Before the 2019 Houston Half Marathon, Emily Sisson had no qualms about stating her big, bold goal: breaking the American record, which at the time was 1:07:25 owned by her training partner Molly Huddle.
She fell five seconds short and tried again in Valencia in 2020. That time she missed by a mere second. On May 22, at the USATF Half Marathon Championships in Indianapolis, she succeeded in hitting the moving target—she ran 1:07:11 to take 4 seconds off the new record of 1:07:15, which Sara Hall set in January in Houston.
But ahead of the Chicago Marathon on October 9, Sisson, 30, isn’t currently declaring an attempt at bettering Keira D’Amato’s 2:19:12 marathon record, also set in Houston this year.
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“I’m not saying I really want the American record and that it’s American record or bust, because that honestly isn’t my approach,” she told Runner’s World by phone this week. “I think there are a lot of different results that could be a really good day.”
She’s a bit more circumspect, in part, because she hasn’t raced the marathon frequently. After her stellar 2:23:08 debut in 2019 in London, she dropped out after mile 22 of the Olympic Marathon Trials. Thanks to factors like the pandemic and the Olympics—she won the track trials in the 10,000 meters in 31:03.82, and placed 10th in the event in Tokyo—she hasn’t covered 26.2 miles again.
In her return to the distance, she’ll run with two pacers, Jonathan Mellor and Brian Harvey. (Harvey also paced her in Indianapolis.) A couple of days before the race, she and her coach, Ray Treacy, will finalize the plan the three will follow, factoring in variables such as weather conditions—which right now look favorable, with a predicted low of 52 degrees, high of 66, and clouds.
While she’s not yet committing, if everything goes right, the record isn’t out of the question, she noted. “Ideally, I think, sub 2:20 to me would be amazing,” she said. “If it’s a great day and I’m feeling good and if I’m within shouting distance of the record … I’ll take a stab at it.” Here’s what else Sisson had to say 10 days out from the race.
Despite her dominant half marathon performance, she had a tough summer
Her record-breaking run came in the middle of a series of setbacks. A knee injury that began a few weeks before the Olympics caused her to withdraw from last year’s New York City Marathon. She’d finally recovered and regained fitness, then caught COVID in March. Some symptoms—including fatigue and an elevated heart rate—lingered.
Sisson and her husband, Shane Quinn, recently moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, which sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet. When she returned there after the race, she struggled.
“We didn’t know exactly why things weren’t going very well,” she said, thinking it was likely a combination of post-COVID effects, the hard effort of the half, and the return to high altitude. “But we do know I respond really well and I recover pretty fast when I drop down to sea level.”
So that’s exactly what she did, returning to Providence, Rhode Island, at the end of June. There, she focused on sleeping, napping, and fueling, making sure to eat after workouts even when she wasn’t hungry. By the end of July, she felt better, but she still decided to stay in the northeast for her marathon buildup.
Keira D’Amato’s performances have boosted her
On September 5, Sisson and D’Amato battled back and forth for most of the USATF 20K Road Championships. D’Amato, who’d said she was in American marathon record shape at the time, eventually won by 6 seconds, in a course record 1:04:29. “To be that close [to D’Amato] when she thought she was in that shape I thought was a really good place to be five weeks out from Chicago,” Sisson said.
Due to the time difference, Sisson didn’t watch the Berlin Marathon live, but she did check the results as soon as she woke up. Seeing that D’Amato finished sixth in 2:21:48, even if she fell short of her record goal, still gave Sisson a lift. “I read she was a little disappointed, but it’s all relative; a 2:21 on an off day is not bad,” she said. “It’s cool seeing people run fast.”
Chicago has a hometown feel for her
Sisson chose the Chicago Marathon this fall for several reasons, including its minimal travel requirements and boisterous crowds. “I wanted to pick a marathon that really excited me and that I was really motivated for,” she said. “Chicago, I’ve always felt drawn to.”
In part, she credits her Midwestern roots—Sisson was born in Wisconsin and went to high school in Missouri, and her mom is from Palatine, Illinois, about 25 miles outside Chicago. Many of Sisson’s relatives still live in the Chicago suburbs, and she has a sister in the city. So she’ll have a robust cheering squad on race day, and may even spend a little extra time in the area to visit her grandfather.
“One of the hardest parts of the job, I find, is having to miss out on family events, because I’m training or I have races. I feel like I don’t get to spend as much time in Chicago with them as I’d like,” she said. “Anytime I’m there, I’m excited to see them.”
Even if she doesn’t go for the record this time, it’s a goal that inspires her
After the setbacks this year, Sisson’s marathon cycle—including long runs, tempos, and workouts—has gone well. She didn’t miss a single day of running and had only one workout that felt below average.
That consistency, after bouncing back from adversity, has Sisson eager to chase records—if not next week, then in the future.
“This marathon buildup has taught me that even if I’m not in American record shape right now, I do have confidence that someday, if I can stay healthy, I will eventually get there,” she said. “That’s actually what’s been really positive and a good takeaway from this buildup.”
Cindy is a freelance health and fitness writer, author, and podcaster who’s contributed regularly to Runner’s World since 2013. She’s the coauthor of both Breakthrough Women’s Running: Dream Big and Train Smart and Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries, a book about the psychology of sports injury from Bloomsbury Sport. Cindy specializes in covering injury prevention and recovery, everyday athletes accomplishing extraordinary things, and the active community in her beloved Chicago, where winter forges deep bonds between those brave enough to train through it.