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If Molly Huddle isn’t familiar with a runner who holds a record she’s chasing, she reads up on the person behind the mark to honor their performance.
So prior to attempting the one-hour U.S. record, set by Nancy Conz in 1981, Huddle learned that the competitor from Southampton, Massachusetts—who won major marathons in Ottawa in 1981 and Chicago in 1982, and who beat Joan Benoit Samuelson on two occasions—was tenacious and humble.
“That was cool to know more about her and her role in women’s running history,” Huddle told Runner’s World. “I definitely have respect for her after reading about some of her wins in major marathons back in the day.”
In 2017, Conz died of adenoid cystic carcinoma (the same cancer with which the late Gabriele Grunewald was diagnosed) after a cancer battle that spanned 18 years of her life. Mike Moran of the Daily Hampshire Gazette wrote “no female runner competed and ran quite like Conz, who did it her own way. The tall and slender redhead never had a coach and never had an agent, two ingredients to professional success nowadays.”
On November 1, Huddle shared a connection with Conz that motivated her when she needed a boost of confidence. In a COVID-adjusted meet outside of Boston, in cold and rainy conditions, Huddle ran 17,930 meters (11.14 miles) in one hour on the track—good enough to break the U.S. record set by Conz at the University of Massachusetts, where she ran 10 miles 1,290 yards. Huddle also shattered American records in the 15,000-meter and 10-mile distances, which she covered in 50:07.82 and 53:50, respectively.
The performance adds to the two-time Olympian’s long list of accolades, which includes seven American records that span the track and the road.
After watching Sifan Hassan and Mo Farah break the women’s and men’s one-hour world records in the September 4 Diamond League Brussels meet, her coach, Ray Treacy suggested she attempt to break the U.S. record. The event is rarely contested on the track, and Huddle was craving a new challenge.
“It was good to have a reason to run hard even though it’s not my normal reason with women to compete with down the homestretch or anything like that, but it motivated me to train and get out the door and keep somewhat of a normal schedule,” Huddle said.
With help from pacemakers Catarina Rocha and Abbey Wheeler, Huddle held an average pace of 5:23 per mile for 60 minutes, her longest run on the track ever.
“Even though it wasn’t anything super blazing fast time-wise compared to what I normally run, it still was something I got up for, which I haven’t really done in a while,” Huddle said. “It was a positive experience.”
After the race, Huddle shared her thoughts on Instagram in a post, which paid tribute to Conz.
“It’s been hard to push myself and nothing feels smooth or easy the last few months, but having some specific goals gets me out the door working harder than I would otherwise,” she wrote. “Remembering the tenacious Nancy Conz today who held the track hour/15K/10 mile records among other stats and was a women’s running pioneer, great athlete, and New England legend.”
This year, most races were canceled in response to safety precautions amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but a few small-scale meets have been organized for elite runners. For a competitor who thrives in high stakes competitive environments, Huddle said the one-hour run provided a much-needed bright spot in navigating unprecedented circumstances.
“This year has been about doing what you can with whatever you have as far as restrictions that are in place, your own health, and other support systems that aren’t available to you,” Huddle said. “This is an understatement of the year, but [it’s] not ideal right now. As athletes you’re obsessively working towards perfection, and there are just so many things this year that are just not available to do that.”
Since the Olympic Marathon Trials in February, Huddle has raced in three COVID-adjusted meets near her home in Providence, Rhode Island, including a 15:20 5,000-meter victory in September. Despite the restrictions, separation from teammates, and lack of races in what was supposed to be an Olympic year, Huddle is focusing on what she can control.
“[You should] still put the effort in, that’s all you can really do right now, and I’ve been lucky to even do that at these small meets,” she said.
Decades after Conz’s pioneering career, Huddle has become a key contributor in advancing women’s distance running standards with two top-four finishes at the New York City Marathon and a 26.2 personal best of 2:26:33. Almost 40 years after Conz set the one-hour record, Huddle used the distance as motivation to move forward and find inspiration in a difficult year.
“[The race] served its purpose to me for getting me through the month,” Huddle said. “I was looking forward to it, and I have a lot of respect for Nancy. I would love to have seen what she could run nowadays with all that we know about running. I have a feeling she could have run faster too.”
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