Shalane Flanagan goes the distance
Through 15 years as one of America's premier women's distance runners, Shalane Flanagan has had some outstanding accomplishments.
Portland's own is a four-time Olympian who earned a silver medal at 5,000 meters in the 2008 Games at Beijing.
Flanagan, 36, is a six-time national cross-country champion who won bronze at the World Championships in 2011. She still holds American records indoors at 3,000 and 5,000 meters and has represented the U.S. at the Olympics or World Track & Field Championships every year since 2007.
On Nov. 5 at Central Park, Flanagan became the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon in 40 years, beating three-time defending champion and world record-holder Mary Keitany of Kenya by more than a minute.
"It's the biggest achievement of my career," Flanagan tells the Portland Tribune. And that's saying something.
"Shalane has had an incredible career," says Jerry Schumacher, her coach with Nike's Bowerman Track Club in Portland since 2009. "Olympic medal, world cross country medal, American records. But winning the New York City Marathon will probably be the centerpiece of her career."
What makes Flanagan's title in New York City even more remarkable is she was forced to pull out of the Boston Marathon in April after suffering a fracture in her back while training in Portland.
Flanagan grew up in suburban Boston.
"We had such a miserable January in Portland," says Flanagan, who lives with her husband, Steve Edwards, in the Southwest Hills. "Being from Boston, I'm used to roads being sanded. I was trying to get my training in outdoors and be tough — a bit stubborn on my part."
Flanagan slipped and threw out her lower back.
"My first major injury," she says.
Flanagan was away from training for 10 weeks. There proved to be a silver lining.
"The rest was quite good for me," she says. "I've never been away from running for that long a time. It gave me more motivation to come back strong. The mental and physical break allowed me to bring even more to the table when it came to my training."
Schumacher believes the injury turned into a blessing, too.
"As disciplined and focused as Shalane is, she never lets herself get too far out of line," he says. "That's a great quality. That's what you want an athlete to have.
"I don't know she needed a physical break so much, but the mental grind she has done for 15 years ... to never let her guard down ... that break just helped freshen everything up, more mentally and psychologically than anything.
"When she came back and could run again, she was on Cloud Nine. She said, 'I forgot how much I loved doing this.' It was great to see."
New York was the 10th marathon of Flanagan's career. She'd run New York once before, Boston three times, once in Berlin, two Olympic Trials and two Olympic Games, finishing 10th at London in 2012 and sixth at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
"She has run really well in all of them," says Schumacher, who was on the scene at New York on Nov. 5. "But this one was the crown jewel."
As she sat on the podium in New York with Keitany and third-place finisher Mamitu Daska, answering questions from reporters, Flanagan got teary-eyed.
"About nine months ago, I was heartbroken," she says. "(Having the injury) hurt quite a bit. I kept telling myself there was going to be delayed gratification and a moment down the road that would make up for it.
"I've dreamt of a moment like this since I was a little girl. It means a lot to me and my family, and hopefully inspires the next generation of American women to be patient. It took me seven years to do this. It's a lot of work toward this moment."
Two weeks later, Flanagan expounded on the moment.
"It felt like the culmination of a lifetime of work, specifically seven years of work," she says. "To have that moment come to fruition was a mixture of emotions validated and extreme happiness.
"In whatever profession you're in, you strive to achieve at the highest level. You put so much work toward it. To have it happen, there was a sense of validation — you really are one of the best. To beat the world record-holder and defending champion while doing it made me feel like I'm pretty hip."
Flanagan was born in Boulder, Colorado, and at age 4 moved to Marblehead, Massachusetts, a seaport town of 20,000 three miles from Salem and 16 miles from Boston. Her mother is the former Cheryl Bridges, once the marathon world-record holder. Her father, Steve Flanagan, also was a world-class distance runner.
"I grew up in this unique culture back in the '80s," Shalane says. "I was around runners all the time. I didn't know any different growing up. I grew up thinking you just always ran. I didn't know at the time my mom was a world record-holder. My parents are very humble."
Her early influences included two great American distance runners, Joan Benoit Samuelson and Lynn Jennings, both New Englanders.
After winning back-to-back NCAA cross country championships at North Carolina in 2002 and '03, Flanagan turned pro and competed in her first Olympics in 2004, making the U.S. team at 5,000 meters. She earned a silver medal at 10,000 — becoming the second American woman ever to medal at that distance — in the 2008 Games.
In 2009, she moved to Portland to train with Schumacher and the BTC. Since then, she has made the 10,000 finals at the Olympic Games or World Championships six times. In 2016, she set an American 10K road record.
"Jerry has been not only a coach and running mentor, but also a life mentor," Flanagan says. "He's an absolutely amazing man to work with. He has created a unique culture with the Bowerman Track Club and has fostered a commitment to excellence and greatness.
"We work extremely hard, but every now and then we try to have fun. It makes it not feel like a job all the time."
Flanagan is part of a stable of nine women runners working under Schumacher at BTC.
"With what we've done on the roads this fall and in major marathons, this will go down in the record books as one of the best years American female distance runners have ever had," she says. "I'm happy our team in Portland has been a huge part of that."
Schumacher went to great lengths to be with Flanagan in New York. The day before the New York City Marathon, he was in Eugene watching his children run in the Oregon School Activities Association cross country championships.
His son, Joshua, a senior at Jesuit, placed fourth despite running on a stress fracture of a leg, helping the Crusaders claim their first team championship in 10 years. His daughter, Makenna, a junior, won the individual title, leading Jesuit to the state girls crown.
A half-hour later, Schumacher caught a flight to New York City.
"One of the best weekends of my life," he says.
After eight years living in the City of Roses, Flanagan finally feels like Portland is home.
"The East Coast is in my blood," she says. "I feel very loyal to Boston. But to be honest, once you come out West, it's a different pace and lifestyle. It makes you not want to go back.
"When I first moved here, I wasn't used to the rainy season. But I can appreciate the fact it gives us so much greenery and beauty. I feel lucky to be here. It's one of the great places to live and training.
"I'm a huge outdoor enthusiasts. I appreciate that. I'm a foodie, and I appreciate the good quality of foods and restaurants here. It's an amazing place to be."
Last year, Flanagan and chef Elyse Kopecky authored a cookbook titled "Run Fast. Eat Slow: Nourishing Recipes for Athletes." The book made the New York Times best-seller list.
Two years ago, Flanagan and her husband — a running coach who handles run club and event production for Nike — became foster parents to identical twin girls. They are now age 17 and attend Lincoln High. The girls lived with the Flanagans for a year.
"It was a little scary to take on," Shalane says, "but it was an incredible experience. Just an excellent thing for Steve and myself."
Edwards and Flanagan want to become parents themselves. The question is, could Shalane do that and continue with her running career?
"I'd prefer to be retired and a full-time mom," she says. "We'll just have to see what happens."
For now, Flanagan will continue running. It would make sense for her to continue through the 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo. But maybe not.
"I'm taking each year as they come," she says. "Actually, I'm going month to month. I'll continue as long as I have the desire and passion to keep going. Jerry thinks I could easily go another four years at this level. I'm just now reaping the benefits of the training I've done. It's cultivating into a perfect time in my career. I call this my 'sweet spot.'
"My training leading up to New York was better than it's ever been. That's remarkable, since I'm not the youngest woman out there competing. It proves the marathon is all about putting in work over a long period of time."
Flanagan isn't sure if she'll continue running distance on the track.
"It depends on if it facilitates my marathon running," she says. "Sometimes it's good to run track races. I don't rule them out, but they'd be there to facilitate my marathon."
Next up is one Flanagan holds dear to her heart: The Boston Marathon on April 16. As a youngster, she cheered on runners near the Boylston Street finish line and dreamed of one day winning the race.
The typical runner moves up in distance as he or she ages. That is what has happened with Flanagan as she moves through her career working with Schumacher.
"Shalane has always been phenomenally talented, especially on the track," he says. "After years of training, she is just now adapting to the volume and the mileage and the type of work you need to do to be a successful marathoner. She was also doing it off a lot of natural ability. Now she is coupling that with the hard work and the accumulation of years of the marathon work, and it's starting to pay dividends for her.
"This may be the best we've seen out of Shalane. It's exciting and fun. I have no idea what her future holds, and I'm good with that. But it's a fun position for her to be in. If she wants to have a few more years in the sport at this level, she has that in her."
Schumacher looks at his relationship with Flanagan with pride.
"The neat thing about Shalane is the length of the career she's had," he says. "That's a testament to how well she's taken care of herself. She is very disciplined to make sure she is responsive to the demands on her body.
"As you age, things hurt more and more. She has done a great job of mitigating those effects to prolong her career. She has absorbed all those years of hard work to put her in this position where she's the best she's ever been.
"Shalane never guaranteed she'd win a major marathon. To chase that dream and fulfill it, it's a storybook ending for sure."
Mary Decker Slaney had a brilliant career shortened by injuries. Others, such as Jennings, Shannon Rowbury and Deena Kastor, have achieved greatness. Flanagan may have superseded them all.
"Shalane is either the greatest American female distance runner ever or, if there's a debate to that, she's in a very select group," Schumacher says. "Her body of work has been so consistent. She has done it all. It would be tough to argue that anyone has been better."