When you are the first American to win the New York City Marathon in 40 years, you have two choices. You could go out on top. Or you could try to defend your hard-fought title.
And that is what Shalane Flanagan, one of the best American female distance runners in a generation, decided to do in New York on Sunday.
She had to settle for third.
Flanagan surged from behind to lead one of the deepest fields of female American distance runners — four of the top seven finishers — in years. It included Desiree Linden (2018 Boston champion), Molly Huddle (national 10-kilometer record-holder), Allie Kieffer (fifth in New York last year) and Stephanie Bruce (2018 10K national road champion).
Flanagan, who added a bronze to her collection of gold and silver medals earned at New York, was sanguine.
“You just put your head down, keep working and fight for that podium spot,” she said. “So when I finally did get into that third place, I got another level of excitement and just felt really proud of myself in that moment that I kept fighting, even though there’s some rough patches in there.”
Now Flanagan’s career is again at a crossroads. She could attempt to make the team for her fifth Olympics, in Tokyo in 2020. Or she could give in to the temptation to retire, and coach.
This race shows she’s still one of the best distance runners in the United States. Although her chances of making the Olympic marathon team are still strong, the field of contenders will be strong. (Whoever makes the team may well earn an Olympic medal, which no American marathoner has done since Deena Kastor took bronze in 2004.) Flanagan has had a remarkably long athletic career. For those Games, she would be 39.
At New York, Flanagan suggested her professional racing career might be nearing the end of the road.
“I don’t want to be too soon to make a decision,” she said. “But I do feel like my heart is leaning toward serving others in the knowledge I’ve gained.”
She has established herself as a cultivator of some of the top distance-running talent in the nation.
Her New York victory last year was the culmination of a career that inspired — and, to some degree, drove — a golden age of American female distance running. Before that victory, she had spent years curating and nurturing a team of women at the Bowerman Track Club in Portland, Ore., which she has named the Bowerman Babes.
Each of her training partners — 11 in total — has qualified for the Olympics while training with her. That’s an extraordinary success rate for any distance athlete or coach in this country.
As she gained stature, Flanagan instigated a more collaborative approach among women in a sport that was historically secretive and fractious — and unsuccessful. In 2000, the United States sent just one woman to the Olympic marathon.
Now, the recent American women’s performance stands in contrast to the men’s. Since 2014, no American man besides Galen Rupp has run a marathon under 2 hours 10 minutes — effectively equivalent to the sub-2:30 mark for women. This year in New York alone, four American women broke 2:30. No American men finished in the top five; the American women placed two there.
And the women’s marathon times keep dropping. Flanagan herself has run the third-fastest American marathon ever. Her victory at New York last year inspired Linden, who then beat Flanagan and Huddle under bad conditions in last year’s Boston Marathon. But for Flanagan that race was crushing.
“Boston was so unsatisfying; I was ready, but with the conditions I just couldn’t showcase my fitness,” she said. “I just wanted to run a normal Shalane race. I needed to have another.”
So she hit the streets of New York on Sunday, ready to take the kind of athletic risks that only an incumbent can afford. She said she had no regrets.
“It was a huge motivation to try to get in the top three today just because my standards for New York are pretty high,” she said. “I just thought, you know, if this truly is going to be my last race, a podium spot would be really special.”
Eventually, she expects to transition into coaching her teammates in Oregon, where she would become the nation’s first female coach at such a high level. She has fostered talent on her team, currently coached by Jerry Schumacher, whom Flanagan initially joined as the only female runner at Bowerman in 2009.
They’ve seen dramatic success. This summer, Flanagan’s teammate Courtney Frerichs set the American record in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, and Shelby Houlihan, another teammate, set the American record in the 5,000 meters, with Flanagan pacing her as a way to rebound after her Boston disappointment.
“Coming here to train with someone like Shalane, who does everything right, it makes them believe in the possibilities,” Schumacher said. “For them, it’s always been a case of, ‘Who knows where training with someone like her can take me?’ I don’t have to coach that ambition; her presence makes it organic.”
Flanagan has taken steps toward a next chapter in her life. She and her husband, Steve, are seeking to adopt, and the two editions of the cookbook she has made for her running fans are best-sellers.
Of course, Flanagan could have retired even before her breakout marathon at New York last year and still been one of the best distance runners the United States has produced.
She is a four-time Olympian, with a silver medal, who has won a World Marathon Major and is the third-fastest American marathon runner ever. She holds national records in the indoor 3,000 and 5,000 meters, as well as the road 10K and 15K. Her marathon debut at New York in 2010 landed her second, the highest-placing performance for an American woman at the race in 20 years, a performance bettered only by her victory seven years later. And now she has this year’s bronze. At some point, it’s enough.
“I was joking around with Jared earlier,” said Flanagan, referring to Schumacher, her coach. “He was like, Shalane, you could be retired and just be hanging out. You don’t have to put yourself through this.”
Then she reflected.
“But that’s what makes us feel really alive.”
Get more stuff like this
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.
Thank you for subscribing.
Something went wrong.