If you haven’t been watching rising star, Molly Seidel, you should be. She is fast. She is feisty. She is smart. She is a badass and she is making her mark on the running world! She will no doubt continue on a swift, upward trajectory; having amazing talent, an impressive work ethic, a strong support network, and even the prayers of Pope Francis to support her.
After an incredible high school career, Molly is now hitting a high point with her running at Notre Dame. This year alone, she won two NCAA titles and obliterated the infamous Foot Locker Curse. I had the good fortune of meeting Molly a couple of weeks ago at the Foot Locker Midwest Cross Country Championships, where we talked about her career to date, what’s in her future, and her approach to running that has made her a role model in the sport of Women’s Running.
Molly had her start at a small high school in Hartland, Wisconsin called University Lake School, a school that had a fledgling cross country team and no track team when she came in as a freshman. As a result of no formal program she requested one-on-one coaching from her middle school coach, Brian Borkowski, a Boston marathoner and elite runner himself. In spite of having to run by herself much of the time, Molly says that getting out there day after day on her own really helped to develop her character and helped her learn to push herself.
The result: Molly fell in love with running and enjoyed a stellar high school career! Her accomplishments included winning the Division 3 Wisconsin State Championship all four years of high school, an honor only she and former Olympian Suzy Favor-Hamilton hold. Her senior year, she won the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships in San Diego, California and was named the Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year. She accomplished this running an average of 30 miles per week.
When it came time for college her mom encouraged her toward nearby Notre Dame, but Molly resisted at first. She wanted to do her own thing and considered Harvard, Stanford… “anywhere but Notre Dame.” But once she visited the campus she felt it was the perfect place.
Unfortunately the start of her collegiate career was plagued with a laundry list of ailments, including severe illness due to mold in her dorm room, two stress fractures, achilles tendonitis, a cracked sacrum, sciatica, a stress reaction, and IT band issues. She says her hardest race to date was Nationals her freshman year, when she was coughing up blood on the starting line and came in 271st. For an athlete used to leading the pack it was brutal, but she tipped her hat to her supportive teammates.
Training under Matt Sparks
Two years ago, Notre Dame hired a new cross country and track coach, Matt Sparks. Like Borkowski, he was a game changer–and a life changer–for Molly. He taught her to listen to her body and quiet her inner drive to hammer every workout. She says “He’s the calm, cool collected yang to my crazy yin.”
Sparks has also has helped Molly boost her confidence and realize she has a place on the national running stage. She said it is hard to grow up admiring people and then envision yourself running at the same level. After two tough years, Molly pulled out a stunning and unexpected win at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field 10K Championship in 33:18, her 3rd 10k and first win with Sparks.
While she started out in college running relatively low mileage (60-65 mpw), she has successfully been able to build up to 90 or more miles per week. The jump started out as a bit of an accident. Molly’s major in anthropology has taken her all over the world, and during a stint in the mountains of Argentina, she found she was logging miles in the 80-85 range. Coach Sparks took notice that she was handling the increased training load so well that he continued working with her at that level. He has reduced the super fast and intense workouts to ward off the threat of injury and instead focuses on longer tempo workouts, which has allowed Molly to gradually become stronger.
How Does She Do It?
It’s no doubt that many runners would love to run the mileage Molly does! But when I called her a work horse, she laughed, “If anyone said that my freshman year of college, I would have said no way!” But ultimately, she committed to her training. She thinks that applies to us all: “A lot of people are very quick to think, ‘my body is not built that way – my body can’t handle that.’ A lot of times it just takes a couple of tweaks. I’m constantly amazed by what the human body is capable of and I’m still amazed that my body can handle week after week high mileage and still feel as good as it does. I’m incredibly blessed to have the physiology to handle that and to find out what works for me personally.”
She also believes in the power of being a complete athlete to help her stay healthy at high mileage. She grew up in a multi-sport environment and skis, mountain-bikes and skateboards to round out her training and prevent muscle imbalances.
NCAA Championship and Pope Francis.
Her hard work certainly paid off on Saturday, November 21 at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. She went into the race a bit concerned as she had hurt her knee earlier in the week in a bike crash. But that morning, one of her mother’s good friends from college had met with Pope Francis and he said a prayer for Molly Seidel and the girls of Notre Dame. It certainly didn’t hurt to have papal support behind her that day! Her coach reassured her that she was ready, and so she arrived confident at the starting line and went on to a commanding win with an impressive 19:28.6 for the 6k race.
What’s In Molly’s Future?
Molly’s biggest goal right now is to stay healthy and start the year strong. “Hopefully if I can do that, good things will come from it. Things will fall into place from there.” Molly has one more year of college, but she has even bigger goals long term. She has always dreamed of going pro and chasing a spot in the Olympics. Rio in 2016, anyone?
Molly has done a bit of youth coaching and hopes to continue in the future. “I’m a total nerd,” she says about writing training plans. To Molly, it’s exciting to see young kids come out and get involved in running. She also enjoys being a mentor to some of her younger teammates, encouraging them to “be brave enough to know when you need to rest and know when you need to hold back a little bit if you want to save it.”
At this point you might already think Molly is some kind of running phenom, but there’s MORE.
A while back I wrote a piece for SR criticizing the athletic associations of 10 states because middle and high school girls are relegated to running shorter distances than boys. In that post, I included a letter Molly sent to ESPN. It was great to ask her about it and hear her direct view on the subject:
I got so much crap for that letter actually. A lot of older men telling me how stupid I was. It frustrated me so much when we would go to the meets like Foot Locker and all the girls from other states had been consistently running 5ks throughout the year. And a lot of Wisconsin girls, a lot of my friends, would say that they didn’t want to race Foot Locker because they never ran a 5k during the season. It was so frustrating to see enormously talented girls from our state counting themselves out because state administrators didn’t believe they could run that distance. I was so happy when they switched to the 5k, because it’s huge for Wisconsin running! If you want to run with the best people in the country, you have to be racing the distances.
Unfortunately the frustration followed Molly to college, where women continue to run shorter distances than men.
I think it’s frustrating and the argument keeps coming back, ‘Oh we’ll lose a lot of girls. They won’t want to do cross country if we move the distance.’ I just think that’s completely untrue. There are a lot of men who race for 10k in cross country that are milers in the regular track season here. So I think that over the next couple of years we’ll see the same kind of movement happening in the collegiate and the professional level as well.
As mentioned above, Molly crushed the ‘Foot Locker Curse’: until her, no female Foot Locker National Cross County champion had also become the NCAA champion in 34 years. Molly’s heard enough about that curse, but I couldn’t let an article about her go without mention of the other curse she recently broke:
Before we wrapped up, I asked Molly what advice she’d give to other runners and those coming up behind her.
Enjoy what you’re doing and just have fun. At the end of the day, it’s just running. It’s not complicated. Did you go out and put one foot in front of the other? If you’re having fun and loving what you’re doing, that’s the most important thing. I try to never forget that. If you can come from it at that standpoint, you’re going to love it.
Thank you, Molly! We hope you have a long and successful career ahead.
Do you have any further questions for or about Molly? Do you think other young runners should advocate for distance equality in cross country?