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It All Starts Here: For Shalane Flanagan, the Boston Marathon Means Everything

Like many a Boston Marathon finisher, Shalane Flanagan was having a hard time taking the stairs after last year’s race.

Growing up nearby in Marblehead, Mass., Flanagan has always held the Boston Marathon in a special place in her heart, and she had attacked the old course with a willful intensity that morning. She gave it everything she had in going for the win, hoping to redeem through victory some of the terrible damage done to her beloved city by the terrorist bombings at the Boylston Street finish line a year earlier. What she and others had no way of knowing was that her friend, Meb Keflezighi, had been assigned that role by the marathon gods in the men’s race.

Though her gutsy but fading seventh-place finish produced the fastest American women’s time in the event’s history (2:22:02) and slashed three and a half minutes off of her previous PR, the savage pace she set from Hopkinton to Heartbreak Hill had shredded her quads in the final downhill miles. The walk downstairs from the VIP room of the House of Blues to the main stage for that night’s award ceremony was her second painful journey of the day.

Though she was disappointed, there was still some sass left in this 33-year-old from Boston’s north shore. As I introduced the later-confirmed drug cheat Rita Jeptoo to the crowd of Boston finishers as the day’s champion, I could hear Flanagan pipe up from among the other top-10 finishers on stage.

“You’re welcome,” she called out tartly, a message to Jeptoo that Flanagan knew very well the significant role she played in the fastest Boston Marathon in history.

The plan had been set months in advance. Six times Flanagan had returned to Boston from the home she shares with husband Steve Edwards and their pet cat, Shubie, in Portland, Ore., to train on the Boston course.

Flanagan has excelled at the highest level on the track and in cross country—earning bronze medals in the 10,000-meter run at the 2008 Olympics and at the 2011 World Cross Country Championships. She’s had some success in the marathon, but winning Boston would be monumental to her.

“Every pushup that I did, every crunch I did, every little shakeout run, every stride … there was a purpose to everything that I did,” says Flanagan, an 18-time U.S. national champion.

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Yet despite hitting the time she’d trained for, the effort wasn’t nearly enough as Jeptoo, the 2006 and 2013 Boston champion from Kenya, ripped a devastating 4:45 24th mile down Beacon Street to destroy the field and the shatter the course record in 2:18:57. We now know better how she did it—Jeptoo was popped for EPO five months later in an out-of-competition drug test in Kenya while training for the 2014 Chicago Marathon.

The news that Jeptoo had tested positive sent Flanagan on an emotional roller coaster. Twice she had raced Jeptoo from Hopkinton to Boston, and twice Jeptoo bested her.

Flanagan will be back to race Boston this year on April 20. Jeptoo, who has been banned from the sport for two years, will not.

“Initially I was really angry because she had stolen a really important day last year,” Flanagan says. “And then, in a way, it fueled me, and I decided that since she’s not gonna be in Boston (this) year, that opens up a window. Because this was a woman I had no idea how to beat, and I felt so frustrated. I felt l ran two different styles against her—one slow and tactical with a fast finish [Boston 2013: Jeptoo first in 2:26:25; Flanagan fourth in 2:27:08] and the other really aggressive, trying to ditch her early [Boston 2014: Jeptoo first in 2:18:57; Flanagan seventh in 2:22:02]—and neither worked.

“I felt defeated,” Flanagan continues. “So this news was like this moment when somebody told me I had a real chance to win Boston. I decided that day to go run a little bit more, because I felt inspired and reinvigorated knowing we would be facing a really clean field this spring.”

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“The leader through the first 10 miles of the Boston Marathon almost never wins,” says Bill Rodgers, a four-time Boston Marathon champion. While that wasn’t necessarily true when the women’s competition was notably thinner—for example, Joan Benoit was a breakaway winner in 1983 when she split the half in 1:08:40 on her way to a world-record 2:22:43—in the 21st century, Rodgers’ insight applies equally to women as to men. With Flanagan splitting the half last year in Boston in 1:09:20, then finishing in 2:22-flat—back in seventh place—one can understand Rodger’s cautionary note.

“I had never run a marathon that way before,” Flanagan says about her tactics. “All of my previous four marathons had been very tactical. But last year I had the objective to see how fast I could run, because I knew that I’d have a number of very tactical races just ahead with the Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games. Now I’m hoping to blend tactics and aggression, knowing I am a legitimate 2:21 marathoner and top 10 in the world, which gives me confidence. But I think I need to learn how to close and finish races better, and we are working on that.”

Flanagan has always been an aggressive racer. Perhaps some of that was genetic, as she comes from the union of two international-caliber runners: father Steve Flanagan and mother Cheryl Treworgy. Steve was a member of the Frank Shorter-led Colorado Track Club, rivals to Bill Rodgers and the Greater Boston Track Club. And Cheryl (née Bridges) was a five-time World Cross Country Championships team member for the U.S. and the one-time women’s marathon world-record holder.

“Innately, I’m always wanting to be aggressive,” Flanagan says, recalling her famous flameout her senior year in high school at the Foot Locker Cross Country qualifier in New York’s Van Cortlandt Park, when she was the overwhelming favorite to win the national title. And in her sophomore year at the University of North Carolina, she darted out to a commanding lead in the NCAA Cross Country Championships at Furman University before finishing 22nd, done in by her own hand.

“I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve when I race probably a little too much,” Flanagan admits. “But at the end of the day I felt like I’ve yielded some great results with that kind of racing style—not being an innocent bystander, rather feeling like I’m playing an active role. That kind of excites me as a person.”

She took the same approach to the BMW Berlin Marathon six months after Boston. Her goal was Deena Kastor’s 2006 American record of 2:19:36.

“The races I’m most proud of, even if I don’t win, are the ones I feel are like pieces of artwork, a performance for myself and my family,” she says. “Sometimes they yield moments of brilliance, and sometimes it seems not so brilliant an idea to some people. But it depends on how you want to look at it.”

In Berlin she was again unconcerned with the competition and struck out on pace. Among those watching from the lead vehicle was Brendan Reilly, a New England native and now president of Boulder Wave, a sports agency based in Boulder, Colorado.

“I don’t think she ran recklessly in Berlin at all,” he says. “I think it showed where she was versus clean runners. She is narrowing the gap. I think she is on the path of Constantina Dita.

Dita, an athlete from Romania whom Reilly represented, challenged top runners, including consistent world-beaters Paula Radcliffe and Catherine Ndereba, as she was developing as a marathoner. Her experience and competitiveness culminated in a victory at the 2008 Olympic marathon.

“They knew they never had it easy with Dita in the race,” Reilly says. “In her first marathon, she blew up at 25K, but with each race she went longer and longer till finally in 2008 in the most important race, she went all the way. I see Shalane improving with each race as well.”

Though Flanagan got caught in Berlin by two Ethiopians and she came up short of Kastor’s U.S. record, her finishing time of 2:21:14 was yet another personal best, the second-fastest ever by an American and the ninth fastest time in the world last year (after discarding Jeptoo’s Boston time from the mix).

“It tells me I’m marinating and sautéing as an athlete,” Flanagan says. “I’m getting closer and closer the last two attempts. And the more times I put myself in position of sub-2:20, the more I believe I’ll be able to perform at that level. In Berlin I faded really late, so it’s all about finishing strong. That’s definitely been a weak spot of mine, so now we are working on it in training, and with my fueling strategy to see if that’s a variable. But it’s not for lack of willpower, that’s for sure.”

In December Flanagan was on the Boston route twice again, trying to stamp that legendary route into her bones. But Boston’s worst winter in memory kept her back home in Portland through January and February. Although she was born in Colorado and hasn’t lived in Massachusetts since the fall of 2000, when she headed to the University of North Carolina, Flanagan still self-identifies as a Boston kid and considers Marblehead her home.

“You can’t take it out of me,” she says. “I identify with the people, and I just feel a connection and sense of loyalty that I never felt with another group of people. I literally feel like if I ran into any kind of trouble I could call any of my high school buddies and they’d be there in two seconds. We can seem like we’re really cold, but New Englanders are some of the nicest, most endearing people I know. So, yeah, I’ll always identify with Boston and New England, cause it’s very much who I am.”

Let’s just say Boston is eager to see their girl again on Patriot’s Day 2015, too.

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