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By Latria Graham
How injury and some much-needed time off propelled Flanagan to her greatest professional win to date
In the initial weeks after Shalane Flanagan crossed the finish line first at the New York City Marathon, life amidst all the attention that comes with being the first American woman to win the iconic race in 40 years, has taken some getting used to. She's done a slew of radio spots and television shows like “Good Morning America" and “Live with Kelly and Ryan." People have stopped her to explain how much her race inspired them. They have approached her on airplanes and in the grocery store, even while she was out on the trail training. Everyone in the running community, it seemed, has wanted to talk to America's newest sports paragon.
Sinking into a big black couch at Nike headquarters in Beaverton Oregon, on an oppressively grey November day, Flanagan, 36, beamed. She was on her home turf and that makes her happy, she explains. For just a few days, she would be in her element, training with the Bowerman Track Club, running with her partner and fellow elite marathoner, Amy Cragg, and sleeping in her own bed. Later that week she would leave again—first to Dallas, then on to Boston, and finally back to New York, where the media frenzy began.
"Since I crossed the finish line it's been crazy," she says, acknowledging that she's elated to have the opportunity to serve as an ambassador for running.
It took four decades for a moment like this to happen, and Flanagan refuses to waste an opportunity when it comes her way. Her determined attitude led to one of the best sports comebacks of 2017. In a year that was filled with highs and lows, it took several months for her to realize that a setback can actually be a setup for a comeback and getting older doesn't mean anyone—including herself—should count her out.
“It took me seven years of training for the marathon to finally have my breakthrough moment," she says, "and I'm just grateful that it was on that big of a stage."
As a child in Marblehead, Massachusetts, Flanagan's dream was to win one of the world's major marathons. The town she grew up in sits 16 miles away from the start of the Boston Marathon, which she considers her hometown race. Scheduled to tackle the course for the fourth time in April 2017, Flanagan felt she had the speed she needed in order to take home the win. In 2016, after breaking the American women's 10K record, she knew she was close—she was getting faster.
But disaster struck early in 2017, when Flanagan had the first major injury of her career, an iliac fracture. The runner realized she was in trouble when there was a bit of tightness in her back that wouldn't go away after foam rolling and massages. She attributed it to running too many miles outside in Portland's unusually snowy winter, with its slippery, uneven terrain. When the pain worsened she still refused to stop her training. It was February and the Boston Marathon was only two months away.
“When you have a goal, you just want to plow through it," she says. “So instead of just taking some time off I just kept trying to run to a point where it was debilitating, where I could barely walk."
The damage forced her to stop training for 10 weeks, and the three-time Boston Marathon runner had to skip the race.
“That was devastating," she says. There were "lots of tears" after she made the decision public.
So the four-time Olympian tried to fill the time, to keep her mind off of her impairment. Since she couldn't run, she was a commentator for the Boston Marathon. She also worked on “Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow," forthcoming in 2018—a follow up to her first cookbook titled, “Run Fast. Eat Slow." Before she got injured, Flanagan and her husband, Steven Ashley Edwards, had also become foster parents.
“My favorite part was that I would wake up in the morning, and instead of thinking about all the things I had to do for my running and profession, I was immediately thinking, 'What do Breauna and Keauna need?'" she says.
The twin teenaged girls only stayed with Edwards and Flanagan for a year, but during that time the family took a trip to Hawaii, Flanagan's first vacation in more than seven years.
While she couldn't run, she continued cross training, working out in the pool, thinking of other goals. When her doctor cleared her to train again, she wondered if she could continue to compete, or if she was past her prime. It was May, and she needed at least twelve weeks to train for a major race. It seemed her dream of winning a major marathon was dwindling. But when her team looked at the calendar, they realized she still had enough time to train for the New York City Marathon. The only other time Flanagan ran through the five boroughs was in 2010, when she came in second. She wondered if seven years after her first attempt she could improve her standing. She felt it was now, or never.
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"I'm getting a little bit older," she says very matter-of-factly. “I'm 36 and feeling like things are slipping away from me because technically as you age it's harder to maintain a peak athletically."
In fact, according to a recent study, the "golden age" for long distance women's runners is 29.
She decided to try anyway. That is why the moment in New York remains even more miraculous to her—because it almost didn't happen.
When it came to training for the November race, she drew on all the knowledge she has acquired in nearly 15 years of running at the elite level—including four Olympic appearances. She has also learned more about what her body needed to perform at its peak—specifically more fluids for better hydration, a well rounded nutrition plan that included healthy fats and more recovery time between runs.
As summer faded into autumn she spent the tail end of her training runs visualizing the finish line, practicing a fast sprint with a strong kick, in case she needed to outrun her opponent in the closing meters.
She worked through her mental hurdles, too.
"In my training, I put myself in positions where I'm like, 'This is really uncomfortable. Why am I doing this?'" she says. "I tell myself if I can get through these moments, then when I get into the race and when it's really hard, at least I'll have visited those demons. I'll say, 'Okay, we've already worked through these before.''
When it was time to line up in New York, Flanagan was ready. For the first time in years, she felt like the underdog. World record holder Mary Keitany was the anticipated winner. The Kenyan nabbed the top spot three years in a row.
Turns out, however, the break Flanagan took to rehabilitate her injury was a blessing in disguise. With fresh legs and the renewed confidence she crafted by performing well during training runs, she knew she could change the course of the race. Her training build-up was the best it had been in her entire career.
“I took this moment, which could have been career-ending, and I turned it around," she says. "I brought everything I had to New York."
At 9:20 a.m. on November 5, 2017, her competition began.
“I was running slightly terrified," Flanagan says about that race. “I never looked over my shoulder to see how close my competition was."
In the final meters, she realized that her dream of winning this race could come true. Yet, she refused to celebrate, trying to filter out the cheers of the crowd. She was listening for footsteps that would indicate someone was close on her heels, sprinting for the finish line, hoping to eclipse her in the final seconds.
It wasn't until two seconds before her body broke the navy and white finish line tape that she allowed herself to celebrate.
“Once I saw that finish line tape I knew I could kind of allow myself to indulge in this amazing moment and that I should because this may never happen again," Flanagan says.
After her upset, everyone has wanted to know what's next. Before the race in New York,she told reporters that if she were to win that marathon, she might retire, walking away from the sport while on top. Being a foster parent has her thinking about expanding her family. She is also interested in doing more sports commentating.
“It's inevitable that there's going to be a time to move on and I'm not afraid to move on," she says. “There are some other fun things in my life that I'm excited about."
Still, after her win in New York, Flanagan believes she might have more fight left in her than she previously thought. Recently she announced that she will run the Boston Marathon in 2018.
“I would love one more moment like what I just did in New York, but in my hometown," she says.
Even though she's still deciding what her next move will be after racing—cooking, commentating or something else—she knows that running will always have a special place in her routine: “I'll be a runner for life. That's just who I am."