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Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Distance runner Molly Huddle takes long view

By Erin Strout

In winning the 5,000 meters at the U.S. Track and Field Championships in June, Molly Huddle earned her first national title on the track -- and her first world championship team berth. But since that dominant performance in late June, Huddle hasn't been training. Instead, she has been resting an injured foot, unsure how fit she'll be when she toes the line next Wednesday, the day before her 27th birthday, at the worlds in Daegu, South Korea.

Outwardly, Huddle seems unfazed, emanating a quiet confidence she's honed since she became a professional distance runner in 2007, when she graduated from Notre Dame as a nine-time All-American. A year ago, she broke the American record in the 5,000 by running 14:44.76 in a race in Belgium. The time bested Shalane Flanagan's previous record by .04 seconds -- an impressive feat, considering that Flanagan is the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters. In a single season, Huddle took an astounding 32 seconds off of her best time in the event.

Upon graduation, Huddle said she was "clueless" about the steps she'd have to take to become a professional runner. Had it not been for the guidance of her college coach, she imagines she would have taken her degree in biology and headed to medical school -- she even took the MCAT. Instead, Huddle connected with Ray Treacy, director of track and cross country operations at Providence College and coach of a handful of elite women runners, including Kim Smith, New Zealand's national record-holder in the marathon and half-marathon. It wasn't long after Treacy and Huddle's initial meeting that Huddle was moving to Providence, despite the fact that her husband, Canadian middle-distance runner Kurt Benninger, trains in Bloomington with Team Indiana Elite.

"I had never been to Rhode Island in my life," said Huddle, who grew up in Elmira, N.Y. "It was the least formal training group I'd heard of and the relaxed environment works for me. While the higher mileage was a physical adjustment, the other girls made it seem like more fun than work."

In the end, however, it really is plain old consistent work that gets Huddle and her training partners to the top of the sport. But she has learned that results don't always match expectations. In 2008, when Huddle first dared to dream of having a shot at the Olympic team, a calf injury at the trials abruptly ended her Beijing hopes. She finished ninth in the 10,000 meters and tenth in the 5,000 meters. It took the calf three months to heal, but the disappointment simultaneously gave her some critical professional experience.

"I know what my weak points are, and Ray and Kim have taught me how to keep my head on straight," Huddle said. "They've been there, done that, so they've taught me what to worry about and what not to. Seeing how Kim and the other women I train with handle themselves has broken a lot of my bad habits."

Injuries and setbacks are part of the process, and Huddle now understands how to negotiate them. The world championships in South Korea may not end up being her best meet, but Huddle will make the best of the situation regardless how much fitness she can achieve on her injured foot.

"I haven't been to this level of competition before, and I know that this kind of meet can be big and confusing," she said. "This gives me the chance to get familiar with the protocol, practice not getting involved in the hype so that I feel fresh. It's good to iron out the little things before next year."

Huddle said she hasn't decided yet whether she'll stick with the 5,000 or jump up to the 10,000 meters at next summer's trials, but she is relishing her new role as a favorite to make the Olympic team. Her earliest recollection of watching the Games is from 1996, in Atlanta, when as an 11-year-old she was "dazzled" by the opening ceremonies and intrigued by, of all things, the gymnastics.

"I don't remember much about track at those Olympics," she said. "I wasn't even running yet."

But it wasn't until her performances in college started adding up and her times kept coming down that Huddle began thinking "Maybe I'll be an Olympian some day." Her talent now has her coach thinking far beyond the trials. Treacy considers it a given that Huddle will make the team; his greatest concern is ensuring that her peak performance doesn't come at the trials, but at the Olympics themselves.

"There's a six-week gap, which I think is enough room to see improvement," Treacy said. "The goal is to train to make the Olympic finals, then see what happens."

Huddle has turned that quiet confidence into a weapon that will put her in contention, Treacy said. She's learned how to relax no matter what's going on in a race, because she saves that self-assured extra gear to kick hard and finish well.

For her part, Huddle isn't letting herself get caught up in the buzz or making the Olympic experience larger than life.

"I don't want to get in my own way," she said. "Of course I've wanted to put the Olympics on my résumé for a long time, but I don't just want to make it there, I want to perform well, too."