At yesterday’s press conference before the TCS New York City Marathon, defending champion Shalane Flanagan exuded the gratitude and calm you might expect from a decorated runner near the end of her career. But she’s not on a farewell tour.
She’s focused on the race ahead of her. And even though she knows it will be hard to top last year’s experience—when she won her first marathon major and ended the 40-year drought of American women topping the podium in New York—she’s still driven and looking forward to going for the win. The fact that she’s going up against an impressive field has only fueled the fire.
“I get excited by seeing exceptionally-challenging fields,” Flanagan said, referring not only to the much-talked-about lineup of American women, but also a contingent of international runners with multiple marathon titles. “It does something to me that makes me excited to go into training.”
In particular, she mentioned feeling motivated by the possibility of beating Vivian Cheruiyot, who won this year’s London Marathon. Flanagan and Cheruiyot have gone head-to-head many times, but never in the marathon. “Vivian is maybe one of the most talented athletes I’ve ever witnessed and one of the most hard-working athletes,” said Flanagan. “She’s just an exceptional woman, and I have never beaten Vivian.”
Even though the conversation with Flanagan took place two days before the race, many wanted to hear her talk about the future, both hers and that of American women in marathon. When asked to name an athlete as the future of sport, Flanagan pointed out the role that underdogs have played in the last year. “It’s hard to know when you’re going to have these amazing women—who are just kind of biding their time, putting in the work, putting their head down and they have a big moment that we don’t necessarily see coming—and that’s what’s fun about athletics.”
— Shalane Flanagan (@ShalaneFlanagan) November 3, 2018
She also focused on the growing strength of team training across the U.S. When asked who she thinks could be the next big American star, she paused for a moment and finally answered without calling out any one runner. “I think there are so many groups around the country that are starting to just put in the work,” Flanagan said. “It’s all over the country, but I don’t know that I can pinpoint one particular person. I just think there’s so many great groups of training now, and I’m part of one, and who knows? Maybe the next one will be from my Bowerman Track Club. I don’t know yet.”
When talking about her team, Flanagan also gave a small glimpse into the next phase of her running career, even if she’s not yet sure when she’ll make the change. “I worked hard to try to put myself in a position to create a mentorship role and a future coaching role, so as soon as I do retire my own career I will be helping out the Bowerman women in a different capacity as a mentor and coaching role,” she said.
Even with that on the horizon, Flanagan said she has “no idea beyond Sunday” what her future holds. After last year’s victory in New York, she thought she’d race her last marathon in Boston, but that day didn’t go according to plan.
“I just felt like that wasn’t a good representation of my athletic ability on that day, so once again, after Boston, I kind of sat in the unknown of not knowing what to do next, because I thought that would be the conclusion, like the perfect ending—a really great race in Boston,” she said. After that didn’t happen, New York Road Runners invited her back to the city where she took home a victory. “I said, ‘It’s too soon. I can’t give you an answer. I really I don’t know if my heart and my mind can go back to the training and do what it takes, because I poured everything I had into that what I thought was my last race in Boston.’”
After a summer of training with her teammates, Flanagan decided she was ready. “I know it’s going to be so hard to top what I did last year, but I still think there’s something to be said, and still coming and doing what I love, and it doesn’t necessarily mean I have to break the finish line tape for it to be a success for myself and for everyone else.”
Seriously want to meet these cuties one day ❤️ https://t.co/6TyoScx0wo
— Shalane Flanagan (@ShalaneFlanagan) October 31, 2018
That humility carried through the conversation, from talking about the future of the sport to sharing what it’s like to have people dress up like her for Halloween. “It was an extreme form of flattery,” Flanagan said when asked about the pictures that flooded social media last week of little girls and women of all ages recreating the iconic photo of her holding the American flag after winning NYC. Even so, she said it wasn’t all about her. “It’s not just me. It’s dressing up as a female athlete and having a good moment.”
While she said the win gave her a sense of freedom and peace going into this year’s race, she’s not toeing the line for a victory lap. She explicitly said she wants to go out on top and maintain the consistency she’s known for. Flanagan said she’s fit, her coach is happy and she’s ready for tomorrow.
“Whatever the other athletes decide they want to do on Sunday, I feel like I’m open to everything and willing to cover moves that maybe in the past I’ve been more calculated about or held back,” she said. “I’m willing to take whatever risk I need to do.”