It was the sound of public clapping, of citizens upon sidewalks applauding. The women’s marathon had begun, and the sound went in waves as the clumps of runners passed, with fresh clapping for each newcomer who followed a pause — for Li Bai of China, for Dayna Pidhoresky of Canada, for Sharon Firisua of the Solomon Islands. The applauders weren’t jam-packed, and they left easy lanes for walking through, but a part of a great sports country acted as that country would have at a non-pandemic Olympics.
It showed appreciation for those who deserved it.
In a city designated the marathon site in the hope of averting harsh heat and in a city having seen a record number of days above 86 degrees — 16 in a row — the race would yield its range of amazements from the harsh to the exhilarating. It would show 15 of 88 runners unable to finish, with sights of medics carrying runners to help. It would show two Kenyan runners who repeatedly helped each other out with water and ice as they went along, then suddenly shoulder-to-shoulder out in front entering the final mile and a half.
And it would show a you’re-kidding-me American runner who has some journey already at a mere 27.
Kenyan Peres Jepchirchir, 27, her grand hair swaying to and fro, budged ahead of her teammate Brigid Kosgei, 27, to win in 2 hours 27 minutes 20 seconds. Sixteen seconds later, Kosgei, the world record holder from the 2019 Chicago Marathon, won silver. And then whoa, 10 seconds after that came Molly Seidel, 27, the Wisconsinite and Notre Dame graduate and Boston resident who trained in Arizona heat with teammate Aliphine Tuliamuk (who did not finish) and wrung a soaring third place from her third marathon ever.
Soon there came a doozy of a hug, a hug loaded with sobbing and laughing, a hug between Seidel and coach Jon Green during which both uttered, “We f------ did it.”
That was the only proper way to say it, given the heat index.
That heat index, the threat of which had forced the sudden rearrangement Friday night of the starting time from 7 a.m. to 6 a.m., got a lot of descriptions from a lot of runners at this Olympics of heat and hush. The words of Sally Kipyego, the 17th-place, Oregon-based, Kenya-born American, told of the perils even for the amply fit.
“I just,” and she paused, then continued, “it was a tough day for me. It really just fell off. I felt really comfortable and in control, but then when I got to the, I’d say, [17-mile mark], I just felt different, and everything just kind of went south from there.”
Describing that feeling 17 miles or so in, she said, “I just felt out of control. I felt out of control. I felt comfortable with my breathing, and my aerobic system felt great. My body, my muscles, it just felt like Jell-O. It just felt all Jello-O-ey. And just felt like I didn’t have the popping there, especially my legs, just felt dead. I tried to drink a lot of fluids, I tried to cool down my body, but I just felt it getting worse and worse, and there were some people watching at home. My little girl didn’t go to sleep last night. And I know they were watching their mommy. So I wanted to stay on it and” — and she began a much-needed cry — “I wanted to do well for them.”
Then she cried at length and said, “That’s why I wanted to finish. I wanted to finish today. I felt like there are too many people that have kind of invested in me, and I just wanted to give them a little bit of how I needed to just fight through, and even if I had to jog home, just finish it. I wanted the to see me cross the finish line and know that I really tried.”
Then she expressed her gratefulness for her lot in life and said, “And Molly, oh, my God, that woman,” and, “She did so well for us, and I am so proud of her.”
Seidel’s long, short trek through a glittering college career with the ACC’s Mary Garber Award, through an eating disorder and the protracted recovery from that, through Boston life as a barista and a babysitter and through a switch to marathons because they’re actually easier on her hips, had reached quite some zenith — and that was just at the starting line.
She pegged herself as maybe top-10 but then also thought, “I think I wanted to go and just kind of be that person that when you’re racing and all these women were probably like, ‘Who the hell is this girl?’ But yeah, just trying to like stick my nose where it didn’t belong and just kind of get after it. Olympics only happens once every four years. You might as well take your shot.”
She said all that from a dais where she and Jepchirchir and Kosgei all told of their whereabouts when the time change came — at dinner, resting in bed and resting in bed — and all said the change had been jarring but good. Said Kosgei of the heat, “It’s tough for competition.”
“Everything about getting to the start line of this race has been crazy,” Seidel said, “and that was just another little bit of crazy thrown in there.”
Then they had raced before something so many other athletes had missed: fans. In return, any fans witnessing Jepchirchir and Kosgei shoulder to shoulder got something. They got the sight of the selflessness of it.
“I think for us, we were supporting each other because we are a team, and in Kenya, we Kenyans elect strong team,” Jepchirchir said. “. . . So for us, we were training together in Kenya before we got here, so, and our plan is to be in training, teamwork. Of course, for us, as Kenya, our plan is to sweep the gold medals because we were believing in ourselves and we were knowing we were strong.”
Said Kosgei: “And for me, what Peres said, is already what I want to say. We are supporting each other, by taking water and ice to put in the hand, so that we will be refreshed, and then the other side, supporting one another as Kenyan.”
There they had gone through the clobbering heat, epitomizing support on a day when all needed some and all deserved the applause.