Shalane Flanagan will defend New York City Marathon title at age 37

"It’s like if you’re dating someone and it goes well and you want more."

Shalane Flanagan
Shalane Flanagan trains at the Nike campus track in Beaverton, Ore., Aug. 7, 2018. Flanagan, who won the New York Marathon last year, will try to do it again after taking a good long while to consider retirement. –Amanda Lucier/The New York Times

BEAVERTON, Ore. — Shalane Flanagan was supposed to be done with competitive running after last year’s New York City Marathon.

Then she won it, ending a four-decade drought for American women as she broke the tape crying, shrieking a profanity and pumping her fist. Five months later, in April, the four-time Olympian was back on the starting line in Boston, finishing seventh, and in 82 days on Nov. 4, at 37, she will give New York another go.

Flanagan said returning to New York is like being in love, or something like it.

“When I think about running New York, I get a feeling of ecstasy; my stomach turns,” she said. “It’s like if you’re dating someone and it goes well and you want more.”

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But love doesn’t always make you do rational things. Flanagan does not need to run anymore. Nike, where she is a top talent, has given her a standing offer to begin coaching the team of women she has built with her coach, Jerry Schumacher. The company even named an executive parking spot on its sprawling campus after her, though it is not reserved for her.

“When I experienced winning New York last year, it was like when you’re sitting on your couch and finally something happens that you didn’t realize would happen and it excites you,” she said recently after finishing her second run of the day. “But this was my real life! It was the outcome of always wanting it and not knowing if I was going to get it. And suddenly everything I’d worked for was validated. I got it.”

As for the finish-line profanity, transformed into memes, she said: “By nature, I tend to curse a lot.”

New York, win or lose, was going to be the perfect capstone for Flanagan’s career, until she fell back into the rhythms of her running life and decided she did not want it to end.

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“She could have retired years ago and still have been great,” Schumacher said. “But we knew if she kept going, that final pinnacle might come. And then in New York last year, she got it.”

“I think,” he added, “finding the right women to train with kept her motivated to see what might happen. And who knows, we’re still finding out.”

After standout distance performances at the world championships last August, Flanagan’s win in New York capped a watershed year in U.S. women’s distance-running milestones, and led to more.

In Boston in April, her teammate in the Olympic marathon, Des Linden, became the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon since 1985. Suddenly the American women are ascendant in a way they have not been before.

“My win in New York changed the trajectory for other American women because we’re friends, we’re teammates,” Flanagan said. “And at some point they’ve beaten me too, so I think it was a great motivator. You don’t get to choose your moment, and I think when I had mine, they thought, why shouldn’t I win too?”

Still, for Flanagan, whose lifetime goal had been to win the Boston Marathon since she grew up nearby watching her father compete there, the acclaim as the First American Woman Winning a Major American Marathon In A While was bittersweet.

Flanagan, and many observers, including the Olympians she’s recruited as teammates, describes herself as an “alpha among alphas.” This seems like a fair appraisal.

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If, for example, you are supposed to meet her around 8:30 a.m. for a run and if, for example, your car service takes a wrong turn, making your meeting time vacillate between 8:32 and 8:33 and you do not text her because you keep hoping the estimated arrival time will decrease, you will get a call at 8:32 asking if you are lost.

The most common refrain you hear from someone who has run with her, or even someone who has finished three hours behind in a race from her, is: “Shalane does all the work.”

When you ask them to say more, they mention how she has certainly run more than 100 miles a week for most of her adult life and probably does all her stretches, too. (Flanagan corrects that she rarely does all her stretches.) But she is exacting about her routine, down to the minute (bed at 9 p.m., up at 6 a.m. — she does not press snooze.) She pins her bibs so tightly to her uniforms that no air can flow between.

The point is, most of that work really is on the less glamorous side, but she has shown up to do it — for a remarkably long time. And seems to have figured out a way to like it, too.

Schumacher has coached Flanagan since 2009, when she was the sole woman to join his team of six men.

“He was opposed to coaching a woman for a while, but finally everyone agreed I’m basically like a dude anyway and, good, so what difference did it make?” she said.

Schumacher said Flanagan’s unrelenting campaign to recruit female teammates three years ago ultimately is what kept her in the game long enough to log last year’s victory.

She and her husband, Steve, who is a former runner she met at the University of North Carolina, are spending this fall seeking to adopt a child. They had fostered teenage sisters as she trained for New York last year, but the girls have moved on to community college.

In the meantime, she calls her teammates her maternal outlet. After training for years as the only woman in the Bowerman Track Club, since 2015 Flanagan has been curating a team of female athletes with Schumacher that she calls the “Bowerman Babes,” the roster for which has come to read like a who’s who of rising American distance runners, with Flanagan serving as a de facto captain.

Her long career has become as much a story of her collaborative approach to competition as it is about medals. She has embraced rising talent, instead of racing against it, and that has helped reinforce her own gifts. Even more, leading that talent has kept her in the game long enough to maximize her own potential.

Flanagan finished seventh in Boston in April, a race she desperately wanted to win. Distraught and contemplating retirement, Flanagan used the opportunity to train to pace her much younger teammate Shelby Houlihan to her American record-setting 5,000-meter race last month, a race at which Flanagan was once one of the best in the United States. That effort got her back up to the speeds that she is now using to fuel her through New York.

And so on a recent sprint workout on Nike’s forested track in Beaverton, Flanagan gamely chased her teammates Kate Grace and Colleen Quigley, both about a decade younger, around the oval. They wrapped up the workout, looking no more tired than if they had just wrapped up some light yard work. As they reviewed their workout, Flanagan delightedly referred to herself as the “grandma” of the group. And then, it dawned on her: the laps she’d just run with them were faster than any she had logged in eight years.

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