The race that no one could take away from Shalane Flanagan

Shalane Flanagan cut such a familiar figure Sunday, running toward the cameras in Central Park at the New York City Marathon, that it seemed odd she hadn't been seen on a marathon course since the 2016 Rio Olympics. With her upright carriage, high cheekbones flushed with exertion, chin tucked, blond ponytail switching back and forth like a metronome, she has been a fixture in big international distance races for 10 years now: always in contention, never quite able to close the last gap. Now she was the one who was accelerating beyond reach.

Flanagan didn't glance behind her at her closest pursuer, three-time defending champion Mary Keitany of Kenya, or toward the gobsmacked fans along the barriers staring at the very unfamiliar sight of an American woman leading the race. It hadn't happened in 40 years.

Her game face didn't crack until the very end, when she threw a punch skyward and let out a spirited epithet, then blew a kiss as she broke the tape.

Perhaps the most unlikely thing about Flanagan's New York City victory was how openly and explicitly she longed for it in an event where so many demur about their specific ambitions.

"How my career ends is super important to me,'' she told me in early April, still recovering from an iliac fracture that kept her out of her hometown Boston Marathon and unsure when she'd be able to resume high-volume training. "It doesn't mean I'm going to win a major, but at least I'm going to try to win a major marathon in the U.S., and I need at least two more events."

She said it again and again and again, right up until the eve of Sunday's race. She's also savvy enough to recognize that happy endings are especially hard to come by for marathoners, who generally have just two chances per calendar year in the window between their mid-20s and mid-30s, if they stay healthy.

Flanagan, 36, made her marathon debut in New York in 2010 after a distinguished tenure on the track. "I'll see if I enjoy it," she told me before that race, keeping her options open. She finished second and never truly looked back, although she continued to compete in track and cross country.

Since then, the event has pelted Flanagan with everything she could handle. She soloed to a dominant victory at the U.S. Olympic trials in Houston in 2012. She was crushed when she finished fourth in her first try at the 2013 Boston Marathon, her hometown race and the portal for her childhood dreams. Her disappointment evaporated in an instant amid the horror of the Boylston Street bombings.

At the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials in Los Angeles, a badly dehydrated Flanagan wobbled through the last few miles and crumpled at the finish line. That effort earned her a trip to Rio, where she finished sixth. Afterward, she stood in the muggy, deafening cauldron of the Sambadrome stadium and said, fatalistically, "That's all I have. That's what I am.''

That gave way, as it always has, to Flanagan's conviction that she had one big, perfect race left in her, despite the obvious subtext. Threading through the quest for Flanagan and her cohort of accomplished Americans -- Kara Goucher, Desiree Linden and Amy Cragg -- is the sense that the surfaces they run on are not level.

Just this year, Flanagan's Beijing 2008 bronze medal in the 10,000-meter event was upgraded to silver after a runner ahead of her was disqualified for doping. Rio 2016 marathon winner Jemima Sumgong tested positive for EPO last spring. Kenyan Rita Jeptoo still holds the 2013 Boston Marathon title but was stripped of her 2014 championship after a doping violation. The World Marathon Majors, which includes New York City and Boston, has implemented an extra layer of drug testing and an aggressive new policy to seek repayment of ill-gotten prize money. The possible deterrent effect could take a while to parse.

In the months that followed the Olympics, Flanagan gravitated toward ways to ground herself outside running. She co-wrote a cookbook. She and her husband, Steve Edwards, took two teenaged foster daughters into their home. There was a palpable air of transition about her.

But her injury-compelled time off earlier this year served to consolidate her motivation. Flanagan was going to go out under her own power and run right at her biggest opponent, the "almost." A previous generation of American women -- led by 1984 Olympic champion Joan Benoit and including Flanagan's own mother, Cheryl Treworgy, a one-time world-record holder in the event -- made the women's marathon what it is. There had been enough stagnant years and too few breakthroughs in between.

Her friend Meb Keflezighi had shown it was possible to replant the flag, winning in Boston the year after the eviscerating race-day tragedy. Weeping in the finish area Sunday, Flanagan veered toward the first people she recognized -- Keflezighi's family -- and embraced his sister Bahghi.

Will New York be Flanagan's walk-off run? The emotional lure of Boston is still out there, not to mention her instantly increased marketability. But her business, in a deeper sense, is finished. "This means a lot to me, to my family, and hopefully inspires the next generation of American women to just be patient," Flanagan told reporters Sunday. Patient until the road starts to run out, and it's time to make a move.