Molly Huddle knows what it takes to kick to a win in the USA Championships 5000–she’s been on both ends of the decisive end-of-race move. In 2010, the Notre Dame grad saw Lauren Fleschman unleash a kick over the last lap-and-a-half that left her in the runner-up position. Later that season Huddle would clock an American Record 14:44.76 to establish her world class credentials.
In 2011, she unquestionably had an easier time of it, as a host of big names scratched, including Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, Jenny Simpson and Shannon Rowbury. The best remaining kicker in the field, Huddle churned out a 64.06 closer that gave her a 4.3 second win over Amy Hastings.”I was thinking that if I made it to Worlds, I would need to close in a 2:10 800, so I was trying to simulate that,” she said.
In 2012 at the Olympic Trials, Huddle led and found herself decisively outkicked by Julie Culley, having only produced a 66.52 last circuit.
Likewise in 2013, the race played out similarly, but that time it was Jenny Simpson who lurked behind Huddle’s lead before outkicking her. Simpson finished in 62.51, Huddle 64.09.
One thing Huddle has clearly learned over her distinguished career is that all finishing kicks are relative. Whether or not a runner’s kick is “decisive,” depends completely on how fast the competition can kick. In 2011, Huddle probably had it a bit easy. In 2014, Huddle knew that wouldn’t be the case.
The line-up for the 12.5 laps in Sacramento included Shannon Rowbury and Marielle Hall. Rowbury, now coached by Alberto Salazar, won the bronze medal in the 1500 in the 2009 Worlds. The veteran had recently peeled off a 4:03.36 at the adidas meet in New York, and two weeks before that had nailed the American Record for the two mile (9:20.25). More to the point, in her previous 5000 this season, at the High Performance meet at Eagle Rock, she kicked over the last 300 to win with a final lap of 64.5. One of her victims was Ethiopia’s Buze Diraba, a 14:50.02 performer.
More of an unknown quantity, at least at this level, was Marielle Hall. The recent Texas grad, in only her second season at the 5000, had emerged with a beautiful kick to win the NCAA title. She topped the field there with a 15:35.11, capped by a last lap of 63.64 and a final 200 of 30.4.
Huddle knew that she would have to press the pace to create some equity on the kick. She also is wily enough to know that pressing the pace is not enough, and that a quality field like this one would not be destroyed by mid-race heroics. So she had a special plan for the last lap.
To be honest, fireworks were absent for most of the race, and little happened that anyone would find surprising. For the first two laps, Huddle ran alongside Jessica Tebo. After that, she took the lead all upon herself. Hall did what any well-coached neophyte with a kick would do, and went to her shoulder. Rowbury ran behind them–her mission to wait for the finish being quite clear.
Huddle made the pace honest–though it is important to note it was not as fast as her seasonal best of 14:55.90. She hit 3000m in 9:13.49, a 15:22 pace. After 3400, her pace started winding up, from 1:13-1:14 per lap, to 1:11.33, 1:10.81, 1:09.84. Behind her, the pain became evident. Her first shifting of gears pulled the three top women away from the rest of the field. Thirty seconds later, Hall–running far faster than her PR pace–started to slip away.
Rowbury, as expected, moved into kicking position, right on Huddle’s shoulder, ready to pounce. When the bell rang for the last lap, Huddle turned it up. As she explains, “In most of my races, good or bad, there’s a moment where I question if I can pull off the goal and that was when the bell rang at 400 to go.
“I tried to learn from last year’s loss to Jenny [Simpson] at USA’s and to Shannon (and Gabe Grunewald) at the London Diamond league and realized that as 1500m runners those girls are used to close finishes, where every move and acceleration is a little more nuanced. The effects are more exaggerated and every second is a little more action-packed than the 5/10,000 where I’m used to just hanging on then spending all my energy–however it goes–on the last lap as the competition is often a lot more spread out by then.”
This time, Huddle decided to layer her kick. “I tried to go about 80% hard at the bell instead of 100% and save something to respond in the finishing stretch. I prepared myself to lean at the line if I had to. Although I had tried to take the sting out of Shannon’s finish in the 4,600m leading up to the kick , I still figured I would have a hard battle when it came to her strengths as a 1500 medalist in the sprint home.”
On the backstretch, wondering if her sprint was giving her any leeway, she stole a glance over her shoulder at Rowbury–still there. Then, with 200 to go, Rowbury burst into the lead. Huddle had seen this movie before, only this time she had rewritten the ending. She didn’t let go of Rowbury, and pursued her all the way to the homestretch, gaining momentum with every step.
Spotting an opening, Huddle dashed to the inside to try to pass her. Rowbury smoothly slid over to close the lane. At that late stage, a closed lane will often mean end of hope. But Huddle decelerated, and went around Rowbury from the outside. Rowbury responded by moving outside. Huddle took the lead only nine meters from the finish and crossed ahead of a stunned Rowbury. Her last 400 took only 62.42 (Rowbury ran 62.44), and her last 200 only took 30.4–and that with the lane changes!
Recounts Huddle, “So I’d say it was more calculated than emotional. I planned to follow close if Shannon went around me and try to take the inside. When I couldn’t get there in time, she closed it off, so I tried to go outside and just went as hard as I could as she forced us both out wider again. I had envisioned a close finish in practice a few times so I felt a little prepared. I think in those situations, it’s almost a bit of an advantage to come from behind, especially when it’s so loud that you can’t hear how close the other competitor is.”
There’s an old bit of wisdom that’s so oft-quoted it’s become a bit of a cliché: “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” Huddle came perfectly prepared to Sacramento, physically and mentally. More importantly, she had the courage to rethink her instincts and try something new. Well done.
Results (27 June 2014): 1. Molly Huddle (Saucony) 15:01.56; 2. Shannon Rowbury (Nike) 15:01.71; 3. Marielle Hall (Texas) 15:12.79; 4. Aisling Cuffe (Stanford) 15:13.15; 5. Kellyn Johnson (Northern Arizona) 15:25.63; 6. Rochelle Kanuho (Boulder RC) 15:25.85; 7. Alexi Pappas (Nike Oregon Project) 15:28.38; 8. Treniere Moser (Nike) 15:43.84; 9. Jessica Tonn (Stanford) 15:48.31;10. Jessica Tebo (Brooks) 15:50.02; 11. Angela Bizzarri (Brooks) 15:59.02; 12. Lauren Penney (Oiselle) 16:07.34; 13. Chelsea Reilly (Saucony) 16:07.79; 14. Katrina Coogan (Georgetown) 16:16.17.