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The Favorite: Interview with Shalane Flanagan

We caught up with defending Olympic Trials Marathon champion Shalane Flanagan ahead of this year's race.

When the top female marathoners in the U.S. line up at the Olympic Trials Marathon on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles, many eyes will be on defending champion Shalane Flanagan —and with good reason.

Since winning the 2012 Trials in event-record time (2:25:38) and finishing 10th at the Olympic Marathon in London, the three-time Olympian has not let her foot off the gas. She’s added more national titles in cross country, road and track to her already extensive racing resume, and has posted the two fastest marathon times by an American female during the Olympic Trials qualifying period (2:22:02 and 2:21:14 at Boston and Berlin, respectively, in 2014). Flanagan was fourth at Boston in 2013, seventh in 2014 and ninth this past year (although she could move up a spot in 2013 and 2014 pending whether or not drug cheat Rita Jeptoo is stripped of her titles), and also took third at Berlin in 2014 when she ran the second-fastest American time in history.

Would you consider yourself the favorite to win the Trials, or at least a favorite to make the team?

Yeah, I would say on paper I’m one of the top three favorites to make the team. For sure.

Heading into this year’s Trials race, what’s different from 2012?

In 2012, the Trials was actually only my second marathon so I still felt pretty unsure about the distance. My initial experience in New York [2010] was basically almost perfect. I completed the marathon and beat some women I thought were unbeatable at the time, like Mary Keitany, and came in second to Edna Kiplagat. I had an unbelievable experience and I was kind of terrified that I hadn’t gone through some of the tougher moments of the marathon. It actually felt like a natural fit, which was great, but I was kind of terrified thinking that it wasn’t a real experience, like somehow I lucked out and I didn’t experience the terribleness that the marathon can bring. So I was actually really nervous for the Trials because the first one was very seamless and I felt unbelievable the entire way, so I was nervous that I was going to get a different experience. I felt like I prepared really well for the Trials because I was really scared about having a negative experience, so I feel much more seasoned now and have had a variety of experiences since, so I feel like I’m prepared for anything on the day, any style of race. Any experiences my body has gone through I now know how to handle a little bit better.

What are some of the biggest things you’ve learned about the marathon since your last Trials experience?

I think the beautiful thing is that a lot of the work I’ve done since my first one has accumulated. I can go away from the marathon and go back to the track like I did [last] summer and jump back in it and my body remembers how to do it again, which is great. I don’t have to keep up this high volume all year round to be a marathoner so I’m appreciative that all those miles I’ve logged over the past five years or so are still in the legs and the body still remembers how to go the distance. So that’s nice to know—that I don’t have to out-do myself every time, and, in fact, I feel like I can actually do a little bit less volume and a little more quality now, which is fun for me. So overall, learning how to actually race the 26.2-mile distance rather than just completing it is always an art form and I feel like I’ve gotten to have a variety of experiences since the Trials four years ago and learned how to actually race over the full distance.

What would be more satisfying: to break the American record in the marathon or be on the podium in Rio?

I would pick the podium for sure. The American records are really nice and I’ve had the luxury of having those experiences on the road and on the track, so obviously they’re really nice accolades, but an Olympic medal is forever. It’s like saying you’re an Olympian—no one can take that away from you, but records can be taken away. Someone can always out-do you, out-run you, but with the medals they’re pretty permanent, so that’s for sure what I would take.

How much longer do you see yourself competing?

Honestly, as long as my body is feeling good and I have the drive, I can for sure say that for the next two years I want to give everything I have toward my running. I think that the problem a lot of women start to face is taking a time out to have a family, so that would really be the thing that dictates if I would change things up or not. But I can honestly say I have two really big goals over the next two years, so I’ll give everything I can up until those two years are up and then maybe my role would change as an athlete a little bit, but for sure, the next two years I can envision living the same lifestyle.

Tell me about those two big goals.

Making my fourth Olympic team is really important to me. It just shows—hopefully—the consistency of my career and it just would be a nice kind of culmination because I just don’t know if I would go for a fifth Olympics. So to have this fourth would be great and I honestly believe there’s a great opportunity this Olympics—specifically with a lot of cleaning up in the sport—and I just have this gut feeling that it will be the most honest race I compete in at this kind of level. I just feel like it’s a huge opportunity and I’m more excited than ever to compete in this Olympics because of it. Honestly I feel like whoever makes the team has a good shot at a medal. It’s just an exciting proposition to be racing. And then my second goal is, obviously, to win Boston—just one of those little goals I’ve had for a while.

What needs to be done for the sport to be cleaned up and what is an appropriate punishment for athletes who have cheated their way to the top? 

I think a lot of American athletes, including me, are on board for invoking lifetime bans (for athletes caught doping). I just don’t think there’s a place for athletes who have taken that path. I don’t think they should be part of the sport if they don’t respect their peers or the history of the sport or the integrity of it. It’s a pretty big offense in my mind. I would love to see lifetime bans. I also believe that who you surround yourself with is a huge representation of you and I think in order to really clean things up, you have to look at who is surrounding these athletes and who are they associating themselves with, and I guarantee if you look at these athletes it’s not just them—it’s an entourage and a circle. So, if you see some athletes training with other athletes who have been convicted of doping, there’s a strong potential that those other athletes are doping. And then you look at the agents, you look at the network, and then you look at the coaches and I think that when an athlete needs to serve a ban, then the entourage and the circle needs to be highly inspected because if an agent or a coach knows they could potentially get banned if their athlete gets banned, that really has some deep repercussions throughout the sport and I think people would really think twice about things.

You’ve won at multiple levels, captured medals and set records. When you do retire—years and years down the road, of course—what would you like your legacy to be?

In a weird way I was talking to someone about that this past weekend in San Antonio, and kind of talking about it actually made me think, “What do I want to be remembered by?” I love the accolades and records and being a top American and medals—they’re what I dreamed of as a little girl—but I think what I would like to be remembered by has kind of evolved over the years. I honestly think I’m at the point of my career where I get more out of seeing my teammates excel as much as having my own moments. This summer, for example, feeling like I was genuinely a part of Emily [Infeld]’s success on the track and helping her get back to a really high level and exceeding her dreams. I took so much joy in that and being a part of that process that it made me realize that I love being a teammate and I love helping other athletes fulfill their goals. I’m still super competitive but I’m really good at being just as happy for someone else when they have their moments because I’ve been fortunate to have my own moments. There’s no need to be stingy about the moments—I can share them. Just to be a part of such an amazing team and group of people is really important to me, so I think that is what I hope to be remembered by: someone who was a great teammate and helped elevate not only my own running and American distance running but my teammates that I’m surrounded by daily and having had a positive impact on their lives.

Building off that answer, do you think you’ll ever get into coaching?

Oh gosh, I would love to and this summer kind of confirmed this gut instinct that I had that I’d like to do that. I feel like I’ve taken on a little more of a leadership role just because some of these women are literally 10 years younger than me, which is obvious some days and then there are other days where I think we’re the same age. And then there’s moments when I’m like, “We’re definitely not the same age!” I get so much joy from coaching that I feel like I can easily transition out of the athlete role.

What are some of your other interests outside of running and how you hope to expand upon those things when your career winds down?

Over the past couple years, in the fall when there’s been down time, I feel like there’s always been a calling to do something more, so I’ve done a lot of volunteer coaching, whether it’s at the collegiate level, or the little kids of our Bowerman group at the junior Olympic level. I just like being around other runners. My husband is the coach of the Nike+ Run Club and I’ll go out and support that group of local Portland people who want to get out at 7:30 to go run a track workout in the rain. I definitely thrive on the group environment and support because there’s really no difference between us. Everyone hates getting up in the morning and running in the rain. They have the same feelings that I have about getting up early and doing that, so it’s just kind of nice to get up early and embrace that together. The coaching aspect is definitely something I’ve kept up since college and just helping people get athletic and stay fit. My cookbook is a more recent passion of mine. I’ve always enjoyed health and wellness and fitness but collaborating with a longtime friend of mine and developing ideas and trying to help female runners specifically, I think we can have a really great impact. It’s not about light and lean, it’s just about indulgent nourishment. I think it’s just going to be really tasty food and it’s really going to help runners realize that sitting down and indulging in really great food can be nourishing and social and fun. Those are the two things right now that I’m really into but who knows in the future what might be on my plate.

You are an East Coast girl, but you’ve been based on the west coast for six years now. How has your east coast attitude and upbringing fit in on the other side?

It’s definitely starting to feel more like home. The Pacific Northwest is just stunning and beautiful. When I first moved out here I definitely had a tough adjustment to be honest. I was used to a much faster-paced life, I wasn’t used to people just chatting me up at the grocery store and I didn’t trust them because they were so nice. East coasters can be super nice, and we’re very loyal people, but in everyday life, like on a work weekday, people aren’t just chatting you up in the grocery store. People here are just really friendly and will talk to you for as long as you want about anything and that caught me really off-guard at first. I can be a little bit crass with my language and I definitely had to tone that down quite a bit. Those are probably the big things, but I can’t lie, it’s so beautiful out here and I can’t get over how outdoorsy people are year-round. I definitely miss the east coast and I miss my friends, and they’re all super loyal and just really great people, but yeah, I’ve definitely adjusted to the west coast a bit more.