Endurance
Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer 14d

'I'm not crazy that I thought I could do it,' says NYC Marathon champ Shalane Flanagan

Endurance

New York City Marathon champion Shalane Flanagan hasn't slept much since Sunday, when she became the first American woman to win the race in 40 years, but she's still exhilarated. "I updated my Instagram profile and wrote 'New York City Marathon champion,'" she said. "Adding that title, that validation that I'm not crazy that I thought I could do it, that feels so good. That sense of accomplishment is huge." We spoke to Flanagan on Tuesday from her home in Oregon to break down her tactics, her emotions at the finish and her thoughts on whether she'll race at the marathon distance again.

ESPN: Have you taken the laurel off yet?

Shalane Flanagan: I'm trying to figure out how to preserve it. It's slowly decaying and I need to figure out somehow how I can keep it pristine, because it's probably my favorite piece.

ESPN: You put your goal out there so explicitly. It strikes me as a risk, that only one result was going to be acceptable to you.

SF: Part of me is like, 'Oh, don't say exactly what you want. Maybe sugarcoat it.' But then I have this verbal problem where I can't keep it in. I say to my dad sometimes, 'Maybe I'm too honest.' And he says, 'Shalane, since when is being honest not a good thing to be?' If I feel I've had good preparation and I think I have the potential to do something, I'm excited and I want to convey that excitement. I guess it could be a bit dangerous, because yeah, there is only one result that would ultimately make me happy. There's some accountability behind it, so I think that creates some pressure on me, but I don't mind that. It's a good position to be in at times, to make sure you're doing your job.

ESPN: How did the race evolve compared to what you thought might happen?

SF: My coach and I had analyzed Mary [Keitany's] past couple wins, how she'd captured those wins. It seems like she just kind of listens to her body. She's run it in a variety of ways -- very aggressive from the beginning, aggressive at Mile 10. She ran 2:17 within the last year, so we knew her fitness should be really high. Six months ago, she was the best in the world and set a world record in London. Given that data, I prepared myself for literally any kind of race. She knew the course really well, having won three times. She was for sure the woman to key off of, and a lot of times I would actually try to run right behind her so that if she made any distinct move, I'd be there to cover it, I wouldn't be caught off guard and gapped. My coaches said if the race wasn't a full-on assault of 26 miles, every mile that was kind of slow was to my advantage. I saw her split at halfway, we were about 76 minutes to the half, and I started to get excited. That was an indication that my percentages were getting higher to win the race. Each mile that was kind of slow, I was very happy [laughs]. I'm pretty good over the last 10K, my training had gone well, my speed was good and my strength was good. So I didn't really go in with any specific plan, it was just to react to Mary and whatever she was going to do.

 

ESPN: The decision to go at Mile 23, was that in the moment?

SF: That was just reacting to [Ethiopia's Mamitu] Daska. She threw a surge in, and I matched it, but then I passed her, and I felt this innate, intuitive sense that I could push from there on in. It actually felt better to pick up the pace. I felt like I was kind of on the brakes the entire race, 'Slow down, slow down, don't make it a fast race, slow it down as much as possible.' But once she threw in that surge and I could open up my stride, I felt better. I knew we had Fifth Avenue right there and it was a mile-long stretch. I said, 'OK, I'm just gonna put my head down and work hard, and they may just fall in line behind me, but I feel like I can just push hard to the finish. Just imagine you're back in Portland on your own training grounds, and visualize your support team.' Before I knew it, I got a sense, a feeling that there was no one right behind me, but I never turned around, because I didn't think it was worth the effort to make a turn. 'Just run as hard as you can, within control, to the finish, but save one more gear just in case someone is there.' I could tell there was no cheering for any other athlete. I kind of was like, 'Pretend that they're close,' but I could sense there was a gap developing.

 

ESPN: You did not look back or to the side, you were completely focused ahead. It didn't look as if you knew you had it until the last few meters.

SF: I just was so focused on myself and not letting the moment overwhelm me. When you realize you're achieving something that you have thought of forever, you can get very emotional -- imagine trying to cry and run at the same time, it's really hard. I didn't want to tense up, so I was just trying to stay super-focused on my form and being strong. Not until did I see the literal finish line tape did I allow myself to soak it up for the 20 seconds that I had. I didn't want it to slip through my fingers, I didn't want to be overly confident. I ran scared those last three miles.

 

ESPN: And then you let out a pretty emphatic word for all of us lip-readers.

SF: [Laughs] you know, I wish I could have two versions. There could be the R-rated version for the adults and I could also have a PG version for young viewers. That was absolutely not planned. That was pure, raw emotion. I just felt some sense of validation and redemption for past missed opportunities. I was overwhelmed that my team, that we had finally done it. That's probably the Bostonian in me, that doesn't mind a few expletives when it's appropriate. That's just authentically me at times.

 

ESPN: You also said, audibly, "This was for Meb [Keflezighi]."

SF: Even though we don't spend a ton of time together, we're not teammates, we don't train together, he's just constantly supporting me and sending me random messages throughout the last two years, specifically. I think he knows how much I've wanted something like this. Knowing this was his last race, I just wanted something special to contribute to the day. I may have said that in the moment because I saw his family. They were right at the finish line. There was a whole variety of thoughts going on in my head in those final miles. My family, my team, my support system, the tragedy in New York and those victims, and then I was thinking about the fact that it was Meb's last race. He's encouraged me a lot over the last two years to stay patient and be persistent and believe in myself. I wanted his family to know how important Meb has been to me in my career.

 

ESPN: Immediately after the race, [past Olympic teammates] Des Linden, Kara [Goucher], a lot of prominent runners Tweeted immediately. In a sense, it felt like a victory for your generation.

SF: Yeah. I mean, if Des were to win Boston this spring, or Amy [Cragg] or any of my fellow marathoning friends, it would feel like a victory for me. When Amy medaled [a bronze in the marathon] at world championships this summer, I felt like it was a victory for me as well. We all make investments in each other, like Meb invested in me, and I think they felt a sense of, the good guy won on that day.

ESPN: In the last year or two, exploring things outside running, being a foster mom, writing the cookbook -- look, we all know you would have liked to run Boston last spring, and that some of the time off was forced [by injury]. How did all of that contribute to the way you performed Sunday?

SF: It was 100 percent a blessing. I couldn't see it initially at the time, but I can see now, being removed, that it was the best possible thing to happen to me. I was able to come back and have a physical reset. I needed that rest and I would never have given it to myself otherwise. I have felt so much better, which makes it so much more fun to train, when you feel good. I hadn't realized how tired I was. I had dug myself a hole. When you're trying to chase these goals, it's easy to think you're just not working hard enough, you're not getting the win and you're not doing your job. The reality was, I was probably overworking and underestimating my talent, because I was chasing, at times, people who were doped up. So I was chasing this impossible goal, basically, because they weren't real, the performances weren't real. 

 

ESPN: There was news today that [2016 Olympic marathon gold medalist] Jemima Sumgong has been given a four-year ban.

Her positive test for EPO came out of the World Marathon Majors' additional testing program. Do you think it's having an effect? And are you concerned that people are going to look at your victory and wonder too?

SF: I haven't taken the time yet to sift through the information on Sumgong. In my opinion, it should be a lifetime ban. I'm not worried about myself. I think people have seen my progression and the fact that it's taken me a lifetime of work to achieve this, and the consistency and the work ethic. I'm absolutely not concerned about people thinking I'm not doing it the right way.

 

ESPN: One other piece of marathon news. [Olympic triathlon gold medalist] Gwen Jorgensen announced today that she's transitioning to elite marathons. How well do you know her, and what do you think her upside potential is in the event?

SF: I've known that she's wanted to take on this journey since after Rio. She's been out here following us, training with us, after she ran New York a year ago. I'm so excited to help her achieve this goal of making the Olympic team in 2020. We're very close friends. In fact, I saw her today when I went out to practice. She's already getting back to training.

 

ESPN: So Shalane, since you have this wonderful habit of honesty, have you run your last elite marathon, or are you still considering Boston? When will you make up your mind?

SF: I am trying to let this soak in and not rush any decisions. I'm just trying to figure out, if I do another one, what is the right setting, and what is the motivation behind it? It would have to be really important and a strong motivation to do one more. I can envision still doing some other races, maybe, it's just whether I'll run another marathon. I think I still have the itch to try my hand at some faster half-marathons, and then maybe culminate with another, last marathon. I'll consult with my family and my coaches, and hopefully within the next month come up with a final decision and outline what the plan is.

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