How Olympic marathoner Molly Seidel found a way to run again

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Molly Seidel ran her first marathon in February at the U.S. Olympic trials in Atlanta — finishing second and qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The games have been postponed, but Seidel, 26, continues to train and will compete in her second marathon Oct. 4 with an elite group of runners at the London Marathon. What follows is the story of her journey of recovery from anxiety, depression and disordered eating told in her words.

THE RACE DIDN’T really start for me until Mile 16. It was the Olympic marathon trials in Atlanta on Feb. 29, and I was competing in my first marathon — ever. My focus until recently had been the 10K. The first 16 miles, I kept reminding myself to stay with the pack, stay calm, stay controlled, just try to do it. This wasn’t like any of the 5Ks or 10Ks I’ve competed in before. This was different. Everyone knew it. Even I knew it. But I just wanted to stay conservative, be smart.

Then I got to Mile 16. I looked around, and I was still with the front group. I said to myself, “I feel pretty good.” Mile 19 hits. Aliphine Tuliamuk and I make the move and break away. Now, all of a sudden, we’re leading. I didn’t want to get too ahead of myself or psych myself out, but once I hit those last 7 miles, it started to really sink in. “OK, you have to go harder than you’ve ever gone, and if you do that, you’re going to make this team,” I remember telling myself.

Shortly after Tuliamuk crossed the finish line in first place, I followed in second. I qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in 2 hours, 27 minutes, 31 seconds. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve had this dream. To make the Olympics is the greatest dream of any runner. And I did it.

IN THE PAST, I’ve struggled with positive self-talk and being able to manage this feeling of going hard but conserving energy and staying strong. I changed up my training from low mileage and high intensity for 10Ks to long distances for marathons in early 2019 to help get me healthier physically and mentally. For this — my first marathon — I had to keep my emotions in check. And I did. I was mentally keyed in. I was patient. I felt like a different Molly. And I looked like a different Molly. But I was still Molly — the person, not just the runner.

About two months before the Olympic trials, I wanted everyone to know the real Molly. I went on my close friend Julia Hanlon’s podcast called “Running On Om,” and I decided to get real — like really, really real. It was scary. But I felt ready. This was the first time I went public with my story about receiving treatment for disordered eating in 2016 and my struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety.

People who are close to me knew what I was going through during my time at Notre Dame, from 2012 to 2016. They knew my OCD had manifested itself into disordered eating. They knew I struggled to eat anything I deemed unhealthy. They knew I thought I had to be super lean and super fit all the time, never even allowing myself to eat a bowl of mac and cheese or go out to eat with friends without worrying about what I would order. I’ve never tried to hide what I went through with my family and friends.

When I was in the NCAA, it was obvious I was battling an eating disorder. It was so obvious that people would write on track and field message boards that I looked sick. But nearly four years later, I got to have ownership over my story, not just some random person commenting on a message board. Once I did the podcast, a weight was lifted. I felt like, OK, I can finally talk about what happened. I’m in a healthier mental state. Now I feel like I’m finally ready to go and do this.

Revealing all of this is a double-edged sword. The podcast was followed up by an article in a magazine the week of trials, and suddenly I was the Eating Disorder Runner or the Once-Great Runner Who Overcame an Eating Disorder. But I’m much more than that.

While running for Notre Dame, I was the fastest woman in the NCAA. I specialized in the 10K. Marathons weren’t even on my radar. I became Notre Dame’s first individual national champion in women’s track and field during my junior year, then won three more individual national championships in less than a year. I won the Mary Garber Award as the 2016 ACC Female Athlete of the Year. According to my running résumé, I had it all, but inside I was struggling with OCD, crippling anxiety and bulimia.

Four years ago, I could have competed in the Olympics. I could have signed a big sponsorship contract with a shoe company. But as my mental health deteriorated, my physical health went with it. I was sidelined by a string of injuries caused by my disordered eating. As my weight dropped, my bones became weaker and began to break. I needed help, and thanks to friends and family, I was able to see finally how deep I’d gone. So instead of competing in the Olympic trials in the summer of 2016 and signing a pro contract, I entered into a treatment program for my eating disorder. That’s how horrible things had become.

There were many times while in treatment, and in the time since, that I thought my running career might be over. Eating disorders are a shockingly common part of collegiate distance running, and it is all too familiar in this sport to watch a young woman succeed for a short time, crash from low body weight and energy availability, and never be heard from again. The comeback, of learning to run — or simply live — with a new body and a new approach to eating, is the hardest part.

When I crossed the finish line in Atlanta this year, my full, messy story was out there. And, to some degree, the media and people on the outside wanted to put a nice tidy bow on it. They wanted this marathon and the Olympics to be my new story: the next phase of Molly the Runner. But the reality is much messier. I will never overcome my eating disorder. I still struggle: I relapse and I actively deal with the ups and downs that come with chronic OCD, depression and anxiety. It’s not something that a nice tidy bow — like the Olympic trials or even the Olympics — can disguise.

SHORTLY AFTER THE postponement of the Tokyo Olympics in March, I started to nosedive. Those few months between going public with my story, qualifying for the Olympics and then the COVID-19 shutdown were a lot.

Normally, I live with my sister, Isabel, in Boston. She is a huge part of my support system. But when she went back to our hometown in Wisconsin in the early summer, I was alone in the apartment. And that’s when I started to struggle. In the past, I would have been like, “No, I’m fine. I can handle this on my own.” I would have cut myself off from people, and my life would have been full of self-destructive behavior. Back then, I didn’t have a toolbox to combat everything that I had struggled with since a young age. I didn’t have the mental techniques to get myself out of those dark moments.

This time was different. I had self-awareness and tools. I realized I needed my support system. I couldn’t be alone. I needed my family, so I went back home to Wisconsin for a month.

I know I’m going to struggle. It’s the realization that I’m going to struggle with things daily, especially during the coronavirus quarantine and the Olympic postponement. But I know I have people around who are willing to help me. I can be open about this stuff. I have a therapist. I have my family. I have my friends. All of these things have helped me through this time.

Obviously, there was a sadness to the Olympics being postponed. I would have loved to get to race this summer. But part of my recovery and mental health journey is all about realizing what I can control. And right now, I can’t control that the Olympics were postponed. I can, however, control how I view this postponement. Since I’m new to marathons, I’m looking at this postponement year as a big opportunity. I can use the extra time to my advantage and improve every aspect of my training.

Before the trials, I had five months of healthy training. And after the trials, the narrative buzzing around me was, “Molly Seidel’s second marathon will be the Tokyo Olympics.” Honestly, I didn’t want my second race to be the Olympics. This postponement allows me the time to gain more experience, train for an extra year, nail down my nutrition and run another marathon.

Instead of competing in Tokyo this August, I traveled to Flagstaff, Arizona, for altitude training. About eight weeks before the London Marathon in October, I learned I would be one of the elite racers competing overseas. A normal marathon training schedule is closer to 12 weeks, but just like the Olympic postponement, I realized the only thing I could control was utilizing the next two months to prepare.

Just having a marathon on the horizon is a big deal for me. I don’t know what my schedule will look like after London, but I do know I have a race on the calendar on Aug. 7 at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. And everything I do between now and then is geared toward preparing me as well as I possibly can for that race.

Beyond my training and marathon builds, I have to make sure that I’m focusing on my mental health over the next year. It’s by no means going to be seamless. I know there will be a lot of good times and bad times over this next year. I can’t just stay consistent in my training, but I also need to stay consistent in going to therapy and all the nitty-gritty stuff that isn’t quite as fun, but I have to maintain.

My mental health and disordered eating play directly into my marathon training. In order to maximize my training, I need to be open about my daily struggles. And with my coach, Jon Green, who is also one of my best friends, I can really talk openly with him. If I’m not eating well, I’m not training well. And Jon knows that.

The hardest part of marathon training right now is consuming enough calories. Running more than 125 miles a week with workouts in between during this condensed London Marathon build, I struggle with eating enough throughout the training process. I am teaching my body to consume the volume of calories needed to amplify my running. I am also learning that it’s OK to eat all the time — because I have to for fuel — and it’s OK to have a doughnut or cookie or a bowl of mac and cheese.

When you are in the midst of an eating disorder, it just takes up so much of your brain space all the time. That’s what I hate the most about it. You’re just thinking about it all the time and worrying about it. Today, I try to remind myself to not let it control my life — but it’s hard. But just like how my marathon training is hard at times, so is my recovery, and it’s something that I have to work up to.

Today, I would not be the runner I am without my struggles. I would not be the person I am without my struggles.

I don’t have to be perfect. The London Marathon won’t be perfect. It might not be the greatest race of my life, but it will be a learning experience. And it will bring me one step closer to the Olympics.

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