On April 21, 2014, Shalane Flanagan captivated a nation as she led a group of elite runners through the first 19 miles of the Boston Marathon.
Raised in Marblehead, Mass., the three-time Olympian raced through the streets of her backyard, meditating on every turn and divot in the road toward the finish line on Boylston Street. On that day, she raced to win, hoping to be the first American woman to do so in 29 years. She missed the podium by four spots—finishing a disappointing seventh—but she ran the third fastest marathon ever by an American female and pushed a pace that resulted in a course record by the winner.
Flanagan’s performance on that day, even more incredible against the backdrop of the tragic attacks in 2013, set the stage for her to return this month to reclaim the race that shaped her career before it even started. Before Flanagan toed the line at this year’s Boston Marathon—she finished ninth—we sat down with America’s number-one female marathoner and learned what inspires her, who has influenced her career as a professional runner and how she stays thirsty for that next great moment in racing.
1. She fell in love with Boston as a spectator.
Living just 16 miles outside of Boston, Flanagan and her family experienced Marathon Monday every year together. “At the time, I thought it was a national holiday. I thought everyone stopped and watched the Boston Marathon,” she recalls. “My first really strong memory was when my dad ran it—I think I was about 12 or 13. I remember standing on Boylston Street waiting for him to come in and watching him finish, and I remember how in awe I was of all the athletes.”
Someone mentioned to Flanagan how fast the elite women were running as she stood waiting for her father—a pace that dazzled her. “At the time it was faster than what I could run one mile in, so it completely blew my mind that people could run [26.2 miles] that fast. I was captivated from the beginning.”
The Boston Marathon instantly became Flanagan’s biggest running project. “I wanted to be part of this special day and celebrate Boston and celebrate my country, and I thought maybe someday I could do it. Maybe I could complete the marathon—never thinking one day I would have a legitimate shot at winning.”
Related: Running In Boston
2. Beating the boys gave her confidence.
Flanagan recalls her first “race”—her school’s one-mile fitness test. “It wasn’t even a race—it was basically gym class—but I thought it was a race,” she explains. “I remember getting so nervous and excited to go run the mile. I don’t know what it was. I just loved running, and I was so competitive with it. It pulled out this natural competitiveness.”
Young Flanagan came in first overall and was thereafter dubbed the “fastest one in the school.”
“I don’t remember my exact time—I think it was a 5:50, under 6 minutes. That was just natural, raw talent. I never trained for it or ran before. That’s when I realized my passion and desire to be a runner.” Her innate speed gave the grade-schooler a boost in confidence—and beating all of the boys was the icing on the cake.
3. She discovered disappointment and redemption in her high school career.
“I wanted to be one of the best prep cross-country runners in the nation, but I had some bad luck my junior year with the ﬂu,” Flanagan recalls. She missed the qualifying standard for the Foot Locker High School Cross Country Championships, the most prestigious showdown for runners her age. “Going into my senior year, I was determined to make it. I just ran a poorly executed race and ended up collapsing from running too hard.”
After missing the biggest high school stage twice in a row, Flanagan was devastated—but she looks back and finds slight comedy in it. “People laugh about it—I’ve made it to the Olympics, but I never went to Foot Locker.” The runner rebounded with a win at the national junior cross-country championships (open to all runners age 18 and under) as a high school senior, out-kicking the likes of then-collegiate runner Lauren Fleshman. “One of my greatest races was beating them and making the world team for cross country.”
Related: Video: Shalane’s Most Memorable Race
4. Her favorite moment of college racing happened on the homestretch at the oldest track competition in the country.
It was a come-from-behind win and team celebration that Flanagan cherishes as her most memorable performance in college. “We would go to the Penn Relays every spring, and it was so fun,” Flanagan says of her University of North Carolina team, which won three relay events at the 2003 event.
“We had this 4 x 1,500-meter event, and I remember, I was 200 or 300 meters behind Stanford when I got the baton.” Flanagan frequently anchored her relay team, receiving the stick last and tasking herself with passing anyone left in front of her. “I slowly chipped away and ended up passing [the girl in first], and the whole crowd was just cheering. A lot of them are sprinters, so they love to see sprints. I got the big whoop, whoop!”
5. She worked with a rival to snag a record-setting performance.
Flanagan, who often went head-to-head with New Zealand’s Kim Smith on the track, explains, “I think we actually really enjoyed racing each other, because we knew it would be a really great battle and we would push each other.” They toed the line together during an invitational meet at Stanford in 2008—Flanagan’s first 10K.
“I’d never run a 10K before, so I was really scared I might not finish, which sounds weird!” Despite fears of being undertrained and lacking endurance to last more than 3.1 miles, Flanagan clicked off laps, switching the lead with Smith every kilometer. “It went by amazingly fast—it was one of those special nights where I felt unbelievable. I think I only out-kicked her in the last 200 meters or something.” Flanagan beat Deena Kastor’s American record mark by a tremendous margin and says she was definitely shocked to see the final number: 30:34.49.
6. Her parents are her heroes—in running and in life.
“Whenever I have a tough decision in front of me, I’m always thinking, “Okay, what would my dad say? What would my mom do? What would my parents think about this?” Flanagan says of her runner parents. Mother Cheryl was a former world-record holder in the marathon, and father Steve holds a 2:18 personal best in the 26.2-mile distance. “I feel like they’ve been a huge support system. I’ve been really fortunate.”
Both Flanagan’s parents were also cross-country runners on the world stage, and Flanagan says that connection makes her third-place finish at the 2011 world cross-country championships one of her more notable accomplishments. “My bronze medal from there is almost on par with my bronze medal at the Olympics. It’s an extremely tough race.”
7. She met her husband on the cross-country team—but didn’t believe he was a runner at first.
“I met him during a recruiting trip at Carolina, but when I got back, he had spent his whole summer in the gym lifting, not really running,” says Flanagan, whose husband and manager, Steve Edwards, competed in the 800 meters on the track and ran on the cross-country team with her. “I thought, Maybe he’s on the football team. He was huge! How was this guy trying out for cross country?”
The running duo met when they were 18 years old, and their shared background in running made Flanagan’s distance from her family much easier. Plus, she often outran him in workouts. “I would actually beat him in tempo runs. Our coach used to send the men off a little before the women, not thinking that the women would catch them.”
True to her speed and competitive side, Flanagan remembers besting him when their relationship was brand new. “Everyone was giving him so much crap that his girlfriend beat him in a tempo run. We just had some funny moments like that, where my endurance background surpassed his.”
8. She believes the 10,000 meters is her sweet spot.
“It just felt so deliciously slow to me,” says Flanagan, who moved from running the 5K, a “traumatically fast event,” to the 10K. “I was built and made for the 10K. My first marathon went really, really well as well. But I think I was still terriﬁed of the distance, so I didn’t have the same affection toward it at first.”
Flanagan says the marathon is a really big labor of love, something that can often become trying to train for. “The 10K, you can just run a lot of them without the same preparation.”
(Ed Note: As a final tune-up and ode to her speed before the Boston Marathon, Flanagan placed second in the 10,000 meters at the 2015 Stanford Invitational on April 3, running a fast 31:09.02 to finish less than a second behind the winner.)
9. She’s a history major living her dream job.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up—I just wanted to be an Olympic athlete,” she says. “I just thought I would work some side job to accommodate my dream. I didn’t know what professional running was or that it was possible to make a sustainable income off of it.” Flanagan entered University of North Carolina as an undeclared major, knowing that she needed to obtain a good degree “in case running didn’t work out.”
The Nike athlete laughs at her premature thoughts of living out of a van and running toward her dreams without a supporting sponsor, something she didn’t know existed at the time. “I ended up majoring in history. I wasn’t really thinking of a career path in front of me.”
10. Winning Boston would be more golden than an Olympic victory.
With an Olympic bronze in her back pocket, Flanagan still craves competing on the world stage. She says, “It’s that meaningful to me—you could ask me what I want in the remainder of my career, a gold or a win at Boston. Winning Boston [to me] is like winning gold [at the Olympics],” says Flanagan, who won bronze in the 10,000 meters at the 2008 Olympics—making her only the second American to medal in that distance.
“It seems so far-fetched to dream about an Olympic medal at all—most dream of just making it to the Olympics. It like blows your mind away that it even happened.” For Flanagan, the Boston Marathon adds an extra emotional draw—a way to honor her family, her hometown, the nation supporting that Boston community. There’s a runner inside of her that yearns for an American flag draped over her tired shoulders on Boylston Street.