Shalane Flanagan covers long road

Before Shalane Flanagan could make the transition from middle distance to the unforgiving 26.2 miles, and before she set her sights on the 2012 Olympic Games, she had to learn all over again.

It was 2009 and the Marblehead, Mass., native had just switched to a new running coach at the Oregon Track Club Elite, Jerry Schumacher, as she was transitioning to the marathon from the 10,000 meters, the event in which she claimed the bronze medal in the Beijing Games and still holds the American record.

At the training facility in Portland, Ore., distance runners use a large grass track that covers one-third of a mile. Grass generally is more taxing on runners than the standard rubberized surface.

During his time as head coach at the University of Wisconsin, Schumacher was famous for his system of "Badger Miles," a unique method of counting miles based on an eight-minute pace (an 80-minute run, for instance, would count as eight miles regardless of one's actual distance). One way of looking at it is that you're tricking the mind into believing you didn't work as hard as your body feels, but the overarching theme is patience.

Recalling those first days, Flanagan says she was "like a bull in a China shop," bulldozing through the first laps of a three-mile run before Schumacher stopped her and said, "You're not listening to me."

Over and over, Flanagan retraced her steps until she got to a pace Schumacher was comfortable with. In all, she had totaled 10 miles on the track and was completely exhausted.

"I was completely wrecked," she recalled. "My stomach was upset, I could barely eat, I was dehydrated. But it was really rewarding. I didn't think it was possible, but he knows what I'm capable of, and it's so rewarding to actually accomplish it. I thought it was impossible.

"That workout to me just showed that if I listen to him, give him full control and power, then that's a good thing, because he really knows what he's doing."

It was the first of many grueling workouts over the year as Flanagan transformed herself.

"I was used to getting the pain and hurt, but if I want to become a marathoner I cannot be in pain the first few miles," she said. "That was probably the hardest lesson I executed in those workouts.

"On top of that, I'd never been so tired in my life, I was always hungry, always tired, I don't know how I'd get out and run the next day. I figured if I kick my feet in front of myself, I have to move. It was really painful, and I went through it at the time with no female training partner, which makes me more appreciative."

Now Flanagan, 31, runs up to 120 miles in a given week. When she was a senior at Marblehead High, and before her All-American career at the University of North Carolina, she averaged about 40 to 50 miles a week.

The fruits of these unrelenting labors have paid off quickly and handsomely. Flanagan made her marathon debut in 2010 at New York, recording the fastest time by an American woman in 20 years (2:25.40). In January, she won the Olympic trials marathon in Houston, setting the event record (2:25:38), then followed up in March with a win at the Lisbon Half-Marathon, breezing a loaded field at 1:08:52.

Nestled in between was some more hardware in her middle-distance forte. That included her fifth national cross-country title and another win in the 10,000 at the 2011 USA Track and Field Championships.

And Flanagan is no longer alone. Moving to the Portland area with the Oregon Track Club meant teaming up with rival Kara Goucher for workouts. The two have become close friends, providing a competitive air, but also a valve of relief.

"It can be a pretty lonely sport," Flanagan said. "If you don't have someone to share with and goof off with, it wouldn't be nearly as fun. It's amazing, we log so many miles together, we run twice a day together, and if you saw someone for over two hours a day, you'd have moments where there's nothing to say. We find something to talk about, whether it's some silly TV show, some movie, gossiping about sports. It's a fun time, a lot of joking around."

Both could end up with Olympic medals in the marathon. And from where she was in her training three years ago, that would be a pleasant reward for Flanagan.

"I'm like a whole different athlete, it's crazy," she said. "I look back on the training and remember how tired I was, barely functioning as a human being.

"Now I can actually do other things besides training. It's good to rest, I don't feel like I'm living day to day, run to run, workout to workout. I'm enjoying it much more, I can have some enthusiasm toward it, and I can see the progress. Coming into my third marathon, I feel like physically and mentally I'm the most prepared I've been."