Like many a Boston Marathon finisher, Shalane Flanagan walked downstairs with a tender tred after the race. The Marblehead, Massachusetts native had attacked the old course with a willful intention on Patriot’s Day 2014, convinced that an unrelenting pace from the start would discourage her opponents and set her up for victory. But now, after the savage pace she set on the rolling hills from Hopkinton to Heartbreak Hill in Newton had shredded her quads, the walk downstairs from the VIP room of the House of Blues to the main stage for that night’s award ceremony was proving to be yet another painful journey.
Once on stage, the top ten women were presented to the boisterous crowd. Shalane was number seven. Then, as the champion (now confirmed drug cheat) Rita Jeptoo of Kenya basked in the spotlight and applause gowned up like a beauty pageant contestant, Shalane stood behind her still unrelenting, still feisty and unbowed.
“You’re welcome,” Shalane said tartly from behind as I introduced Jeptoo to the crowd. We heard her. It was an acknowledgment that Flanagan knew exactly what role she had played in the fastest Boston Marathon in history, her own 2:22:02 time in seventh being the fastest ever by an American in Boston.
The plan for Boston 2014 had been set months in advance by Shalane and her Bowerman Track Club coach Jerry Schumacher. And to a degree, it had worked, delivering the 33-year-old to the Boylston Street finish line in exactly the time she was trying to achieve. Unfortunately, it was nearly four minutes behind the drug queen, and two minutes off that which Buzunesh Deba of Ethiopia fashioned in second place – 2:19:59.
“When I first heard of Jeptoo (drug bust),” remembered Shalane, “I was angry. But then I was relieved. I could do that two minutes.”
And she nearly did, six months later in Berlin, again gunning for time rather than place. This time it was Deena Kastor‘s American record 2:19:36 from London 2006.
Again Shalane set off at an unrelenting gallop, unconcerned with her competition. Again she ran to the end of her tether. Again she ran out of fuel before she ran out of distance. But this time she had come closer, fading only in the final 2 km, finishing third in 2:21:14, second best marathon time ever by an American woman (bettered in Chicago 2017 by Jordan Hasay’s third-place 2:20:57).
“If I’d run more conservatively, maybe low 2:20, I could’ve won,” she suggested. “But I was going for the American record.”
She wouldn’t relent. Instead, she kept whittling down the distance, learning as she went, honing her craft as she had seen her personal best fall from 2:25:38 to 2:21:14 in just one year. And just because East Africa is full of marathon talent, let’s not forget how promising Shalane’s own journey looked from the very start.
We trace Shalane’s willfulness back to the early days in Boulder, Colorado, where she was born to a couple of international class runners. Her dad Steve Flanagan is often referred to as a 2:18 marathoner but was at his best as a cross-country runner, a tough mudder who made the USA World Cross Country team training with Frank Shorter and the fabled Colorado Track Club. Her mom Cheryl Bridges (now Treworgy) was a five-time cross-country team member herself, who broke the women’s marathon world record in 1971, becoming the first woman ever under 2:50.
When their union dissolved, Steve moved to Marblehead, the secluded seaside town north of Boston. There, along with new step-mother Monica, Shalane (and her sister Maggie) found a nurturing community that protected her and took pride in her accomplishments.
The competitive fire was evident early. She was the best high school cross country runner in the nation her senior year at Marblehead High. In the Footlocker Regionals in New York, Shalane attacked the snowy Van Cortlandt Park course, jumping out to a big lead. But she hit the wall and collapsed hundreds of meters before the finish, and never made it to the national final.
In 2001, at the NCAA Cross Country Championships at Furman University, Shalane was running as a sophomore for the Tar Heels of North Carolina. Again, as one of the pre-race favorites, she went all-in early, opened a sizeable lead, only to red-line after mile two. In the throes of oxygen-debt, she came to a full stop, before finishing well back in the pack.
“I felt like I had to dictate the race and dictate my future,” she said afterward.
No, she wouldn’t relent, but she proved the capacity to learn, winning the next two NCAA cross country titles, the first in Tar Heel history. It’s also where she met her husband Steve.
As a pro she won national titles, set records even stood on the Olympic podium in 2008 in the 10,000 meters. But unlike her pal Meb Keflezighi, she couldn’t get over the hump and onto the top step in a major marathon, though she began with a promising second place in her debut in New York in 2010.
“I tried running with them (East Africans), and it just didn’t feel right,” she concluded. So she reverted to her front-running instincts, like in Boston and Berlin 2014. But that just ended with her serving as an unofficial pacer. Again, though disappointed, she didn’t relent.
Though she hasn’t lived in the Boston area since 2000, Shalane still self-identifies as a Boston girl, part of the lineage that goes back to the early years of the Boston Marathon, where 1935 & `45 champion old John Kelley inspired 1957 winner Young John Kelley, who taught and coached 1968 champ Amby Burfoot who roomed in college with four-time olive wreath wearer Bill Rodgers, who inspired 1982 champ Al Salazar and two-timer Joanie Benoit Samuelson.
But that’s where the New England connection ended, until Shalane, who has reconnected to that heritage with an embrace as warm as a chilled New England spring morning requires.
For those not from New England, it’s hard to explain. But when grandfathers hold grandchildren on their shoulders at the same place on the old course where their grandfathers once held them, it seeps into your bones. Other places in the U.S. have regional pride, but New England’s six states stand as something different, a true original union defined by grit and history.
New Englanders don’t relent. They are a determined people, determined not to be taken advantage of by a faraway king trying to tax them without representation, determined not to lose hope when their baseball team goes 86 years without a World Series title, determined not to lose cheer when winter’s bony hand just won’t let go, or when no American wins its great marathon in over three decades.
For a native New Englander, pride runs deep, and hope always lives. They won’t relent. And one day that unrelenting quality may yet bring Shalane home first. Wait and see.
Today, it happened in New York City, as now 36-year-old Shalane Flanagan bided her time through a conservative opening 20 miles, then bested three-time defending champion Mary Keitany of Kenya on a misty, gray autumn day that will forever more be limned in gold.
It was Shalane’s first marathon since taking sixth at the 2016 Rio Olympics, as a lower back injury put her in the broadcast booth rather than on the starting line in Boston this spring.
Finally, the long wait for a major title is over. And though she spoke of possibly retiring if she won today in New York, the Shalane Flanagan career lesson is clear. Never Relent!