You want badass? Watch Shalane Flanagan race. It’s natural talent meets countless training miles meets relentless drive. And when it comes together perfectly, it’s pure, unbridled running joy . . . and relief. That best explains what happened last November. Strides from winning the New York City Marathon , Flanagan pumped her right fist and shouted, “[Expletive] yeah!” Watching her at that moment, the same words came to my mind. Her unfiltered celebration went viral in the running world, capturing the significance of Flanagan’s first major marathon title and the first New York City title for an American woman since 1977.
Flanagan, 36, tells me New York was a “validation of my dreams.” And distance runners like me were right there with her. Not because I see myself in her perfect stride or log anywhere close to her 120 miles per week or possess her closing speed; even as a high school cross-country and track champion, I didn’t have those. But she’s elevating a sport I love and showing what’s possible for American women. And on Monday, she’ll be doing it again as she runs the Boston Marathon.
Flanagan had dreamed of winning a major marathon since she was a girl watching her father run Boston. She has the genes for it: Her dad was a top US cross-country runner, and her mother once held the world record for the women’s marathon. I remember first hearing about Flanagan when she was a running prodigy at Marblehead High School. She became a dominating collegiate runner for the University of North Carolina. But after she won back-to-back NCAA cross-country titles in 2002 and 2003, her father reminded her of the huge challenge ahead, saying, “I’m super proud of you, but you know the best runners in the world are in Africa. You can’t settle for being top American.” Those words stuck with Flanagan.
As a professional runner, she came close to winning the biggest international races — silver in the 10,000 meters at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, second place in her debut at 26.2 miles at the 2010 New York City Marathon, and bronze at the 2011 World Cross Country Championships, where she became the first non-African to medal at the event in eight years.
Even so, Flanagan tells me her biggest dream seemed “totally out of reach,” even “totally crazy.” Turns out, what she needed was patience. For most marathoners, from charity runners to the pros, that’s the toughest quality to summon.
Flanagan spent seven years in resolute pursuit of her dream, especially while enduring the down moments. She had demoralizing losses to runners later found to be doping. She suffered heat exhaustion during the 2016 Olympic marathon trials, collapsing at the finish line (she still qualified). Last year, she fractured her back. Finally, in New York, perseverance paid off. With the finish line in sight, Flanagan says she was thinking, “No one is going to steal this from me.” But she knew it was more than a personal victory. We all did. Flanagan has opened a door for American runners. Her legacy will be much more than a drought-ending win.
A previous generation of runners was lifted by the “Roger Bannister Effect.” Once Bannister broke the 4-minute-mile barrier, in 1954, others followed in quick succession. Bannister had made the seemingly impossible possible. I believe Flanagan will inspire something similar for American marathoners, leading the way for a series of major marathon championships. The New York Times has already referenced the “Shalane Effect” in an article about her training group. Flanagan surrounds herself with elite female distance runners, currently all Americans, and they push each other to career breakthroughs and berths in world championships and the Olympics.
With Flanagan helping other female distance runners develop, and celebrating their successes, the United States is building a deep bench. In February, at the Tokyo Marathon, Flanagan’s training partner Amy Cragg finished third, setting a personal best by more than five minutes. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
This wasn’t part of some grand plan, but a natural extension of the competitive training environment that works best for Flanagan. And the rising tide of female distance running goes beyond Flanagan’s Bowerman Track Club in Portland, Oregon, gathering its own momentum across the country.
Even some of the best US marathoners are feeling renewed excitement. Desiree Linden represented the United States in the last two Olympic marathons, and in 2011 she almost won Boston, dueling Kenya’s Caroline Kilel down Boylston Street only to lose by 2 seconds. Linden says that Flanagan’s victory in New York “kind of changed how people approach the world marathon majors and these big races and hopefully [got] people believing it’s possible for us.”
That sets the stage for this year’s Boston Marathon. An American woman hasn’t won the race since 1985. But last year, American women took third and fourth. Flanagan, who missed the race that matters most to her because of her back injury, is running this year in what she says will likely be her last Boston.
Will she cap her career with an exuberant, unfiltered moment on Boylston Street? I hope so, although it’s unusual for a runner to win multiple major marathons in one calendar year. Maybe it will be one of the three other Americans — Linden, Molly Huddle, and Jordan Hasay — considered legitimate contenders for the Boston title.
Even if an American doesn’t break the tape in Boston, Flanagan’s win in New York ushered in a new era. She’s created the expectation, not the hope, that American women will appear on the podiums of major marathons, even win Olympic marathon gold for the first time since 1984 in Los Angeles, when Maine’s Joan Benoit triumphed in the event’s debut at the Games. Maybe there will be a girl who sees Flanagan speed along the Boston course, then dreams about a victory of her own. And she’ll believe winning is totally within her reach.