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Ready To Rock: Exclusive Interview With Shalane Flanagan

Reigning U.S. half marathon champion Shalane Flanagan is part of a star-studded lineup at this weekend's ING Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon.
Reigning U.S. half marathon champion Shalane Flanagan is part of a star-studded lineup at this weekend's ING Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon. Photo:

The Olympic medalist will face a spectacular women’s elite field at the ING Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon.

Interview by: Matt Fitzgerald

Multiple American record holder Shalane Flanagan, 29, will make her much-anticipated marathon debut in New York City on November 7. But before then she will face a test at half that distance in Philadelphia this weekend, and it’s a race that fans of American running are also excited to see. That’s because the ING Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon’s famously fast course will afford Flanagan an opportunity to break Deena Kastor’s half marathon American record (1:07:34), and also because Flanagan will vie for victory against one of the strongest women’s half marathon fields ever assembled on American soil. spoke to Flanagan shortly before she made the trip from her home in Portland, Ore., to the City of Brotherly Love. Note that the “we” she often refers to in this interview includes her Nike teammates Simon Bairu and Tim Nelson, who are also racing Sunday and also running their first marathons in New York. Last time we spoke, you were just beginning a six-week high-altitude training block in Mammoth Lakes, California. Now you’ve come out the other side of that. How did it go?

Shalane Flanagan: It was hard. I was talking to Deena and she said it best. It’s one of those things where you’re happy it’s done, because you’re closer to fulfilling your goal, and at the same time it’s scary, because you’re closer to fulfilling your goal.

Priority number one in a period of hard training like the one you just completed is to stay healthy. Were you able to do that?

I had one little scare about two weeks ago. I tweaked my knee. My glutes were just on fire. We did tons of hill running up there. I was able to get some work done on my glutes to calm them down, and as a result of getting some work done on one area, my knee ended up flaring up. So I ended up taking a few days off.

It made me and Jerry evaluate that maybe we were pushing and riding that fine line, and clearly we just needed to back off a little bit. So we found out where my limits were and we probably won’t go back to that. It was a matter of figuring out what I was capable of and where my limits were, and now we’re going to ride that line.

So, you’ve got the ING Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon coming up this weekend—a chance to taste the fruits of all that hard work. Are you excited for it, and exactly what are you looking for in that race?

The half has come at a really great time for us in the sense that, we did work really hard, and now it’s nice to have a little break and back off from some of the training and find out where we’re at. How we’re approaching it more than anything is just to kind of a glorified training run. Obviously we want to be really competitive, but I don’t think we truly know our fitness just because we have been at altitude and we haven’t gotten in some of the key workouts that traditionally would be done at sea level, where you need a track. We just did a lot of long efforts, a lot of strength work; nothing too specific to a half marathon.

But I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. We’re extremely strong, but we may be in a little bit of shock, just because our legs haven’t done some of the specific speed work that may be required. The strength will definitely be there. If anything we may lack a little bit of the leg turnover. I don’t know, maybe we’ll surprise ourselves. Coming down from altitude, you can still have some great performances.

You were one of the first elite runners to sign on for this race. Since then a very strong women’s field has been assembled around you, including Meseret Defar, Kim Smith, Derartu Tulu, and Catherine Ndereba. Has that changed your calculations at all in terms of how you approach the race?

No, because really the ultimate goal is just being ready for New York. It’s made me more excited in my training, knowing I have this great field to look forward to and test myself against. I’m excited that a few women that will actually be competing in a marathon this year, so I won’t have these athletes who, as Jerry would say, are really “stroked.” Some of these women are going to be really primed and ready for a half marathon, whereas some others are going to have this big-picture goal of marathons themselves.

Regardless of how I do, I’ll at least know where I’m at against some of the women who are prepping for an actual marathon and not just coming off the track and are really fast right now. There are going to be some women who’ve been doing similar training to what I’ve been doing.

Do you think that having even just that one previous experience in racing a half marathon will help you on Sunday, in terms of knowing how to pace yourself, knowing how it will feel, and so forth?

Yeah. I’ve been reflected on that specific race to mentally prep myself. I felt like going through ten miles was great, but in that last 5K you’re really working and you start to fatigue. At least that’s how I felt. So I’ll go in knowing to keep my cool through ten miles and then the race really begins over the last 5K.

What do you plan to do in your training between this race and the New York City Marathon? Is it just a matter of sharpening and then resting? And will the outcome of Sunday’s race have any bearing on how you train the rest of the way?

I think this will give us a lot of great feedback—whether we’re a little overcooked or maybe a little undercooked. Jerry has told us that we’ve put in all this great volume, great mileage, but really after Philly is where we get to the more race-specific type of training. We’ll still keep the volume up there, but we’re really going to get to the nitty-gritty of specific training. He’s really put a big block out there after Philly—five weeks of killer workouts. While the altitude training was hard, I think it was hard because it was at altitude and it was high volume. But coming back to Portland we’re going to put in the key workouts.