Emily Sisson knows how to move on from a bad race, but after her worst there was nothing to move on to. Sixteen months ago, Sisson entered the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in Atlanta as the favorite. She dropped out after 22 miles, shattered in body and spirit. When the coronavirus pandemic hit weeks later, Sisson had no outlet for her anguish and no clarity when one would come.
“That really broke my heart,” she said. “I went all-in on that, and it really didn’t work out. I was very confused after.”
Sisson tried not to look back Saturday at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. If she had, she would have seen 40 runners, strewn on the searing Hayward Field track, who could not keep up.
Sisson destroyed the field in a redemptive and dominant victory in the 10,000 meters, seizing the lead on the fifth of 25 laps and lengthening it until she ran alone. Sisson crossed in 31 minutes 3.82 seconds, a trials record despite the sticky, mid-80s heat. She finished well ahead of Karissa Schweizer (31:16.52), who had previously qualified in the 5,000 meters, and Alicia Monson (31:18.55).
“It’s actually just starting to sink in now,” Sisson said.
USA Track and Field moved up the race to 10 a.m. because of the heat in Eugene, Ore., which was expected to climb into triple-digits later in the day. Runners wore vests stuffed with ice in the warmup area and grabbed bottles of water on the track. Four did not finish. Monson appeared wobbly after she did.
“I have never gone to that point before in a race,” Monson said on NBC. “I’ve always kind of wanted to.”
“It’s just kind of unfair that we have to run in those conditions,” seventh-place finisher Natosha Rogers said. “It’s not safe. It’s not our true potential. But it’s a true testament to those top three girls. They are the three fittest girls in the country.”
“It was definitely a brutal one out there,” Schweizer said, sipping from a bottle of red Pedialyte.
Heritage High alum Weini Kelati did not finish the race, but even making the trials had been a journey. She grew up in Eritrea and became one of the nation’s best runners by 17. She traveled to Eugene for the 2014 junior world championships. When the meet ended, she did not board her flight home, having decided to start a new life in the United States. She lived with a third cousin in Leesburg and starred for Heritage’s cross-country team, then graduated from New Mexico as a two-time NCAA champion.
On Wednesday, after four months of administrative frustration trying to track down a missing pair of fingerprints, Kelati passed her test and took her oath to become a U.S. citizen.
Wearing black sunglasses, a neon pink top and black shorts Saturday, Kelati hung near the front, running in sixth for the opening 3,000 meters. She kept pace 13 laps in, even as the lead runners separated. On the 16th lap, four runners passed her and she fell off the lead pack. Not long after, at about 7,000 meters, Kelati dropped out.
The race belonged to Sisson. She wanted to push the pace and not allow her opponents’ stronger kicks to unseat her at the finish. Her coach, Ray Treacy, told her, “Your strength is your strength.”
Sisson hoped another runner would set a fast pace. When none did, she took command. She powered to the front after four laps and slowly squeezed the life out of the field. She showed “her insane marathon strength,” fourth-place Elise Cranny said.
The lead pack dwindled to seven, then four. By the final four laps, Sisson ran alone. The only runners in her vicinity were those she lapped. Even all by herself, she kept running faster, squeezing her lap time down to 71 seconds.
“Even if I’m hurting, I’m pretty sure everybody else will be, too,” Sisson said. “I know you’re feeling the heat, but so is everyone else.”
Even after the race, Sisson humbled her opponents. As other racers knelt on their hands and knees and lay on the track, Sisson flipped up her orange sunglasses — which she had snatched from her husband’s head minutes before the race — and ambled to the wall to chat with an acquaintance.
“Emily Sisson ran like a true hero,” Rogers said. “Her tactics were unbelievable.”
As she pulled away, Sisson only once glanced up at the videoboard to check whether any runners had stayed with her. It had been 16 months since the most disappointing race of her life. She relied on her husband and her chiropractor to heal her mind and body. When her chance to make the Olympics finally came, she had no reason to look back.
“It was so much work,” she said. “But it was so worth it.”
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The Tokyo Olympics have come to a close.