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For Shalane Flanagan, crossing the finish line of the New York City Marathon on Sunday in 2:33:32 was a triumph of far more than 26.2 miles.
When it was announced that all six World Major Marathons would take place within a seven-week window—Berlin September 26, London October 3, Chicago October 10, Boston October 11, Tokyo October 17, and New York November 7—Flanagan had a crazy idea: she wanted to run them all.
Though she retired from professional running in 2019, Flanagan never lost her drive to chase big dreams. After two knee reconstructions and a global pandemic, the Olympic silver medalist was ready to set her sights on something, well, major.
“Everyone struggled to a degree,” she said of the pandemic from the finish line of Sunday’s race. “As a coach, I really had to help my athletes grieve the loss of the Olympics. That was a big hit for my athletes. I felt like I was grieving that for them and helping them process and mourning that loss. And then I could feel the loss of a lot of these marathoners. They felt like they lost a sense of purpose and training and it was really difficult to get out the door. And then for me: I retired, I had knee surgery, I was transitioning into a coaching role; I felt like I struggled. That’s why I latched on so hard to this idea of six world major marathons, because I was like, wow, I just need something to look forward to and to have a goal again, and a sense of purpose—beyond, you know, being a mom and other things. I just needed something for me.”
One by one, she checked them off, hoping to finish each race in under three hours. Before New York, her slowest finish was Chicago (2:46:39) and her fastest was London (2:35:04). Her goal for NYC? To beat them all.
“I just was hoping to feel good and run my last one the fastest, even if it was like a second or two faster than London,” Flanagan said. “And so, yeah, I accomplished that.”
Runners couldn’t have asked for a better day, with near-perfect conditions for the 50th anniversary of the world’s largest marathon. Combined with a longer stretch to recover from her last race, Flanagan was feeling great.
“You know, I’ve run six of these. I didn’t get to do Tokyo live, but this was by far my favorite. It was so much fun,” she said.
“I felt way better in the last six miles than I have than the other ones, so I probably had more in me, but I was just so conservative because the last ones were so close together that when I would hit mile 20 or 22, I was really having to grind it out. But because I had three weeks recovery, when I hit mile 20, I was like, oh, I have a lot left; I might have miscalculated a little bit, but that’s fine. I’d rather come in feeling good and not wobbly.”
New York will always have a special place in Flanagan’s heart. In 2017, she became the first U.S. woman in 40 years to win. This year, starting in wave 1 (as opposed to the elite women’s group), she got to see the race from a totally new perspective.
She enjoyed athlete village without the pressure normally attached to competitive racing, and meeting other athletes, like retired professional soccer star Abby Wambach, who was running her first marathon.
“I sent Abby a message this morning and wished her good luck and, you know, welcome to the marathon club and the running community. And she was actually in the same wave so I got to meet her in person (we’ve been social media friends). So yeah, interactions like that I would never have gotten to have.”
Out on the course, the crowd—a known staple of the New York City Marathon—was bigger and better than ever.
“Maybe it’s because I was in a different wave, but I thought that the fans were a whole other level today. I had chills the entire time. Not because I was cold. It was deafening,” Flanagan said. “I don’t know if it’s because the elite women typically go off first and it’s not as many people out, but in wave one, there were more people than I’m used to. It was insane.”
“The enthusiasm was so infectious. I felt like everyone had this deep sense of gratitude. For this sense of normalcy, we don’t take it for granted as much anymore. You could just feel a deep level of enthusiasm that I’ve never felt before.”
We know what you might be thinking. Have these races (and her impressively-competitive times) given her an itch to come out of retirement?
“Not at all,” Flanagan said. “I’m very happy with what I’m doing. It’s what excites me and what I’m passionate about. Running to make a living it’s just not where I’m at anymore. I’d rather coach, I’d rather do other things and I’m just doing it with a bunch of girlfriends, essentially, and bringing my family along. It’s a different way of interacting with the sport, and this is definitely where I’m at in my heart right now.”