With two past Olympics under her belt in shorter track distances, runner Molly Huddle was ready for a “new challenge” in 2020.
This time around, she’s tackling the marathon, a major change from 5Ks and 10Ks that she focused on for most of her career. Huddle, 35, has held the American record in both distances and went to the Olympics for each event in 2012 and 2016, but she “always wanted to try the marathon.”
“It just seems like an epic challenge to me,” she tells PEOPLE. “So that kind of became my focus for the last four years.”
Huddle’s current marathon personal best is 2:26:33, which she ran at the London Marathon in 2019, and she’s one of the top contenders for the three spots on the U.S. marathon team, which will be decided at the Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta on Saturday.
Huddle finished up her long runs about two weeks ago, and now she’s focused on “getting the last minute preparations done,” like packing every possible clothing option for the Atlanta weather (which looks to be a fairly-chilly-for-Atlanta 52 degrees with partly cloudy skies) and figuring out her fueling options.
She also had to consider the abnormally enormous field of runners at this year’s trials. For this Olympic cycle, USA Track and Field changed the qualifying standard to allow any woman who could run a 2:45 marathon to compete, and there will be 511 women toeing the start line this year — more than double the 246 who ran in 2016.
“It’s been really exciting to see all these women latch on to this goal and qualify,” Huddle says. “The stories of the women on the starting line are really amazing, with all these people who are not professional runners.”
It’s also become complicated for race organizers, who committed to paying for everyone’s flights and to allow every runner to have their own water bottles of fuel at several points along the 26.2-mile course, which includes three 8-mile loops.
“The fueling tables have been a hot topic, because we will all overlap each other,” she says. “I’ve talked to other [top] women, we’re relying on the [energy] gels, because if you miss a table, you always have a gel. I use the Gatorade Endurance Energy Gels and I always stick one on my bottle and one in my bra top.”
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Huddle says she hopes the caffeine gels in particular will give her a boost on the tough Atlanta course, which has rolling hills throughout the three loops and then “some fairly steep hills in the last few miles.”
“You really have to conserve something for the end of the race and know that positions could flip upside down the last few miles just based on that course getting kind of exponentially harder,” she says. “There’s just a lot of variables with the marathon. So you want to make sure you’ve got plan A, B and C for if something unexpected happens.”
And outside of marathon race day, Huddle has a few backup plans in mind. If she’s not one of the three to make the U.S. team in the marathon, she plans to go back to the track and try to make the team in 5 or 10K.
“Fortunately in the U.S. they structure it so you can compete in both trials,” she says.