Distance runner Molly Huddle could qualify as a world-class worrier. That doesn’t concern her; she gets good mileage out of the trait.
“I have learned to work with it,” said Huddle, who is seeking her fifth U.S. title of the season Sunday in the .US National 12K in Alexandria, Virginia. “Worriers have strengths too, even though they’re kind of annoying to everyone around them.”
Huddle laughed, and then explained that worriers are good planners. “The things we worry about are usually things that we fear happening, so we will plan accordingly and we’re usually pretty well-prepared.”
She has blogged about what she calls “her usual pre-race neurotic arc.”
“It’s a little too warm out, my legs feel terrible, oh my god…no wait, it’s my heart. Am I dying? Is that a lump!?? What is this race anyway, in the grand scheme of the universe? Why am I really HERE?”
Before the race, Huddle will talk through her anxieties with a coach, husband Kurt Benninger, or one of her training partners. “I’m just unloading a lot onto them,” Huddle said, “but I think you feel much lighter, so it has a purpose.”
Judging by the way Huddle, 30, has been running this season, she looks like she doesn’t have a care in the world.
Huddle has won three national titles on the road – 5K, 7-miles and 20K – and won her second national 5,000-meter title on the track in Sacramento, California, by outkicking rival Shannon Rowbury.
She also ran a half-marathon in March, placing third, and had her fastest clocking on the track in the 10,000 with a time of 30 minutes, 47.59 seconds. That was a whopping 40-second improvement.
Huddle won a mile run in Dublin and then lowered her own American record in the 5,000 at the Diamond League meet in Monaco with a time of 14 minutes, 42.64.
“It’s been pretty much a dream year for me,” said Huddle, who trains in Providence, Rhode Island. “As an athlete you have to be grateful when the goals you had at the beginning of the year are all checked off and there’s nothing left.
“So for me, it’s rare. I haven’t had a season where it’s gone so smoothly before.”
When she crossed the finish line in Monaco to break her American record by nearly 2 seconds, Huddle pumped her fist like she’d won, even though she placed sixth.
People in the stands, she said, “might have wondered why I was so happy with a loss. But it definitely was a victory, a race within a race.”
Rowbury, her U.S. rival, was with her with 600 meters to go and also in American record territory. “Records aren’t everything, but they are worth a lot!” Huddle recalled in her blog. She used her fear to stay alert and on pace.
“I had to be excited walking away with another American record,” she said.
Her only quibble with this year is that there is no major event, no Olympic Games or world championships.
“Oh, I wish,” said Huddle, who competed in the 5,000 at the 2011 and 2013 World Championships (placing sixth last year in Moscow for the highest finish by an American woman in the event). She also finished 11th at the London 2012 Olympic Games in the 5,000.
Back in 2010, when she posted her first American record in the 5,000, she had the same thought.
“You want to catch those years when you have a lot of momentum and confidence,” she said, “so I can keep it rolling till next year, I hope!”
Because there is no big event on the track, Huddle has been able to spend more time on the roads, where she said it’s taken her a couple of years to finally feel comfortable. She will run at least 10 races on asphalt, more than she ever has before.
“I definitely hit the roads hard this year,” Huddle said, “I enjoy the road racing a lot, but I will say I’m getting kind of tired. I’m feeling the effects of the extra races, and I’ll be glad to be done at the end of November.”
Going into Sunday’s 12K, she’s the defending champion after out-dueling Shalane Flanagan last year to set an American record of 37:50 at the seldom-run distance. This time Huddle expects Kellyn Johnson, Sara Hall and Janet Cherobon-Bawcom to give her a run for the money: $20,000 to the champion.
Huddle said she may run a Thanksgiving Day race in Manchester, Connecticut, which is about 4.6 miles. “It’s a pretty historic one and I’m from New England,” said Huddle, who grew up in Elmira, N.Y., “so if I still have steam left I’ll do that one and then I’ll take a nice break.”
Huddle loves the festival atmosphere of road races, which she ran before stepping on a track. It was a family affair, with Huddle’s father and grandfather, who is now 92, also lacing up their track shoes. All three ran the U.S. 5 km Championships in Providence in 2012, with Huddle winning.
“It’s just kind of cool that so many different ability levels and ages and motivation for running all come together and do the same event,” Huddle said. “I always liked how even though the competition is fierce, you’re a little more relaxed on the line. It’s more of a fun atmosphere amongst the competitive runners, too.”
In June at the Oakley New York Mini 10K, Huddle ran a personal best time of 31:37, breaking Mary Decker Slaney’s national all-women’s 10K record — which had stood for 30 years — by a second. She was also the first American woman to win the race in 10 years and received from runner-up Mamitu Daska of Ethiopia “the greatest compliment I’ve ever gotten.”
“It was as kind of an unexpected win for me,” Huddle said. “We were battling all the way through. She would pull ahead and I would fall off a little bit, and then come back. She kept thinking, ‘Can’t get rid of this girl.’”
Daska subsequently called Huddle “ferocious.”
“When a competitor says something like that out loud after a race,” Huddle said, “you hold that with you for future motivation.”
She’ll carry that into next year, where she plans to concentrate on the 10,000 on the track instead of the 5,000.
Unlike the shorter distance, the 10K does not have rounds at major competitions such as the 2015 World Championships in Beijing.
“I feel like I don’t handle the prelims very well, as far as recovery,” said Huddle. “I feel like I pretty much did all I could last year to finish as high as I could in the 5K (sixth, behind five runners from either Kenya or Ethiopia), and I just am not sure how to bridge that gap, so I’m hoping the 10K will be a little better for me.”
She also has aspirations of running her first marathon before 2016.
“I’ve been saying that for a couple of years now and I haven’t done one,” Huddle said, “but I would like to do one in the next three years. It’s up to my coach (Ray Treacy) as to when that will happen, but my training partners are both marathoners (Team USA’s Amy Hastings and New Zealand’s Kim Smith), so they could teach me a lot of good things about that.”
Huddle, who earned multiple All-America honors but no NCAA titles at Notre Dame, has been called “a late bloomer” by Treacy, who is known as “the guru” in distance circles. She knows she will have to add more volume to her workouts and already puts in some 100-mile weeks compared to 70- or 80-mile weeks in the past.
It’s conceivable that going into the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Huddle could take her pick between the 5,000, the 10,000 and the marathon.
With that kind of promise, it would seem she’d have nothing to fret about except what color to paint her fingernails before each race.
“That’s kind of my tradition,” Huddle said. “It’s a fun project to do the day before the race, and I try to get creative with it. I think people are starting to expect it now.”
Her most elaborate design was for the Morton Mile, where she went with an Irish motif of lime green and dark green stripes “that were pretty hard to do with my left hand,” she said.
Huddle usually posts a photo of her fingernails on Instagram after her races.
Other photos might show her wearing a nasal strip, which she said has been good for her allergies.
“I always tell Saucony (her shoe sponsor) to just Photoshop it out if they need to,” Huddle said. ”They’re not the most photogenic thing, but as long as they work, I will wear it.”
And that’s one less thing to worry about.