The defending NYC Marathon champion has the top of the podium in her sights again for 2018.

Can Shalane Keep Her NYC Title?

File this under unexpected and delightful: When Shalane Flanagan needs inspiration, she turns to country music star Toby Keith.

“There’s a great country song I’ve been kind of chanting to myself,” Flanagan says. “‘I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.’

The lyric, Flanagan says, is the perfect metaphor for her training leading up to the 2018 TCS New York City Marathon. As she prepared this summer, the 37-year-old noticed the effects of her age—not in the actual workouts, but in the rest afterward.

Her fitness is good, Flanagan adds, but these days, her time off is just as important. She is currently training at altitude in Park City, Utah, but also put in time on the track this summer with her Bowerman Track Club teammates. She and Coach Jerry Schumacher kept her training in line with what has brought her success in the past, focusing on being “at altitude for quite a chunk of time.” During a recent media teleconference with reporters, Flanagan explained that she didn’t run a tune-up race for NYC because her training is arduous enough.

“I run paces that some people run in races [in training]. I don’t need that race setting,” Flanagan says. “I don’t mind going into the mountains, putting my head down and doing the work.”

Over the summer, as she mixed in track work, Flanagan also helped pace teammate Shelby Houlihan to an American record in the 5,000-meter, running it in 14:34.45. The high-quality track work carried over well in Flanagan’s overall fitness. Last year, she found that keeping the volume of training and the quality of her workouts up served her well heading into New York, and she’s aiming to replicate that process when she returns to the course on November 4.

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“We haven’t changed too much,” Flanagan says. “I did a nice segment over the summer of some high-quality track work with my younger teammates. That served me really well. It got me excited again to put in the work.”

It makes sense that Flanagan sought to keep her training consistent this cycle—after all, she’s defending her title as the 2017 New York City Marathon champion after becoming the first American woman to win the event in 40 years. Flanagan, who turned in a 2:26:53 performance in last year’s race, says her goal is to win again. “That’s always the goal,” she adds.

Flanagan has a strong history in New York City. She made her marathon debut at the race in 2010, when she placed second. The next time she ran the event, she won—and now she’s returning to seek gold again. Even so, Flanagan claims that goal isn’t placing any extra pressure on her training. “It’s exciting to be called the defending champion. My standards for New York are pretty high,” Flanagan says. “The podium is always the goal, being in contention for the win. That’s what excites me and what I visualize in training. But I don’t feel any added pressure, to be honest.”

Flanagan will be joined in New York by a deep and talented American female field, including Boston Marathon champion Des Linden, Molly Huddle and Sally Kipyego, who will be competing for the first time as a U.S. citizen.

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Over the past year, the U.S. women have showcased their depth and abilities on the course, and Flanagan has largely led the charge as the American pro team has steadily risen in the ranks. That makes racing all the more enjoyable for her. “I just feel like we’re on this trend and trajectory of a lot of greatness,” Flanagan says.

Still, serving as the de facto leader of the group comes with its own set of questions—namely, which marathon will be Flanagan’s last. After a tough 2017 Boston Marathon, Flanagan announced it was her last performance in that race. But she’s not ready to make the same call about New York or the marathon distance in general.

Since the Rio Olympics, Flanagan says she has approached each marathon as if it were her last and only evaluated her next steps once the race was complete. Ahead of New York, she hasn’t decided upon next steps yet; right now, she’s only focused on the race immediately in front of her.

“I’ve just let my passion and my excitement dictate my next goals. I’m not in the phase of my career where I’m focusing years in advance,” Flanagan says. “I’m very much living in the moment and day-to-day. Until I cross the finish line on November 4, I honestly don’t know [what comes next].”

Eventually, Flanagan says she’s likely to transition into coaching the next generation of female runners, helping continue the legacy of American greatness. But for now, she’s still enjoying a high point in her career that has been hard-fought. “I enjoy the process of the work that I do. There’s definitely a grind element to it,” Flanagan says. “I feel like since 2016, I’ve become a much better marathoner. It’s fun to test myself and see progress, even at age 37. To track certain workouts and see if we can come up with, with my team, the perfect recipe for success and overcoming adversity and challenges in the buildup. I love the process and the challenge.”

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