Shalane Flanagan, 36, will be back racing the Boston Marathon on Monday. But this time it’s different: She’s now the reigning New York City Marathon champion. She also says this may be the last time she runs Boston.
I talked to Flanagan, a four-time Olympian who grew up in Marblehead, about her first major marathon win, her chances of another big win in Boston, her toughest races and her legacy. Our conversation, edited:
You've said this will likely be your last Boston. Do you let yourself think about your legacy at all? And if you do, what do you hope it is?
Yeah, this is likely my last Boston. So, that's exciting and sad and more like a celebration, I guess, in a sense.
But I think my impact is not necessarily winning particular races or setting certain records. It's more surrounding myself with other great athletes and making them better people and better athletes and kind of elevating our sport. Not only do I hopefully elevate the sport with my performances, but I hopefully elevate all the women that surround me in my training group. Then, you know, it could go beyond the training group, inspiring other American women, specifically, to keep hold of the dreams that they have. … I think New York showed a lot of American women that patience is just key and if you just prepare to your best ability, then right around the corner could be a huge breakthrough moment.
I know it’s tough to win two major marathons in a calendar year. But how do feel about your chances in Boston?
I feel like my preparation has gone really well so far and I keep telling myself if I can get in the same state that I was in for New York, really anything is possible. I wouldn't have said yes to coming back if I didn't think I had a chance. So, yeah, while it may be hard to come back and get a double win, it's not impossible. I know that. My motivation is quite high and I like the field. I feel like I've got a really strong chance with this field, which makes me more excited than I have been in the past.
You thought about retirement after New York, but you’re back for Boston. What will determine whether you come back and race another marathon, in Boston or elsewhere?
I don't think I’ll know until I cross the finish line and allow whatever the result is to soak in. I don’t think I’m going to know exactly what I want to do [until then], which as a planner and a type A person it's not my nature to be so wishy-washy and open-ended. Normally, I like a very concrete plan but I feel like I'm operating the best with this approach because it's all in. I’m not saving myself for the next Olympics or anything. So, it's kind of like I'm going to go crush myself in training. It's definitely a more aggressive approach, but in my mind it's actually the best way for me to approach it.
Before New York, did winning a major marathon ever seem out of reach to you, especially with the way the Kenyans and Ethiopians have dominated major marathons in recent years?
Yeah, totally. That's why I think there was my expression and my colorfulness winning New York. There were more times I thought it was probably impossible than I thought it was possible.
I remember that colorfulness you’re talking about, when you were close to the finish and you shouted a celebratory expletive that got a lot of attention. Are you surprised by how that moment has sort of taken on a life of its own?
It's one of those moments where you're like, "I don't know what I said." I didn’t really remember that I said that until I watched the replay. I'm like, "Oh yeah I did say that." That was like an out-of-body moment. I take no responsibility for that.
When you saw the replay of that moment what did you think?
I was like, "Oh right on." And then I was like, "Oh, gosh, my dad is going to be mad at me." But it was just very authentic me. And if I saw someone, like another American winning that, I would be cheering at my TV and I’d be like, "[F---] yeah!" she did or he did it.
I’ve just had so many moments that were stolen [because of race winners or medalists who were later found to be doping] and I knew this one could never be taken away. I did it. I was like, "I'm going to enjoy this moment right now, not 10 years later." I beat two of the best marathoners in the world on that day. I was just so elated. And it was not only for me but for all the other athletes that have had moments stolen from them.
How has the New York win changed your perspective on running, on life, on the running life?
Winning New York was just such a feel-good moment and it made me feel so fulfilled as a person. I feel more optimistic. When you're working really hard at something and you don't tend to see the rewards, you tell yourself, well, "at least I enjoyed the journey. That the journey is where the reward is." And so I constantly was like telling those kind of quotes to myself. "Well, you love your job." But deep down I was like, "No I'm not achieving what I feel like I'm capable of."
So, I was feeling really frustrated and kind of dark at times, not feeling like I was achieving what I was capable of. Winning New York showed I wasn't crazy for having those dreams. It was a realistic goal of mine. Now, I feel a little bit more at peace with myself and a sense of calm. It doesn't mean I'm any less competitive or less deliberate and aggressive in my approach to training. I just definitely feel better in general and I’m more optimistic.
If I do the work that I know I'm capable of, I really still feel like I have a chance in Boston and that to me is like a contagious feeling. Because then it makes me more excited to train. And if I'm more excited to train I'm going to get better results within my training and then that just gives me a better chance on race day.
You mentioned how you knew your New York win couldn’t be stolen from you, after other moments had been. Doping affected the final standings of the 10,000 meters at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. You won bronze, which was later upgraded to silver. But it’s impressive you finished at all because you were racing after a really bad case of food poisoning. What did you learn from that race?
In that moment, the biggest lesson I learned is that things don’t have to be perfect in order for them to still go well and I use that message with all the other athletes I train with. We get very fixated on having things be as perfect as possible to give ourselves the best chance. But I learned from that race that things don't have to be perfect, clearly, in order for them to go really, really well. I've used that throughout my career numerous times and it's a great lesson to have in my pocket.
I also think that when things get rough I tend to rally really big. After having to pull out of Boston last year [because of a fractured back], I had to rally really big to get myself to New York. I think I'm good at rallying when the chips are down. Some people crumble and I think I'm definitely one of those who, if it's a fight or flight, I'm definitely going to fight. Yeah, so I learned that about myself, too.
You made your marathon debut in 2010 at the New York City Marathon. Looking back, are you glad you made the transition from the track to the marathon when you did?
I'm happy that I went to the marathon when I did because I think a lot of athletes wait too long to try out the event when they could actually be quite good.
But the initial transition from the track training to the whole marathon, I wasn't in love with marathon training. I still to this day have a love-hate relationship with it. It's just a really all-consuming lifestyle. With a track athlete, you can have a little bit more of, I guess, what you call a balanced lifestyle, like you feel like you could go out to dinner or go to a movie when you want it. When I'm in marathon training for about three months, I feel like I don't really have any energy other than just to run, eat and sleep. So, it was a tough transition physically just because I was so tired all the time and half my runs I felt like I was just kicking my feet out in front of me, hoping I was going to move forward. I didn't feel like I was thriving as a marathoner initially.
There are some athletes in my training group like Amy Cragg — she can run more mileage than me — and I can tell she loves running twice a day, and I'll be honest. I don't love running twice a day.
I like running twice a day maybe like two or three times a week. But six days a week with a long run that’s at least between 20 and 30 miles, I don't love that. I love the end result, being really fit on the starting line and trying to contend to win a major city marathon. So, I do it. But I wouldn't say that I love it the way Amy does. She really gets a lot of joy from doing those doubles every day. If I could just run once a day I'd be super happy. I think it's a little unnatural to run as much as we do. And I understand that that’s the process of being one of the world's best marathoners so I do it. But it's certainly something I would never opt to do just for fun.
You made your Boston debut in 2013, the year of the marathon bombing. What do you remember from that race day?
Because of what happened afterward I’ve erased, a little bit, that race in my mind.
But after the bombing you were determined to give yourself the best chance possible to win Boston in 2014, right?
I knew it was going to be maybe one of the more meaningful marathons ever in the history of American marathoning and I knew the importance of having a strong showing by Americans. And I wanted to be a leader on that day, especially it being my city.
So, after the events [of the bombing] unfolded, I sat down with my coach Jerry [Schumacher] and said, "This is the most important marathon I'm going to run in my career and we need to do everything we can to have me have my best day." So, we laid out a plan where I was going to go and train on the course once a month starting in September, fly out, train on it for two to three days and prepare and know that course in and out. We looked at the history of the marathon and what time traditionally wins the Boston Marathon and 99 percent of the time 2:22 wins. So, I trained myself to run 2:22 on that course. … And we just dedicated ourselves to the best possible preparation.
And you finished in 2:22:02…in seventh place.
I did exactly what I set out to do. I was hoping to inspire. I was hoping to be a leader and I was hoping to win. And history said that I would have won but for some reason on that day it just wasn't meant for me to win.
Another tough race for you, for different reasons, was the 2016 U.S. Olympic marathon trials, where you suffered from heat exhaustion and learned how you sweat and how you need to hydrate for hot weather marathons.
It was amazing that I was still learning at that point in the game. I never put myself in a position to need to know that. So, I'm glad I have that because, you know, if for some crazy reason I go to Tokyo [for the 2020 Olympics], Tokyo is going to be absolutely brutal and that kind of knowledge is crucial to competing and finishing.
So yeah, completing LA Olympic trials is probably my greatest race in the sense that the s--- really hit the fan. I was handed a s--- sandwich, but I was still able to hold it together and get to that finish line.
So, OK, you can't say "if for some crazy reason I go to Tokyo" and think I’m going to let that just pass! Is there still a part of you thinking about going to another Olympics in two years?
Yeah. The only reason that’s enticing to me is just because of the women that I train with. You’ve got Amy, myself and Gwen Jorgensen, Olympic gold medalist in the triathlon. The three of us are training together. What if for some crazy reason the three of us made that team all training together? I think it would be a great story.