NEW YORK – Shalane Flanagan hasn’t thought beyond November 5th. In less than two weeks, she will return to the New York City Marathon for her 10th career marathon and first since the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
A back injury suffered after attempting to train through a rough winter in Portland, Ore., kept Flanagan from running April’s Boston Marathon, but she returned to competition in the summer to race the 10,000 meters at the U.S. Outdoor Championships and then flashed some speed by breaking 15 minutes for the 5,000 meters at a meet in Europe. Once she was done briefly running in circles, it was back to marathon training. Flanagan spent several weeks alone in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., running 130 miles in a week, training at altitude and living at 8,500 feet to empty the tank when she crosses the finish line in Central Park.
“Over the last couple months, I’ve actually felt very good. I’m having the best training that I’ve ever had for the marathon,” Flanagan says. “I keep thinking there’s going to be a decay and that will be a natural sign to step away but I felt that after this injury, I’ve had a rejuvenation in my body and mind. I feel very good and that excites me. I’m trying to win a major marathon and be like Meb [Keflezighi] and Deena [Kastor] ever since I got into the sport. That’s what I feel like I’m missing in my career.”
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Flanagan has held several U.S. records on the roads but the American record for 26.2 miles has evaded her. A course like New York City, with its bridges and gradual inclines in Central Park, is not suited for record-shattering times, which is something Flanagan took into consideration when choosing her fall marathon. She opted to try and compete for the victory at a major marathon (something no American woman has done since Kastor won at the 2006 London Marathon) as opposed to a race against the clock.
“New York and Boston are magical to me,” Flanagan says. “I’ve chased enough fast times on the track that I’m kind of at peace with my PRs and my times. I know I could run a faster marathon for sure but it’s not as important to me as doing well and putting together an inspired race in New York.
“I’m mentally acting like as if it’s my last. I don’t want to have these contingencies that if it doesn’t go well then at least I’ve got something else. I just want to act like this is it. I like to put that type of pressure on myself. To be honest, I just don’t know.”
Just a month ago, Flanagan woke up early to watch a live stream of the Chicago Marathon. She considers herself a student of the sport and tries to watch the major marathons live as often as possible. Her two Bowerman Track Club teammates, Chris Derrick and Andrew Bumbalough, were in the men’s race and she was closely tracking their progress. Up until Oct. 8, she had been the second-fastest American woman to run the marathon. Her personal best of 2:21:14 from the 2014 Berlin Marathon is less than two minutes behind Deena Kastor’s American record of 2:19:36.
Flanagan watched intently as Jordan Hasay, a promising 26-year-old, followed the East Africans on a blistering pace in the first half that led her to more than a three-minute personal best and inserted her name ahead of Flanagan on the all-time U.S. list. The next great American marathoner had arrived but there was not much celebration on social media from other U.S. marathoners including Flanagan and her contemporaries like Kara Goucher or Desiree Linden.
Hasay has a bright future but she trains under coach Alberto Salazar, who remains under investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for possible rule violations. On a conference call with reporters just days later, a question was posed to Flanagan and her Olympic teammate Keflezighi on how they were processing the results from Chicago.
Flanagan responded by saying: “As a fan of my own sport, it’s hard to have full excitement and faith when you don’t know all the facts yet. There’s still an investigation going on so it’s hard to truly and genuinely get excited about the performances that I’m watching. And I think it’s really important to consider who you associate with. We don’t get to choose our parents, but we certainly get to choose our friends and our coaches and who we want to include in our circle and put our faith and our trust in. I think it’s really important to think about who you include in your professional circle in this sport, and I think that who you choose to allow in says a lot about you.”
Less than a week later, Flanagan still describes the race as exciting but says she “doesn’t know what to make of it in the end concerning a few athletes.”
“I don’t know,” Flanagan says. “Time will tell. I can be very excited in a few months based on the results of the investigation or I can be really bummed out about it. I don’t know what to think.”
Flanagan knows all too well about the feeling of uneasiness that comes from being quick to believe results. She won a bronze medal in the 10,000 meters at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing but the Turkish athlete who finished ahead of her tested positive for a banned substance in the re-testing of drug samples, prompting Flanagan to receive her silver medal in August 2017. Flanagan finished fourth at the 2013 Boston Marathon only to later learn that winner Rita Jeptoo tested positive for EPO and took away a chance for Flanagan to stand on a podium on Boylston Street. The news that Olympic gold medalist Jemima Sumgong of Kenya also tested positive for EPO barely came as a surprise to Flanagan as she told her U.S. Olympic teammates shortly after crossing the finish line that she believes their respective positions on the results could be mobile within a year.
“I’ve had bad luck in racing in major marathons that have had a lot of doping going on,” Flanagan says. “That’s not just me saying that with hypotheticals. It’s a fact. I’ve just unfortunately trained really hard and tried to perform in big races but the cards were just stacked against me and I didn't have a chance when I stepped to the starting line.”
Flanagan doesn’t expect winning to come easy in New York either. She holds the fourth-fastest personal best in the field but the three other women ahead of her have broken 2:20, including three-time defending champion Mary Keitany of Kenya.
“I’m not going to show up and save it for another day. I’m completely and 100% all-in for New York,” Flanagan says. “My goal is to try and run with the best in the world. It can be a tall order and risky but I’ve got nothing holding me back. I’m not saving anything for a later date. If Mary decides to run aggressive and wild, I’ll see how aggressive I can be and push my upper limit of what I’m capable of.”
No American woman has won the New York City Marathon since Miki Gorman in 1977. In a sport like running, which can be unforgiving on the body, there are a variety of endings to a career. There are runners who exhaust their legs until the times slow or they no longer win races. There are runners who craft their own farewell tour around a round number like 26 marathons as a tribute to the distance, such as 42-year old Keflezighi. There are runners who say they’ll stop, never do and still push it at 60 years of age, such as Joan Benoit Samuelson.
Flanagan says that’s just Joanie being Joanie and Meb being Meb. Although it’s hard to imagine the Marblehead, Mass., native not finishing her career in Boston, Flanagan winning in New York would certainly be monumental and a fitting curtain call for her career.
“Winning the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals or World Series and walking away is the dream,” Flanagan says. “To me that would be the perfect ending to be honest. I’m wired a little bit different. I can be 100% all-in and there will be a time when I want to go run just for me.”