Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Shalane Flanagan has 131 miles worth of World Marathon Majors down since September 26 and 26.2 miles to go on November 7, at the New York City Marathon, to complete all six races this fall. So far? She’s still in one piece and in good spirits, she said.
This fall, Flanagan embarked on what she dubbed “the eclipse,” what we all hope is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to run all the major marathons in one season—and, in fact, just seven weeks—due to the rescheduling of big events during the pandemic. On Monday, Flanagan ran her own version of a Tokyo Marathon, the only in-person event that was canceled due to COVID-19, on a 12.4-mile looped flat course near her home in Portland, Oregon. She feared it might be the hardest one, lacking the energy and enthusiasm of the crowds, but she finished in 2:35:14—far from the “slow” time she predicted three days beforehand.
“I think this one is going to be the toughest to really get after it,” she said on Friday. “I’m going to guess that this will be my slowest one, though it will be fun with some friends and family out there.”
Flanagan, 40, retired from pro running in 2019, but she hasn’t retired from challenging goals, hoping to not just finish the 26.2-mile courses, but clock sub-three-hours on all of them. In addition to her race on Monday, she ran Boston on October 11 in 2:40:34, the day after she had clocked 2:46:39 in Chicago. Prior to that, Flanagan ran 2:35:04 on October 3 at the London Marathon and 2:38:32 on September 26 in Berlin.
Flanagan spoke with Women’s Running on Friday by phone to talk about how she’s measuring her effort, recovering, and learning valuable strategies along the way. Here are a few takeaways before she takes on the grand finale on November 7, at the New York City Marathon, a race she won in 2017.
You can let the pace come to you.
Flanagan has never experienced racing that is solely dictated by how she feels at the starting line. When it was her job to compete, the strategy was not always up to her—it was largely guided by the field.
“It’s fun because we figure out how hard we want to work each day—when you’re an elite, the race and other people are influencing how you run,” she said. “It’s now up to me on the day, how much I want to suffer. It’s a completely different dynamic. It’s like a different sport to me.”
The result? After racing the Boston Marathon five times, 2021 was the most enjoyable one yet. And the recreational athletes running around her are equally thrilled. One even pulled out a phone to FaceTime a friend to show he was racing with Flanagan.
“Normally I never feel in control at Boston. I get to mile 17 and I feel like trash. I never feel full of running, with the exception of maybe my first Boston because it was a kind of slow race. But the other times, the wheels were coming off and I didn’t enjoy it,” Flanagan said. “This was just a completely different experience and it was so fun and refreshing to have that.”
To decide on pace, Flanagan said she’s been looking at the weather, considering if she has a friend to run with that day, and how she feels when she starts. Then she lets the pace reveal itself.
“What feels sustainable, knowing that I’m not going max effort in any one of these?” she said. “Where’s that fine line that I can still recover as fast as possible but still dip my toe into that uncomfortable-ness that I’m craving?”
But even seasoned pros make rookie mistakes.
Although London was only her second race, it took a lot out of Flanagan, mostly because she made a mistake all of us can relate to: she went out too fast. She still finished in 2:35:04, but suffered during the second half (she ran 1:15:04 in the first 13.1 miles and 1:20:00 for the second).
“I had a cold and ran way too hard. That was the low so far,” Flanagan said. “I thought I maybe got myself in a pickle, with the [swollen] ankle, the cold, and all the travel, I was a little bit nervous about the whole thing. But now I can sniff the barn. I’ve physically rebounded.”
It was also the one race that she didn’t have a friend to run with, so she started in the wave with the sub-elite men.
“There was this vibe of competitiveness and of course I’m a competitive person so I fed off of it,” she said. “Then I got to 20 miles and I was like, ‘Uh-oh, You shouldn’t have done that.’ It backfired big for me. I learned my lesson on that one. That’s not the point of what I’m doing.”
Recovery is the name of the game.
Between the marathons, Flanagan pulls out all the old recovery tricks she’s learned along the way. Although unconvinced that ice baths make a big difference, she still did one between the back-to-back Chicago and Boston marathons. The travel and the running produce a lot of inflammation. She gets massages and physical therapy work twice a week after having no body work since stepping away from competition.
During her preparation before the attempt began in Berlin, she tried back-to-back long runs, including a 21-miler on a flat course at 6:40 pace followed by a hilly 21-miler at 6:20 pace the next day. When it came to the real-life scenario, she ended up feeling better in Boston than she did the day before in Chicago (“Which is kind of weird and kind of blew my mind,” she said.)
“I did a really good job hydrating, knowing those two were both going to be pretty humid marathons,” she said. “I think that’s why I came back well in Boston, because I did such a good job fueling and hydrating in Chicago, but I’ve been nonstop hungry since then.”
Reconstructed knees can take it, so far.
After retirement from competition in 2019, Flanagan had surgery on both of her knees and a long rehabilitation period afterward. So far, she hasn’t felt any pain and she’s worked with the Nike Sports Research Lab to have scans of her tendons and knees to monitor any damage through her training a racing.
“When I get back from each segment, they scan them to make sure the tissue in my knees is OK,” Flanagan said. “Anecdotally, I feel nothing and we’re actually seeing a strengthening of my quads—there’s no breakdown, which is incredible. My knees actually feel better than they did a year ago.”
The only hiccups so far occurred after the London Marathon, when she caught a cold and had a bit of an ankle flair up. It looked like she rolled the ankle, but she didn’t.
“London by far was the hardest for me. I didn’t pace myself well, so I had to stop and walk,” Flanagan said. “I was really tentative between London and Chicago. I didn’t run very much. The ankle was a low-level irritation. Maybe I tied my shoes too tight and got a tendon irritation? I have no idea what I would have done, but my physical therapist has been taping it to give it more stabilization.”
The super shoes help.
While the runner still needs to power the body over 26.2 miles, it’s no great secret that the newest models of shoes, like the Nike AlphaFly, can help ease the wear and tear on the legs, absorbing more of the shock as we pound the pavement day in and day out. Flanagan believes that the technology is a nice tool to have to reach her audacious goal.
“I think the foam is definitely a game changer in terms of shock absorption,” she said. “It’s been to my benefit to be able to come back. But at the end of the day, if you still aren’t fit enough to keep up with the shoes, you can still walk like I did in London. But typically my quads are sore after Boston. I have some other soreness but the shoe allows a quicker recovery.”
The New York City Marathon finish line will be a special place, once again.
When Flanagan won the 2017 New York City Marathon, it was the victory of her career. She had always believed she had the ability to win a World Marathon Major but as she edged toward the end of her competitive days, she started losing hope that it might be a box she would leave unchecked.
When she approached the finish line that year, with a fist pump and a “f*ck yes!” the stretch of Central Park by Tavern on the Green instantly became sacred ground. But after completing six marathons in seven weeks, will it be doubly so?
“I think any time people set hard goals and achieve them, yeah I think it’ll be a big celebration with my team who’s helped me do this. We’ve had so much fun and I’ll be sad that it’s over, to a degree because I’ve formed a really great team around me to do this and we’ve had a blast,” Flanagan said. “But it’ll be fun to dream up another adventure. There’s great phases in life to have these crazy things going on and then it’ll be nice to get back to some normalcy, not traveling the world running marathons.”