Shalane Flanagan Scores A Victory For American Distance Running
November 5 was a great day for women’s running.
For the first time in 40 years, an American distance runner took first place in the TCS New York City Marathon professional women’s field. What’s more, she won by more than a minute–and was followed by four other top 10 female American finishers.
Shalane Flanagan, a 36-year-old Olympic athlete from Boulder, Colo., won the TCS NYC Marathon with an unofficial time of 2:26:53. Mary Keitany, the three-time NYC Marathon champion from Kenya who was aiming for a fourth consecutive win on Sunday, came in second with a time of 2:27:54, followed shortly by Mamitu Daska of Ethiopia, who finished third in 2:28:08. The other American women who placed within the top 10 include Allie Kieffer (fifth place), Kellyn Taylor (eighth), Diane Nukuri (ninth) and Stephanie Bruce (10th). Though no new course record was set (Margaret Okayo’s 2:22:31 record from 2003 remains), this race was a historic one for American women.
It’s impressive that there was such a large gap between the two frontrunners at the end of the race, because the elite women stuck together for the longest time before their competitive instincts began burning.
The Race Begins
Let’s back up to the race start on Staten Island. Weather conditions were ideal, as temperatures nestled comfortably in the mid-50s and the day’s looming rainclouds postponed their release until after the elite women finished running. With weather concerns out of the way, the elites were able to focus on climbing up and over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the most intimidating incline on the course that runners meet during the first mile. The elite pack started the race together, with Italy’s Sara Dossena leading the way for a relatively slow 6:43 first mile. Once the pack descended into Brooklyn, things sped up a bit–but not enough to discourage anyone from the pace. The average mile pace for the next few miles decreased by roughly a minute, with Dossena leading as Keitany and Flanagan flanked her. In the middle of the pack were Taylor and Bruce, Northern Arizona Elite teammates who trained together throughout the summer and were both striving to cinch a top 10 finish.
Keitany’s position at this point was surprising; she’s typically one to break off from the pack at her earliest opportunity, so that she can build a gap between herself and her competitors as a race progresses. Not so during this run. Instead, she waited to make a move until after the group passed the halfway mark, making onlookers wonder: would she try to set a new course record? Or would she invest just enough effort to secure her fourth consecutive NYC title?
Keitany Makes A Move
Keitany finally made her first move during mile 14. A spurt of energy briefly delivered her to the front of the pack, but by mile 16, the group was back together again. Meanwhile, Flanagan remained patient, tucked in behind the leaders as she bid her time. The slower pace turned out to be a huge help to Flanagan: instead of burning out quickly, she was able to retain energy and save it for when it really counted. And it really counted at mile 21.
Five miles out from the finish, Keitany, Flanagan and Daska broke from the pack, turning the women’s marathon into a three-woman race. They began putting distance between themselves and the rest of the pack: first a small gap, then a large divide that expanded with each step. Keitany was starting to look tired; though the race wasn’t as fast as many anticipated, her energy levels were low. She was able to stick with Flanagan and Daska (which is no small feat–have we mentioned that they were running sub-5:30 miles after their first 20?), but she couldn’t compete with the energy reserve Flanagan was about to tap into.
Flanagan Searches For Her Break
The women clocked five minutes and change for mile 22, and that’s when Flanagan began looking for a way to break from her fellow frontrunners. Like Keitany, Flanagan doesn’t like a crowded race, and she certainly wanted some elbow room for her final leg of the course. She began pulling away, striding strong, steady and fast. She seemed to grow faster and stronger the further she ran past Keitany and Daska. After all, it had been a while since her last marathon, and even longer since she ran the New York course. Her NYC Marathon debut in 2010 resulted in a second place finish, confirming to her “that I could become a great marathoner,” a performance she cited as among the best of her career. Her most recent marathon was at the Summer Olympics in Rio. Since then, she’s suffered a lower back injury that removed her from the professional circuit for much of the last year. The time she took to recover and recuperate seemed to be exactly what her body needed. “My legs are fresh,” she told reporters last month. “If I can arrive at the start line healthy and fit, I really put a pressure on myself to deliver.”
Healthy: check. Fit: check. Deliver? Oh, yeah. As her feet pounded closer to the finish line in Central Park, Flanagan’s momentum was building, carrying her closer to victory as Keitany’s threat diminished in the distance. Flanagan didn’t bother glancing back; she had plenty of spectators cheering her on, informing her that the gap she’d created was too wide for any competitor to breach. When she finally broke the finish line tape, she did so with a sob and an incredulous smile (and a “F*ck yes!” with which meme creators are already having a field day). After embracing family members gathered at the finish, she accepted a hug and an American flag from New York Road Runners President Peter Ciaccia.
“This is a moment that I’ve dreamed of since I was a little girl,” Flanagan said after catching her breath. “I came here full of motivation and energy to put on the best performance of my life. It’s indescribable. It’s a moment I’m trying to soak in and savor right now. This is the kind of moment we dream of, to find out our potential and realize how incredible we can be.”
The last American woman to win the NYC Marathon was Miki Gorman, who won two years in a row in 1976 and 1977. Only four American women before Flanagan earned NYC Marathon titles; one of them was Kathrine Switzer, who took to the course this year for the first time since she won the race in 1974, leading her 261 Fearless team all the way.
For Women–And For The USA
Flanagan won the NYC Marathon title for American women, but she also won for Americans at large. The city was painfully aware of the threat that loomed over race day, with its deadliest terrorist attack since September 11, 2001 having occurred on October 31–just five days before the marathon. Security, always strong at large races like this one, was even more prevalent, with countless police officers on patrol and stationed along the course, checking bags and scanning bodies for signs of threats. Thankfully, the marathon concluded safely. Before the race, Mayor Bill de Blasio called a race like the NYC Marathon a terrorist’s “worst nightmare,” citing the cultural diversity and togetherness that race days encourage. “It doesn’t matter what background someone is,” de Blasio told reporters. “This event is life-affirming every year; but this year, it’s even more powerful.”
The recent attack in lower Manhattan was a source of determined inspiration for Flanagan during Sunday’s race. “It’s been a tough week for New Yorkers and a tough week for our nation,” she said in a statement made to reporters after crossing the finish line. “I thought, what a better gift than to make Americans smile today. I wanted to honor all of the people that have given their time to help me stand here.”
Congratulations, Shalane Flanagan, on becoming the first American woman in 40 years to win a NYC Marathon title. Thank you for delivering a performance to which female runners can aspire, and of which Americans can be proud.