think that. But he knows I race better than my workouts. He was saying, “Maybe if you get in the right race and have a little bit of luck on your side. If other aspects of the race are in your favor, you can get close to it.” But, yeah, I didn’t think I would either, honestly.

Shalane Flanagan is “Shalane Flanagan” — she’s an Olympic bronze medalist. Does that present a mental barrier at all?
Definitely. Even though I ran, like, four tenths of a second faster than she has, there’s still so much that she’s done that I haven’t come close to. The barrier is still there for me. But at least this has me having a little more confidence racing Shalane and everyone else who’s up there with her.

Do you see yourself as getting to a point where you’re competing against the likes of Dibaba and Defar?
I don’t know about competing against them. They probably have a better kick than Shalane in a race. I would probably go with them. But as far as trying for a medal, you never know. This year I’ve noticed the races getting even deeper. The race I ran the [American] record in, I was tenth. There were nine Kenyans ahead of me. So there are more and more women running from Kenya, and it’s just getting harder to medal. So, you never know. But the fact that I can make that comparison in my head — it’s not impossible: I ran this time and she ran this time. It’s something to kind of boost yourself.

Do you want to go after Shalane’s 10K record?
That’s a pretty fast record! I think that’s the type of thing where, in a championship race that goes out hard, you’re going to get it. There aren’t too many opportunities to run a 10K. They don’t have that many a year. So it would be hard to just call it out and go for it at Stanford or something. But if that ever happened, it would be at the Olympics or something, just running as fast as you can.

Over the course of this season did you experiment with different racing strategies?
Yes. When I was over there, it was kind of all for experience anyway. Whatever happens, happens. I just want to run fast. I was kind of more running my own races for certain time goals. It’s easy to get intimidated. “I don’t even know who this girl is, and she’s going to kick my butt. There’s four Africans that are going to beat me…” How do I know where I’m supposed to aim, for place? I just thought, “It’s my first time over. I’ll just run kind of passively and get dragged along, as close to 15 minutes [as possible],” because I wanted to break 15 minutes. So that’s what I did in Paris.

Then I realized that I actually do kind of have kick at the end at that pace. So I thought maybe I could run a little faster. But then in London it was kind of a tactical race, which I didn’t feel comfortable with. I still wanted to run fast, so I went with the rabbit and everyone else stayed back. But that didn’t work out well for me. By the end of the season I was like, “I just need to go with the flow of the race, sit in the pack comfortably, and then try to finish as high as I can placewise.” I actually ran faster doing that than I did when I was thinking about time.

Taking what you’ve learned over the summer, will you and your coach work on certain aspects of your racing?
Yeah, definitely. The year showed me that I do have a little bit of a kick, so we can work on making that better. Now it’s just about hanging on for the last 2K, to use the kick. We’ve tried different things.

Do you ever run in little tiny local road races?
Oh, yeah. In New England there’s one every other day of the week. I ran in a local 5K to get ready for the World Cross Country Championships this year, just drove half an hour and raced.

Do people recognize you?
Yeah, but usually from running with them. It’s a small running community, so we all train together. There are a couple of other Irish girls still around that I’ll see at the races, retired now, but still racing. Usually not like a fan or anything, though [laughs] — someone I know.

Is it strange or difficult to have to talk to the press before a race?
Yeah. Especially for me, because I’m not a good public speaker or interviewee. It’s not something that flows out of me. You feel like you always have to say the right thing. It’s hard, too, to say your goals out loud. It puts more pressure on yourself. I usually try not to get too specific with what I want to do before a race, like announcing it. For some people it works, but for me it’s just more pressure. This is kind of hard, though.

What’s the best thing about Providence? I liked the Newport Creamery when I was there.
Newport Creamery is good. Some good coffee shops. A lot of good Italian food. It’s kind of a hipster, artsy place. It’s a really young city, lots of colleges there. And it’s great that it has all those things. And I have a great training group there, which is good because the running is not so good. All that makes up for the lack of trails.

What’s the problem? Weather? Or terrain?
The weather’s good — there are lots of sunny days in Providence, actually. It’s the terrain. A lot of runners like the wide open trails, woods, forests. There’s just not room for that there. So we run on sidewalks, run through neighborhoods. But we have a good coach, a good group.

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