EUGENE, Ore. — Nobody could blame Emily Sisson for wanting to get this over with as quickly as possible.
On a sweltering Saturday at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, the 29-year-old runner borrowed her husband’s sunglasses, got out to the front early and set a meet record in the 10,000 meters. She finished in 31:03.82 to earn a trip to the Tokyo Games.
“I kept telling myself, ‘If you’re feeling the heat, so is everyone else too,’” Sisson said. “I’m used to leading from the front so it doesn’t really spook me.”
With highs expected to reach 102 (38.9 Celsius), meet organizers took pity on the distance runners and moved their race to the morning instead of its early evening time slot. Still, it was 85 (29.4) when the starting gun went off.
Soon after, it was Sisson applying the heat to the other 40 women in the race. It was a tactical decision to set a brisk pace from the outset.
“It was hot. We knew it was going to be hot,” she said after beating Deena Kastor’s 2004 trials record by nearly 6 seconds. “It was hard. It didn’t feel easy.”
Karissa Schweizer finished second in 31:16.52. She’s also qualified in the 5,000. Third place went to Alicia Monson (31:18.55), who retreated into the shade after the race and covered her legs in wet towels to cool down.
“I just kind of expected it to be pretty brutal out there,” Schweizer said. “The problem with the heat is that it just makes you feel exhausted. … I just worked through every lap.”
Race officials took the rare step of setting up a water table on the track. Sisson didn’t use it. She just kept her focus on lapping other runners to help power her toward the finish line.
“I knew everyone else was feeling the heat, too, so I didn’t really let it affect me mentally,” Sisson explained. “If the conditions were better, I probably would’ve tried to finish even harder.”
The runners stayed cool before the race any way they could. They wore ice vests, poured water over their necks and remained in the shade as long as possible.
Still, four of the runners didn’t finish on a sweltering day at Hayward Field. One of those was Weini Kelati, who just recently became a U.S. citizen. She was born in Eritrea, competed in high school in Leesburg, Virginia and was a standout racer at the University of New Mexico.
Everyone was trying to focus on the race, not the heat.
It was far from easy.
“I was pushing heat negative thoughts out of my head,” explained Rachel Schneider, who finished fifth in the 10,000 (she previously earned a spot in the 5,000). “Emily Sisson dominated that race. She grinded away. There was a good group of about 12 women that went with her. I was hurting pretty bad and I went into survival mode instead of competitive mode.”
Sisson trained in Arizona last summer and said “l was trying to channel all the workouts I did” there to help her get through Saturday.
Quite a difference from her last major race. On a cool, blustery day in Atlanta in February 2020, she dropped out of the U.S. Olympic marathon trials.
Sisson was crushed. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic set in and races were halted. With an unexpected extra year to recoup, Sisson found her spot on the U.S. team at a different distance.
“I actually went through a pretty rough patch,” Sisson said. ’I came out of that race pretty broken. I was pretty confused after. Usually I’m pretty good at moving on after bad races but that one was really hard for me.”
In the extreme heat, she stayed cool and is now heading to Tokyo, where she could face similar conditions.
“It was a grind,” Sisson said of the race. “But, yeah, I’m really happy with that.”