Shalane Flanagan is gearing up for the 2015 Boston Marathon on April 20. Already the second-fastest marathoner in U.S. history, Flanagan, who grew up in Marblehead, Mass., has been relentless in her training in the wake of last year’s gutsy effort, in which she set a blistering early pace and led the race for 19 miles before fading to seventh place. And, of course, she’d still like to help avenge the residual anguish from the 2013 terrorist bombings.
by Caitlyn Pilkington
As a Face of Boston
Shalane Flanagan was at the front of the pack last year, leading the Boston Marathon for 19 miles. There’s so much to focus on during a tactical race like Boston, but one thing that stuck with her was an unexpected distraction that quickly became one of her favorite memories of the 2014 race.
“I was leading, and there was no one around, and this little kid yelled at us, ‘Oh my god, you guys are going so fast!’ He was just trying so hard to keep up on his scooter, and I giggled out loud,” she says, laughing. “I don’t think anyone else noticed it. It was literally me and a pack of African women behind me, and I don’t know if they knew what he was saying. But it was the cutest thing.”
But in the end, Flanagan wasn’t quite fast enough. She was eventually caught by those African women and finished seventh in a time of 2:22:02.
Which brings us to 2015.
Although she owns bronze medals from the 2008 Olympics and the 2011 World Cross Country Championships, Flanagan really wants to win the Boston Marathon. And how could she not? She grew up near Boston, remains fiercely loyal to the people there even after moving across the country to Portland, Ore., and has had two very good (but not quite epic) races there. And after last year’s gut-wrenching performance that left runners hungry for an American woman’s redemption this year—30 years after the last U.S. winner—Flanagan appears poised to be that saving grace for her hometown, her country and the sport of long-distance running in America.
As a New England Runner
Ask anyone close to Flanagan, and they relay the same truth about her—Boston isn’t just business. It’s personal. Growing up 16 miles outside of the city, the course is her backyard playground—a place where she tests her strategies and primes her legs before toeing the line in Hopkinton. While the course offers its pockets of cues for Flanagan along the way, it’s the overwhelming starting line that really captivates her and keeps her coming back.
“They put you in this tiny little church. You have these world-class athletes lying out on mats, and it’s this old dingy church,” she says. “It’s just so New England. It’s one of my favorite areas because it’s just goosebumps. There’s this huge American flag, and there’s this sign that says ‘It all starts here,’ and it’s Patriots’ Day, and it’s just so much national pride at the start of the race. It’s almost overwhelming, it’s insane.”
The daughter of former elite runners Steve Flanagan and Cheryl Treworgy, Flanagan idolized the Boston Marathon after watching her father cross the line on Boylston Street as a teenager. Flanagan, who at the time couldn’t run a single mile at the elite runners’ pace, drooled with desire to win the marathon one day, a goal that reigns supreme over even capturing gold in the Olympic marathon.
“She’s won an Olympic medal, which is a huge honor to her, but her lifelong dream is to win Boston,” says former college teammate Elyse Kopecky, who is currently writing a cookbook with Flanagan for runners titled Run Fast Eat Slow. “It’s her home turf, and all her family and friends are there in Boston. And she just wants to have that legacy.”
As a Dedicated Competitor
In her pursuit of that hometown legacy, Flanagan has studied the marathon course and trained on it frequently, memorizing every restaurant landmark and divot along the way.
“I would get out there and it would be like negative 10 degrees, and I would be running through the Newton Hills,” she says. “The months of February and March, there are tons of people out there training on the course. I remember running and suffering, and there are all these people running on the course cheering me on just encouraging me to keep working hard.”
Flanagan’s intimate knowledge and familiarity with the course will work in her favor on April 20—not only for an edge over the competition, but also knowing when her body can go and when it needs to hold back.
“I think it’s just knowing how to delegate your energy over the course. If I have signs that I’m fatiguing or I’m feeling really good, I just know when to save my energy or question when to sit back,” she says. “I know how to run it, for me, the best way, and if I can tell someone doesn’t know the course well, I can take advantage of that knowledge.”
Steve Edwards, Flanagan’s husband, manager and former college teammate, says the Boston Marathon is also more tactical, calling for more strategizing and planning rather than speed. Flanagan ran a new PR of 2:21:14 last September at the fast and flat Berlin Marathon, but she has a different approach for Boston.
“For Berlin, we wanted to make sure she was fast. That’s kind of more of a time trial style, so there was more emphasis on speed work and even more emphasis on quality over quantity,” Edwards says. “Whereas Boston is more of a chess match. She goes to Boston and runs on the course; it’s going to be a little more strength-oriented and strategizing. It’s a very strategic race, with more hills on the course.”
Flanagan’s previous two appearances at Boston—a fourth place in 2013 and a seventh-place showing last year—were two notable additions to her professional running resume. In 2013, Flanagan’s Boston debut was quickly overshadowed by the tragic bombings at the finish line. Like most competitors eyeing a second chance at the Hopkinton starting line, Flanagan felt the patriotic pull to return and command a winning race in 2014. After a grueling 19 miles of front running, she finished in a disappointing seventh—but she helped set up the fastest race in Boston history, which included a course-record time from Rita Jeptoo and her own two-and-a-half minute PR.
“Even though I wasn’t able to execute it the way I wanted last year, I don’t think it was in vain,” Flanagan says. “I think that knowledge will stay with me. I’m really comfortable on the course, and I have great memories along the way. It’s kind of a comforting place for me, it’s not scary or daunting.”
Edwards says the Flanagan’s consistency is her strongest characteristic as a runner—and the reason she returns with force year over year. “I’ve told numerous people this—they ask, ‘Why is Shalane so good?’” he says. “Obviously she’s talented, but more than that, her biggest strength is hard work. If I had the same talent as Shalane, I wouldn’t be half as good as her. She’s on year 11 of her professional career, and she brings it 100 percent every day.”
Coming from a family of runners—her mother set a world record during her 1971 marathon debut and her father ran a 2:19 marathon in the 1980s—Flanagan was born with that raw talent and a competitive streak that’s never dwindled. After years of pounding shorter distances on the road and track, from breaking her own American record and earning an Olympic bronze in the 10,000 meters in 2008 to a come-from-behind bronze medal effort at the 2011 World Cross Country Championships , the 33-year-old decided to add another distance to her resume—one that landed her on her third Olympic team in 2012.
“Honestly when she said she wanted to start running the marathon, I went, ‘Why?!’ She was so good at all these other distances, why do you want to move up?” says Treworgy, laughing. “Her goals have always been so high. She makes statements that the rest of the world may feel are outlandish. Her goals and her drive have made us believers. She has to believe in it, but she’s made us believers too. I think her wanting to [win Boston] and to be able to achieve it would just be unbelievable.”
Shalane Flanagan’s Marathon History
- 2010 New York City Marathon — 2:28:40 (2nd)
- 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials — 2:25:38 (1st)
- 2012 London Olympics — 2:25:51 (10th)
- 2013 Boston Marathon — 2:27:08 (4th)
- 2014 Boston Marathon — 2:22:02 (7th)
- 2014 Berlin Marathon — 2:21:14 (3rd)
As a Champion
A nation of those believers is hoping to witness a win for Flanagan at the 2015 Boston Marathon, which would make her the first American woman to do so in 30 years. The support and encouragement she’s received since last year’s race isn’t lost on Flanagan either—it started immediately after crossing the finish line and remains a favorite moment of the entire race day.
“I don’t know if everyone walks through [the long medical tent], but it’s this overwhelming amount of applause and support as you are exiting the finish line area,” Flanagan says. “It feels like a really long walk, probably because I’m tired, but it’s like walking through this tunnel to the stadium but just packed with all of these people applauding. You feel really appreciated, and I think especially just being an American, there’s just a lot of appreciation for your performance, no matter how well you do or not.”
After Rita Jeptoo got busted last fall for performance-enhancing drug use, and subsequently banned for two years starting in January, the odds of an American victory are shorter — and that has Flanagan fired up even more. Edwards says the deletion of the top female from the field doesn’t so much discourage as it does provide more opportunity for clean runners to better their performances on an even playing field.
“You take Lance Armstrong out of cycling, take the alpha dog out of your event, and all of a sudden there’s room to potentially win a race or be more competitive,” he says. “The field is going to be a little weaker, so that’s an advantage for Shalane and all the women running that race.”
While illegal substances remain in the sport, Flanagan concentrates on her own task at hand. Her focus remains on April 20, with past performances considered growing pains and learning experiences to help her maximize her potential on Marathon Monday.
“Shalane is a perfectionist,” Edwards says. “And she also feels that when you race, it’s a representation of yourself, so you want to make 100 percent sure you’re at full capacity ready to rock and roll. She has a goal of competing well, but Boston is special to her. That’s where she’s from, and that’s the race she’s been focusing on since she was a little kid.”
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