Get to Know Shalane Flanagan, the Female Runner Who Made History at the NYC Marathon
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Shalane Flanagan is a star athlete with an Olympic medal and three American world records under her belt, but as of last weekend, she’s also the first American woman in 40 years to win the New York City Marathon. The runner has made history, and her triumphant victory has been a lifetime in the making.
The long-distance runner has been training for seven years to win a marathon, and after her monumental victory, Flanagan said retirement is on the table. And in her downtime post-race, she’s turning her attention to the kitchen. The New York Times best-selling cookbook author is working on her second cookbook, set to hit shelves 2018.
InStyle caught up on the phone with the world class athlete to about the race, her career, and what’s up next.
You’ve won an Olympic medal and set numerous records in the past. What sets winning the New York City Marathon apart from your other accomplishments?
I think the Olympics and the major city marathons like New York City’s are equal in terms of importance. But I think the situation in which this happened, coming off a terrorist attack in New York that week, I think it just made it all that more powerful.
What's most similar about the two is that I feel a sense of national pride representing my country. My Olympic medal is a highlight of my career, but Sunday gave me the greatest sense of accomplishment because it took a lifetime of work to achieve. I ran my first marathon seven years ago and I had to go through a lot of heartaches and ups and downs over that time to finally get to this moment.
And to be the first woman to do this in 40 years must mean something special to you as well.
I had role models growing up, women who paved the path, like Joan Benoit Samuelson, who was the first woman to win Olympic gold in marathon running. These iconic women have allowed me to set big goals for myself and believe in myself. So I hope my winning the New York City Marathon inspires that next generation of young women to set audacious, moonshot goals and work towards them with patience and dedication.
Running is a family affair for you. Your mother held the world record back in 1970 for running a marathon in just under 2 hours and 50 minutes. Did you ever train with your family?
Both of my parents were runners when I was growing up, so I didn't know any better. I thought everyone's family ran every day. It was definitely a unique household. I've grown up with the sport really ever since I was born.
What do you want young women who are now looking up to you to learn from your career?
There's a lot of instant gratification in this generation. And it's hard to see big picture and have patience to dedicate yourself to something that's far off in the future cause you don't know when it will happen. But I hopefully can provide inspiration to be relentless. If your heart really wants it, be relentless in the pursuit of your dreams.
You’ve said that you loved running in the beginning because of your family, but also because you loved beating the boys. Can you talk a little bit more about that and what it's been like to come up as a female athlete?
I first started running in grade school for the physical fitness test in P.E. class. We would have these races that were just timed trials and I was the fastest girl in my grade or the fastest girl in my school. And I liked the attention that I got when I would beat the boys, cause to them, that was like, "oh, a girl beat me. I can't believe it!" and they would be embarrassed and it was just funny. Back then, the fact that I was even competitive with the boys in my school had a huge impact in the sense that it gave me a lot of self-confidence. I think athletics in general can have a huge impact on young girls’ self-confidence.
What have you learned from being an athlete for most of your life?
I've run my whole life. I love being an athlete. I think, like I said, it's given me a lot of self-confidence and self-worth. I love the lifestyle, but it certainly is a lifestyle. I've been a professional athlete for Nike since 2004 and it's not just your typical job of checking in from nine to five. It's everything. It’s taking care of myself. I wake up in the morning and it's thinking about my eating habits, they're very important to me.
You’ve said that you love to cook for yourself. And your first cookbook Run Fast. Eat Slow., is a New York Times bestseller. But when you do opt for indulgent foods, what’s your guilty pleasure?
I love some good pastries. When I'm in hard training, I resist donut, but I love a good donut and I love some good red wine or a good IPA.
What is your life like when you're not training?
There's not much time out of the year when I'm not training. But right now, while I'm on a little bit of a break, I just spend time with family and fulfill other sponsorship obligations that I have. They’re fun, like I get to fly down to L.A. to go do a segment with Kevin Hart, cause he ran the New York City Marathon, too. And I love cooking in general, so when I have more free time, I get in the kitchen and experiment for my new cookbook.
Do you have any favorite TV shows right now?
While I'm training, it's important to recover, so it's a great way for me to sift through and find some fun shows. Right now, I'm obsessed with Stranger Things. I've been slowly working my way through savoring each episode cause I love it. They were actually in New York while the marathon was going on and I was desperately searching the streets for them.
Do you have a go-to pump up song?
No, it's anything that's new on top charts. But right before the New York Marathon, the last song I listened to was "Plot Twist” [by Marc E. Bassy]. I love the idea of a lot twist because Mary Keitany, who I was running up against, was assumed to win. I was hoping that day was going to be a plot twist. I’m happy I was.
You went back to the race later on Sunday to cheer on rest of the runners. Why was that important for you?
Peter Ciaccia, the director, invited the elite athletes to come out to the finish line if we had the energy. I'm so happy that I went out with my family and other athletes. Just because I crossed the finish line first doesn't mean that I'm any different from them, essentially. They're striving for their personal best, and I think there's lessons to be learned from the front of the pack to the back of the pack. It was so fun to be there and surprise people at the finish. It’s heartwarming. I cry every single time I get to see people finish a marathon. It's just so emotional.
What do you think has been your biggest challenge in trying to achieve this goal?
There definitely were moments where I'm thinking, "Is this pointless? Am I wasting my time trying to achieve this?” Those moments of self-doubt where the hardest.
What kept you going?
I don't think I would sleep well at night in the future if I knew that I didn't give it my all. I just knew that if I was just relentless, I was bound to have some type of breakthrough at that race. And maybe it wouldn't have been first, but I knew that I'd have the race of a lifetime.
After this achievement, are you thinking of retiring, or are you going to continue running?
It's so hard to top a moment like this to be honest, and it probably can't be topped. This is it and I know that, so I'm definitely soaking up this moment because I know that this is what I've worked towards. This is the lifetime achievement. After I allow this to sink in, I’ll assess what gets me excited to get up in the morning and go work hard at that.
Do you have any advice for women who want to run a marathon or pursue a running career?
Running is not an easy sport. It can be quite painful, especially if you're getting back into shape and trying to improve yourself. For me, the easiest way to get better was to surround myself with other people who have aspirations and goals—that accountability is essential. I love running with people. I find that they lift me up and inspire me to be the best version of myself. Having people to run with just really makes it so much more enjoyable. So I suggest people go find a good training partner.
Do you listen to music then when you run or do you prefer to have someone there with you?
I definitely would prefer a good conversation over music.
Have you ever considered another career?
If I wasn't a runner, my dream—and I'm terrible at dancing—but I'm obsessed with hip-hop dancing. I watch videos all the time of hip-hop dances cause I think it's so cool. I am so uncoordinated and stiff from the running that I do, so I would be terrible. But I have such admiration for people who have really good dance skills.
Is there anything that you learned about yourself in training that has surprised you?
I am just getting better at the marathon with each year that passes and that surprised me for sure.