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Shalane Flanagan: What makes for an all-time great distance runner

Flanagan's instincts told her it was time to go and off she went, never to look back

New York City Marathon Facts
New York City Marathon Facts
Photo: Kelly Doyle.

With three miles left to go in the New York City Marathon Shalane Flanagan put her foot on the gas and broke away from race-favourite Mary Keitany. In that moment, Flanagan exhibited the characteristics that make her one the greatest in distance running. She was courageous, determined, strategic and instinctive.

On Sunday morning, Flanagan’s years and years of hard work and commitment resulted in a history-making race as she became the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon in 40 years. For that reason, and many more, Flanagan’s performance evoked an emotional response from the running community. She pulled through and in doing so, perhaps lifted the spirits of New Yorkers during a time of mourning. That coupled with her unwavering determination displayed from the time the gun went off until the moment she crossed the finish line, made her race simply inspiring.

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I found myself taking a few big gulps of my of my own as she moved closer and closer to the finish line. Having taken some time to sort through the emotions of Flanagan’s performance on Sunday, I find myself being personally inspired by her ability, and willingness to use tap into her racing instinct.

Early on in her running career, Flanagan struggled with being overly aggressive to the point in which she passed out in a high-school cross-country race after pushing too hard. She has described herself as running “kamikaze style” but over the years, she has learned to control her fiercely competitive instinct and use it to her advantage.

On Sunday morning, her preparation met her instinct to form the perfect storm. In the post-race press conference, she spoke about believing there was an opportunity to win in New York.

“I believe in amazing things, and believe amazing things can happen,” said Flanagan. “My coaches told me it was possible. The training I put in was the best I’ve ever had and they made me believe today could happen if I just ran a tactfully strong race and was patient.”

And that’s exactly what she did – tucking in with the lead pack early on, ready to cover any moves, as the dwindling group covered the majority of the course. Then, around the 23-mile mark, Flanagan’s instincts told her it was time to go and off she went, never to look back.

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Flanagan’s racing instinct is something special, as her coach Jerry Schumacher pointed out in a post-race interview, while also noting Flanagan is the fittest he’s ever seen her.

“When she made a move and started running hard, it’s something we’ve seen in this particular training cycle over and over again – her desire to drive and really push to the finish – we’ve seen it a lot of times in practice and to see it happen in a race, especially in New York, was really special,” said Schumacher.

He went on to explain Flanagan as having that unteachable instinct and drive that makes the greats, great.

“When she smells that finish line there’s a well that’s so deep that she can dig into. When she started to smell it and new something special could happen, I just knew she was going to do it,” he said. 

Watching Flanagan on Sunday morning was the most moving marathon performance I’ve seen to date. If she chooses now to retire, which she alluded to prior to New York, she’s going out leaving generations of runners believing that amazing things are possible.