A harsh, mid-afternoon light exposes the lead pack of the women’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials as they race past hulking factories in Atlanta’s downtown. Tucked near the back is 25-year-old Molly Seidel, an unfamiliar face on the marathon circuit. She’s decked out in a Saucony kit with sunglasses and a tie-dye headband, padding comfortably next to heavy hitters such as Jordan Hasay, Molly Huddle, and Sara Hall.
The trials are Seidel’s marathon debut, qualifying off of a 1:10:26 half in San Antonio, which she won. But despite her inexperience, Seidel’s looking strong on the hilly course, smoothly traversing the windswept pavement of Peachtree Street, a straight-shot, out-and-back loop that runners have to complete three times throughout the race.
Cruising parallel to Seidel, riding a carbon fibre road bike on the course’s sidelines, is her equally young coach, 25-year-old Jon Green. Seidel is Green’s only athlete in the race. In fact, she’s his only athlete, period—besides a local chiropractor he coaches. On top of that, Green has no previous coaching experience. He’s not USATF (USA Track and Field) certified. And that is not his bike.
Growing up in Berlin, Mass., a town of 2,800, 45 minutes west of Boston, Green was a precocious high school runner, capturing two cross country state titles and a second place finish at the Foot Locker Northeast Regional Championships. He secured an athletic scholarship to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. where he trained under Brandon Bonsey, completing a double major in sociology and psychology.
A thigh injury during Green’s final year of high school sidelined his freshman year, forcing him to redshirt. But by the next summer, he’d bounced back, qualifying for World Juniors in the 10,000m. From there, his success snowballed and he soon emerged as one of the most lethal cross country runners in the NCAA, finishing fifth at the 2015 championships (the same championships Seidel won), and 10th at the 2017 championships.
During his time at Georgetown, Green brushed shoulders with Mike Smith (Galen Rupp’s current coach), who briefly served as the school’s director of track and field and cross country. Green credits much of his musings on running and training to the coaching philosophies of Smith and Bonsey. “Mike’s a guru,” he says.
After kicking around Georgetown for an extra year, completing a masters in sports industry management, Green graduated in 2018. Keen to pursue the professional running dream, Bonsey pushed Green’s name to Tim Broe, head coach of the Saucony Freedom Track Club, where he was welcomed into the fold. Based in Boston, the club toted a number of high-profile runners, including Seidel, who joined in fall 2017. Green and Seidel hit it off, bonding over training and races, quickly developing a friendship. But in the fall of 2019, Seidel left the club.
In an act of solidarity, Green reached out to Seidel. “I was like, ‘Hey, if you need any ideas for workouts or coaching or anything, I’m here. I’m here to help.’” She liked the idea. They started working together in October with Green sending Seidel training schedules in two-week blocks. If Seidel liked the workouts, they’d continue. If she didn’t, they’d shake things up.
Green soon followed Seidel’s lead. With flat-lining results and waning enthusiasm, he made the decision to leave Saucony Freedom Track Club in November. “The coach there, me and him agreed that it wasn’t working,” Green says. “He’s obviously a good coach and he’s had lots of success. It just wasn’t a program that was working for myself.”
Green took a break from competitive running, “decompressing,” as he puts it. He started picking up more shifts at his family’s hardware store, Green’s Hardware in Wellesley, a suburb of Boston smack on the city’s marathon course. Seidel was working part-time at a coffee shop where Green says naïve customers, discovering she was a runner, would tell her she should try and qualify for the Boston marathon.
The two continued to work together, keeping future plans modest. The goal was for Seidel to debut at the Houston Marathon in January. But her stellar early December run in San Antonio opened the door to the trials, forcing them to recalculate. “We were like, why not? We’ll do another half in Houston and then we’ll do the trials,” Green says.
Seidel put her coffee shop job on hold and moved to Flagstaff, Ariz., using the altitude to ramp-up her training. Green continued to coach her remotely. On January 19, in Houston, Seidel ran 1:09:35 for the half, a personal best, finishing one second behind Molly Huddle and within a minute of Sara Hall.
The fitness was falling into place.
With eight kilometres to go, Seidel and Aliphine Tuliamuk break for the lead. The front pack of the trials, which has seemed puttied together for most of the race, finally shatters. Jordan Hasay has pulled a vanishing act, parachuted out of the broadcast’s view; Sara Hall, who’s had a permanent grimace since the crack of the gun, finally bows to the pace; and Des Linden, who’s trying to maintain contact, looks like she’s swimming up the leg-busting hills.
Green has been devotedly following the race, checking splits and yelling words of encouragement. But in moments when the sideline crowds with spectators, he parks the road bike outside a local bar, ensuring it’s securely locked. The bike, as mentioned, is not his. Needing a method to keep pace with Seidel, Green rented it for the weekend off an Atlanta native on Kijiji, haggling a price of $60 and writing up an official contract. “I would have rather had a mountain bike,” he says, “because I was hopping curbs and stuff.”
Inside, the bar is dim and quiet, at least compared to the spectator-crowded streets outside. The marathon is being broadcast on the TV. Green plants himself in a seat, glued to Seidel’s every stride. The bartender approaches and asks what he’ll have. Green explains that he’s just there to watch the marathon. “If you’re going to be here, you’ve got to buy something,” the bartender tells him. He orders a $3 coke. When she returns with his drink, he asks her, “If I give you a $10 tip, will you just let me come back into the bar and not have to buy anything?” Sure, she says, pocketing the $10.
Green is back out on the course as Seidel approaches the finish line. He hasn’t seen her since the 22-mile mark. Since then, Tuliamuk has pulled ahead, but Seidel is securely in second. It seems a bit like a dream. When Green and Seidel had talked on Friday, the day before the race, Seidel had told Green she expected to finish in the teens. Green, however, had been more optimistic. “On a really good day,” he told her, “you’re third.”
But second? Second wasn’t in the game plan.
Green knew she was fit going into the trials. The halfs she ran in San Antonio and Houston proved that. And there was that 12-mile tempo she did at 4,500 ft. in Flagstaff, hitting marathon pace. Seidel’s sister, Isabel, a solid runner herself, had only managed to keep up for the first two miles. That had been reassuring.
As Seidel crosses the finish line, securing her spot at the Tokyo Olympics with a time of 2:27:31, Green experiences an incredible moment of catharsis. “I woke up at 3:30 a.m. that morning, and I couldn’t sleep before the race. I got more stress for that race than a combination of basically all my races that I’ve ever done,” he says. “I didn’t understand how my parents would get so nervous before my races, and why coaches would get nervous. Now I get it.” Green had spent most of the morning trying to hide these nerves from Seidel.
Without a USATF certification, Green is technically not allowed in the finishing area, but has made his way in using a friends and family pass. He uses this pass, and a few others provided, to cram as many of Seidel’s friends and family into the finishing area as he can. Everyone surrounds Seidel, emoting something between ecstasy and total bewilderment. Seidel’s sister grabs a hold of her and starts bawling.
Soon after the race, Green and Seidel—who’s still sucking air through a gaping mouth, wide-eyed over what’s happening—are ushered towards the media conference area. As they approach, an official halts Green. Once again, his lack of USATF accreditation is proving to be a problem. To gain access to the media conference area where journalists ask athletes and coaches questions, you need to be a certified coach. To be a certified coach, you need to have completed certain educational courses. Courses Green has neglected. But there’s a loophole. If a coach’s athlete finishes top three at a USATF road championship, you don’t need to complete the educational courses.
Green had joked with Seidel before the race about the automatic certification. “You can save me the time and money if you do this,” he’d said to her. Right now, he’s trying to explain this funny loophole to the official, going on about how the paperwork has yet to go through, but technically he’s now a certified coach. The official doesn’t find it that funny.
Eventually, the power of the media prevails. Green is ushered into the area alongside Seidel, the two stilt-walking in a dizzying haze, targeted by an onslaught of camera flashes and questions.
It's been nearly a month since the trials and Green and Seidel’s routines are normalizing. Green is in Milwaukee, Wis. when we speak over the phone. He and his sister flew out there to meet Seidel who’s visiting with her family. The three of them plan on driving Seidel’s car back to Boston in the next few days.
Seidel took some time off running after the trials but nothing long term. “We both kind of feel similar on this,” Green says. “She’s more likely to get injured if she takes full time off just because the body kind of gets out of whack.” Currently Seidel’s building up mileage. In a month, she’ll start workouts again.
Green is picking up more shifts at the family hardware store. He’s contemplating launching an online coaching business, but that’s on the backburner. Right now, he’s focused on the Olympics, optimistic that they’ll still happen despite the ravaging spread of coronavirus. As the coach of an athlete who’s qualified for her first Olympics, particularly one that wasn’t projected to go, you have to stay optimistic. Assuming the Olympics happen, he’ll travel to Tokyo with her.
In the meantime, Seidel will race the odd road 10km, sharpening her speed and fitness for August. Green says he won’t have her do anything too crazy. “No halfs or anything like that.” As a relative unknown, Seidel has few expectations to shoulder. She can have fun with the race. “We’re just kind of excited to be in the situation we’re in,” Green says. “As the time gets closer, we’ll see what the field is like. Obviously not every country has picked their team yet, so once we see that we’ll kind of have a better understanding of who’s going to be in the race.”
For now, Seidel will relax in Boston, catching up with friends. She may head to Flagstaff again or possibly the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, depending on the coronavirus situation. But either way, when the Olympics do happen, “We’re going to be ready,” Green says.