On November 5, 2017, Shalane Flanagan became the first American woman to win the TCS New York City Marathon in 40 years. One week after her historic run, which resulted in a victory more than one minute faster than three-time defending champion Mary Keitany, Flanagan spoke with Women’s Running to discuss the race, the lower back injury that set the stage for her greatest comeback to date, and digging deeper to give Americans someone–and something–for which they can proudly cheer.
Has the shock worn off yet, or are you still processing your win?
I think the reality and the magnitude of it is starting to sink in. It feels so good; honestly, it’s just so incredibly rewarding to finally fulfill that goal and dream that I’ve had for a really long time. I was on the brink where I was starting to give up on that goal, and just as I was about ready to give up, it finally happened. I’m so happy I stayed the course and stayed consistent with that goal of mine.
What does it mean to win this race now, seven years after your first run in 2010 when you placed second?
I think for a lot of people in athletics, a setback is just a stage for a comeback. Having not raced a marathon in over a year was actually really beneficial to me. I hadn’t had a significant break in my entire career, so I think it was mentally and physically what I needed, and I never would have done it had it not been a forced situation. In a way, I’m appreciative that my body took a break, because I wouldn’t have done it myself, and I think it allowed me to have my best possible training segment leading into New York.
Were you surprised by the relatively slow pace during the first half of the marathon?
It honestly felt quite pedestrian; it felt really slow compared to what I had trained to run. I was anticipating Mary being a little more aggressive–maybe not in the first mile, but I was anticipating her taking off at some point, throwing down some aggressive splits. I was ready to go whenever she was, or whenever anyone was ready to throw something in there. I was shocked: I saw 76 minutes for the first half, and I gained a lot of confidence from that, because the few times that Mary has been beaten, it’s usually off a slower pace. If she lets athletes stick around in the last 6 miles, she doesn’t win the race. I gained confidence when I was still with her at 20 miles. I thought, Okay, historically she actually doesn’t win races when this happens. I was allowing myself to get more excited with the slow miles that passed.
How did you anticipate the race was going to play out?
I was open to every possible scenario, but I think the race definitely played in my favor. I knew that my training had gone really well, so I was basically open to anything, because I was as fit as I’d ever been. Whether it was a fast or slow race, I didn’t mind; but because of my knowledge and having watched Mary run enough, I did like that it was a slower race. I was waiting to react to the other athletes to get things going. When we did get things going, I actually felt better; I felt like I was hitting the brakes and trying not to press the pace, trying to let other athletes dictate it. I was in control, and I was looking at Mary multiple times, trying to decipher how she was doing and trying to assess what was going to happen. I was open to any possible race scenario; I prepared myself for everything.
How did you make that decision to finally pick up the pace? How did you pick your timing?
There was no pre-determined plan; it was very intuitive and based on what my competitors were doing. I was reacting to them. [Mamitu Daska] threw in a surge with 3 miles to go, and when I covered it, I started to pass her. I carried the momentum, and I thought, I feel really good; I’m just going to put my head down and see if I can run as hard as I can to the finish. I didn’t look at any splits; I didn’t look back. I wanted to show that I had a lot of strength. I didn’t want to show any weakness by looking behind me. I just put my head down and visualized myself on my training grounds in Portland with my coach. I went to my happy place and executed what I’ve been doing in practice. Thankfully, that was good enough to break the field open and break Mary and Daska. I just powered home to the finish. It was a very intuitive decision; I was feeling the moment and it felt good, and I thought, Okay, it’s time to go to work and see if I can run as hard as I can.
Did you have any sense of how far ahead you were from the rest of the field?
No. It’s funny; I was leading and kind of looking at the crowd, hoping they would give me that information, but I obviously didn’t want to take the breath to ask. I was hoping someone would say, “ You’ve got 20 meters,” or, “You’ve got 20 seconds.” I was hoping to get that feedback, but I wasn’t hearing anything. That allowed me to believe that no one was really close enough. I think they would’ve said, “She’s right there! You’ve got to keep on it! You’ve got to keep going!” I was trying to read the crowd; I never heard any footsteps, and I never heard them cheering for anyone but me. But at the same time, I was like, “Well, they may be a bit biased, since we are in the United States and I’m an American. Maybe they wouldn’t cheer for the other athletes.” But I just had this sense by the crowd’s reaction that there wasn’t anyone particularly, extremely close. I would’ve loved if someone would have given me that kind of confidence, because I definitely ran scared those last 3 miles. I felt the enormity of what I was doing, and how important it was to me. I didn’t want to overwhelm myself with emotion. I was very focused; until the last 20 seconds, I didn’t allow myself to enjoy the moment, because I was so afraid to let it slip through my fingers.
With your TCS NYC Marathon win on November 5 and Molly Huddle’s USATF 5K Championship win the day before, it seems like American women distance runners are having a strong moment. What does it mean to you as the TCS NYC Marathon champion to be leading that momentum?
I’m extremely excited. Here in Portland, I’ve worked really hard with my coach, Jerry Schumacher, to cultivate an environment where we have a group of women here, and we’re constantly working on bettering ourselves. Our group had an epic summer: Amy with her bronze medal in the marathon [at the IAAF World Championships], and Courtney Frerichs with her silver in the steeple. I’m surrounded by extremely hard-working women, and we’ve cultivated an environment in which our expectations of ourselves are extremely high. It’s an amazing group to be part of. I think we’re possibly one of the best groups in the world, and I’m so proud to be part of this program, because we are absolutely raising the standards of what Americans can do in distance running.
What’s your reaction when people translate your win into a display of American strength during times when this country is facing difficulties in every major industry, from politics and technology to sports and entertainment?
I think sports have this great opportunity to bring joy and happiness into a world that’s sometimes a bit uneasy and disappointing and sad. It’s a great responsibility and honor to hopefully inspire people to be the best versions of themselves. If there are enough people in the world bringing the best versions of themselves to their work and families and communities, we would hopefully arrive at a place that is better. It’s an honor to be part of a culture and part of a group of women in the United States that’s doing it the right way, full of passion and dedication toward their sport.
Shortly after your win on Sunday, you told reporters that you wanted to give Americans a win after the terrorist attack in lower Manhattan that occurred a few days earlier. Many people have since compared your win to that of Meb Keflezighi’s 2014 Boston Marathon win, one year after the 2013 bombings. Do events like these influence your race in any way, or is that too simple an explanation that discounts years of intense training?
It is strange–you couldn’t have asked for a better outcome in Boston in 2014. The same with New York on Sunday–you couldn’t have written it better. You obviously can’t write off the training that Meb and myself have done over our careers; there were lots of ups and downs to get to that point. But I think as athletes, when we start to hurt, there’s got to be some sort of external motivator that allows us to dig even deeper than we think is possible. When we have these motivations and things that pull at our hearts, we’re willing to suffer more for other people than for ourselves. Meb wrote the victims’ names on his bib–that was in his heart and in his mind as he ran those final miles. It’s just enough to pull out something special when you’re running for something bigger than yourself. We definitely had to put in the work, but for sure it is something magical to me, that Meb was able to be that person in 2014 and I was able to be that person to bring joy on Sunday.
There was talk before the marathon of this being your last. It might be too early to talk about what you have planned for 2018, but are you still thinking of NYC as your last race, or has your win changed your mind?
When anyone achieves a lifetime goal, a lot of people like to say, “Well, what’s next?” It’s a quick first question, and I totally understand that. But I am absolutely just living in this moment, because this is something I wanted for a really long time. I’m just letting that soak in and embracing it. I eventually will, in a few days or a few weeks’ time, start to allow myself to dream about what’s next. Whatever is next, it has to be of extreme importance to me, in terms of if I do come back and run another marathon. I’ll sit down with my trusted circle of family and friends and coaching staff and sponsors and come up with what we think is the best next step, whatever that is.