Two Olympic Marathoners. Two Lives Turned Around, Then Turned Around Again.

Jacob Riley and Molly Seidel came out of obscurity to qualify for the Olympic Games. Everything about their lives changed. Then it changed again.

Molly Seidel qualified for the Olympic marathon, but lost her jobs. She is still figuring out her plan to train for the Tokyo Games in 2021.
Credit...Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times

Jacob Riley celebrated the day he became an Olympic marathoner with a night out at an Atlanta bowling alley that had a long cocktail menu. He started with a local whiskey, drank a Moscow mule, and isn’t exactly sure where things went from there.

Molly Seidel, the other triumphant underdog of the U.S. Olympic marathon trials, spent the night cheering for her sister as she ran a local race wearing the bib that Molly had worn that afternoon.

After years of battling injuries, they emerged almost out of nowhere on Feb. 29 to each grab second place in the U.S. Olympic marathon trials, securing spots in the Tokyo Games.

Every decision for the next two weeks — whether to rest or to run, what to eat, what executive to meet with and from which shoe company — was made through the prism of how to peak at the starting line of the Olympic marathon in August.

Then it all stopped.

There are thousands of athletes dealing with the postponement of the Olympics, a one-year deferral of a lifetime dream because of the coronavirus pandemic. But few experienced the kind of whiplash they did.

“It’s been the highest of highs and lowest of lows,” Seidel said over the phone recently from her Boston apartment.

The steps to become an Olympic athlete differ for each country. In Kenya, for example, Olympic marathon runners are selected by a committee in a process that can be overtly political and swayed by sponsorships, among other things.

“The U.S. benefits the dark horses a little more,” Seidel said of the qualification process. “It’s more egalitarian. It gives you a legitimate shot.”

Seidel should know. Ranked 139th heading into the trials, her life changed in 2 hours 27 minutes 31 seconds — the amount of time it took her to elevate to an Olympian from an amateur runner who had an impressive collegiate career but a history of injuries and disordered eating.

She held on for second place in her debut marathon as much of the field succumbed to gusty winds and a punishing course. A babysitter and a barista, Seidel suddenly had new interest from sponsors and dozens of interviews lined up with news media outlets. Her followers on social media ballooned.

It took less than two weeks for her world to be upended once more.

She chose to wait out the pandemic in Boston, where she has training partners and friends and had, until recently, two jobs, instead of decamping to Wisconsin with her sister, who is also her roommate.

Credit...Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times

When the future of the Tokyo Games was still undecided, her Instagram biography read, “Pending Olympian.” Everything felt uneasy, nothing felt guaranteed, or even real.

She watched Netflix, played her banjo, went for walks and tended to a growing collection of plants. She also noticed some detractors online.

“They said, ‘You should forgo your spot to someone more experienced,’” she recalled.

Seidel quieted the chatter with help from Des Linden, the fourth-place finisher in the women’s trials and a two-time Olympian, who told Seidel to carry her new title with pride and go ahead with changing her Instagram bio.

Seidel recalled: “She said: ‘Just put “Olympian.” You earned it. Nobody can take that away from you.’”

The International Olympic Committee said athletes who qualified for the 2020 Games would retain their status for the postponed Games, in 2021.

Riley did not doubt that he belonged in the Tokyo Games, but then he started thinking about whether his status as an Olympian could help him pay for rent and food. He does not have a sponsor. He had been working as an SAT tutor and receiving financial assistance from his parents.

“I try to live cheap,” he said.

He started talking to his coach and manager about making sponsorship deals with shoe, watch and sunglasses companies. Might there be speaking engagements?

U.S.A. Track & Field was planning a marathon summit in Palo Alto, Calif., to give the six members of the United States marathon team guidance on the Olympic course, which will be in Sapporo, about 500 miles north of Tokyo, in the mountains of Hokkaido.

Initially, there had been conversations with sponsors and questions to ponder, such as whether any shoe company might match Nike’s technology ahead of the Olympics this summer.

Riley and his coach, Lee Troop, also began looking at filling his schedule with shorter races that would help him be more attuned to the surges that can happen in championship events like the Olympics, where running times do not matter and tactics are paramount to beating other runners to the finish line. (There were 155 runners in the 2016 men’s Olympic marathon.) They were looking at a 5K in Boston during marathon weekend there in April, a track meet at Stanford in May and the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta on July 4. Then race cancellations started to roll in, leading to, on March 24, the postponement of the Olympics. Then the conversations with sponsors slowed, too.

Credit...Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times

“We went from everything is going to be fine to it’s just going to be bad overseas to you might be stuck in your house for two weeks to this complete 180,” he said. “Suddenly a big existential threat and people losing jobs and homes. It’s sobering.”

Riley said he would be fine if he did not end up with a sponsor. He could just keep being a really fast SAT tutor.

About the only thing Riley and Seidel can control at this point is their training.

Riley took a week off after qualifying, then spent a week running 30 to 45 minutes a day, nice and easy. He said he felt “like garbage” during his first actual workout. But with no races on the horizon it didn’t matter.

He is now easing into a normal routine of two runs a day, two speed workouts weekly and a long weekend run. Over time, he will ramp up from 80 miles a week to about 110.

He now has plenty of time to study up on Olympic competition, which will be fairly easy where he lives, in Boulder, Colo. Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic marathon champion, belongs to the same gym he does.

“I’m going to pick the brain of every Olympian I know,” he said.

For Seidel, there is no more physical therapy, no gym, no large groups of running friends. She has two quarantine buddies she trains with. Her coach cycles next to her on occasion. She is running close to 80 to 90 miles a week, down from a peak of about 120 miles a week ahead of the trials.

And now she has the opportunity to run her second career marathon ahead of the Olympics, to get more experience or to practice in conditions similar to Sapporo’s.

There is no rush on how she plans to do that. She has to make it through the isolating world of social distancing like everyone else.

“That’s what running is,” she said. “It’s dealing with being in pain and sucking for long periods of time.”

And so she will just keep running.