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The Champion Returns

By Barbara Huebner

When Molly Huddle won the United Airlines NYC Half last year in 1:08:31, tying the course record, she didn’t just become the first American woman champion of the event in its 10-year history. She also set an American mark for a women-only race and kicked off a season about which most athletes can only dream.

In the midst of that dream season came her worst nightmare.  

On August. 24 at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing, Huddle walked off the track sobbing, her head in her hands. Moments before, the 10,000-meter bronze medal had been within her grasp. But in a stunning and uncharacteristic lapse, she eased up just before the finish and was passed by American teammate Emily Infeld.

Even Infeld felt bad for Huddle, saying in a post-race interview how much she looked up to her.

Huddle soon gave Infeld—and anyone else paying attention—even more reason to admire, respect, and fear her. On September 7, a mere two weeks after the devastating Beijing finish, Huddle went out and crushed the field in the USA 20K Championships, winning the national title by more than a minute over her closest competitor.

It was the beginning of a 10-week onslaught that would bring four more national titles and a new definition of resiliency.

“It was Molly, so it didn’t surprise me at all,” said Amy Cragg, who was one of Huddle’s training partners in Providence, RI, at the time. “She just kept going.”

Huddle, 31, returns to the United Airlines NYC Half as not only the defending champion, but also the most dominant American woman in the sport since the end of 2013, when she closed out her season by setting a world’s best at 12K.

Of the 21 national titles she has earned so far in her career, six of them—at 5K, 10K, 12K, 10 miles, and 20K on the road, and 10,000 meters on the track—came in 2015, after five titles the year before. Last year also saw Huddle set an American record when she won the B.A.A. 5K in 14:50.

In June 2014, Huddle broke the American record for an all-women 10K when she won the NYRR New York Mini 10K. Later that summer, she put her name in the history books again when she set the American record for 5000 meters on the track (14:42.64).

That was also the year she made her debut at 13.1 miles, finishing third in the NYC Half in what she calls “a test” before focusing on last year’s event by increasing her training volume. The move paid off, not only in the NYC victory, but also by making Huddle stronger throughout the season. This winter, she’s added even more volume, reaching about 18 miles on her longest runs as she looks toward her marathon debut. That might come this fall—hopefully after a successful U.S. Olympic Trials and a trip to Rio.

“It scares me less and intrigues me more the last two years,” Huddle said of the marathon. “I definitely feel excited to try it. It seems like a whole other sport compared to track. It feels like a fresh challenge, really.”

The challenge may be nothing compared to the one she met and conquered following her World Championships heartbreak.

“I don’t know if I was trying to prove or undo anything,” Huddle said. “I’m just glad I had racing at that point. It felt good to run hard. It was just to do for me, more than to show people anything.”

But she did show people something, and if the soft-spoken, modest Huddle won’t put herself up as an example, Cragg will do it for her.

“She wasn’t going to roll over and hide,” said Cragg. “She just put her head down, decided to refocus, and came back with a vengeance, [showing] you can press through and keep going even when things don’t go right.

“It’s so impressive.”

Watch live coverage of the 2016 United Airlines NYC Half in New York on WABC-TV, Channel 7, from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. EDT, following the action from start to finish.

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