Going Long: An Interview with Shalane Flanagan
A lot has changed in American distance running since 2004, but Shalane Flanagan factoring in races isn’t one of them. The four-time Olympian, who lives and trains in Portland, Ore., as a member of Jerry Schumacher’s Bowerman Track Club, is a threat to win, set a record, earn a medal or make a U.S. team whenever she steps to the starting line.
Few American women, save maybe Deena Kastor and Molly Huddle, have been able to match Flanagan’s level of sustained success on the track, over hill and dale, and on the roads since she made her first Olympic team 13 years ago.
The 35-year-old, who missed April’s Boston Marathon due to a stress fracture in her iliac crest, is on the mend and recently got back on the track for the first time in two years at the Portland Track Festival, where she won the 10,000 meters in 31:38. Despite an abbreviated buildup, she’ll attempt to make another national team when she lines up for the 10,000 at the U.S. Track and Field Championships on Thursday night in Sacramento.
I caught up with Flanagan over the weekend to discuss her recent 10,000m win at the Portland Track Festival, how she dealt with the injury that kept her out of April’s Boston Marathon, what can be done to help solve the doping problem in athletics, and much more.
The 10,000m at the recent Portland Track Festival was your first race since the injury that kept you out of Boston back in April. When did you decide, number one, to have a track season at all and, number two, to give that particular race a go?
Yeah, it was a very last-minute kind of decision. I had kind of pinpointed, like two months ago, trying to get back and be ready [to race] by Peachtree. That’s what I thought, “OK, I need something on the calendar to get focused on and really work toward,” so I picked that out. I had hoped to be fit by June, but I was still having some lingering pain in my hip and just weird soreness in weird areas. I think psychologically, too, I was just so concerned and worried that I would get re-injured. Jerry [Schumacher] just kept on saying, “Take it easy. Take it easy.” He really held me back for quite a while, but as soon as he allowed me to do one workout, I think physically and mentally, I completely shifted to where I needed to be. It’s like everything in my body clicked all of a sudden and I didn’t have any more pain, which is so strange. I think there’s also a psychological component to it. It’s finally just letting go of that fear of injury. The first workout back was actually pretty good. I joked around and was like, “Man, I should just get ready for a track season. This would be fun. I feel like I could actually run a pretty good 10K,” and it was just one workout.
Then, the further we got into some of the workouts — and I was working out with Amy [Cragg], who was pretty fit, and able to decently hang with her — I realized, “Man, I actually really think I could have a shot at running a 10K.” I just kind of worked on Jerry slowly and massaged the idea into his brain. About a week out from the Portland Track Festival, he said, “OK, let’s just see what you can do. If it’s not right afterward and we realize you’re not fit enough or you don’t come off of it well, we’ll just can that idea of running USAs and focus on something else.” It went well enough, and I came off of it OK, so now I’m getting ready for Sacramento.
In Portland, you ran something like 16-flat and 15:38 for your first and second 5Ks, so a big negative split. How did you feel out there and did you start to experience that old familiar excitement again as you began to crank it down over the last 5K?
Yeah. I think I’d only done six workouts before we decided to do it, and they’d all gone well, but they weren’t anything to write home about. They were just really solid and good strength sessions. Jerry said, basically, we should just shoot for the standards to go to USA’s and to go to worlds if it presents itself down the line, so we just shot for that 32-minute mark, essentially. He said that it could feel really easy or it could feel really hard — we didn’t know. We just requested to have a pace at 32 minutes, and there were a bunch of other women that were wanting to run that, so it worked out nicely for not just myself but also the group. We had a pacesetter, I think, for about 4K, and she was just clicking off 5:08 miles, which was perfect. It actually felt kind of slow. The first lap, I think, was actually 75, and that actually felt better than when we slowed to the 77-second quarter pace, which was the 5:08 pace. I am just such a grinder that I think if I had just from the gun said, “Let’s just see how many 5:00 miles I can string along,” I think it would have actually felt more fluid, but we backed off that 75 and ran a bunch of 77s to get to the specific pace that we had all requested.
Once she stepped off, I started to run more of that 75-second quarter pace, which actually felt really smooth and felt really good. For sure, the last two laps, I was thinking, “OK, let’s just practice. Let’s make myself a better athlete today. Let’s practice kind of cranking it down.” To be honest, there wasn’t much cranking. It was kind of one of those things where I’m uncomfortable and I have no one to challenge me, so therefore, it’s really hard to convince yourself to run faster when you don’t have to, other than Jerry just saying, “Work on being a better athlete today and try to crank it down.” There wasn’t much of a gear shift. I think I maybe ran a 72 or 73 on the last lap, so nothing fancy whatsoever. It just shows I have a lot of good strength, that’s what it showed me, but my ability to change gears and to really have a kick was certainly lacking. That’s what I’ve just worked on since that race, is just being able to change gears again.
You just said you did that off of six workouts. Are you at a point right now where, where your confidence is growing exponentially with each passing workout and each completed week of training?
It’s kind of a fun position to be in. It’s not ideal. It’s very sub-optimal to go into a U.S. championship and say, “Oh, I’ve only done, like, eight or nine workouts.” That’s not typically what you would want to have happen, but it is fun from an athletic perspective, even for Jerry to see we do a workout and two days later, I’m a different athlete. Do another workout, and again, I’m a different athlete. I was able to do a workout yesterday, some K repeats, that two weeks ago, I had a hard time running an 800 at that pace. Like, I was struggling. Then, it just felt really controlled yesterday. I had control over it, which is very different. It doesn’t matter if I can hit the pace. It was like flailing to hit the pace, and then, there was a lot of control yesterday. It’s just that kind of transformation. It’s fun to feel so much improvement with each day. I feel like I have a lot of momentum. Ideally, I would have one more month of preparation going into this race, but it’s kind of fun to just see, well, what can I do off of this? I know, personally, that things don’t have to be perfect for it to still go well.
When did you start running again after your injury and what did that process generally look like from the stress fracture diagnosis to where we are now?
I was diagnosed about mid-February, and I think I took about 10 weeks of no running. I was very cautious coming back. I didn’t even use the AlterG — I was afraid it would change my mechanics. I just wanted to get to real running, so I just ran very cautiously and slowly inched my way back into it after the 10 weeks. I was still, like I said, having some lingering pain and some strange aches in weird areas in my legs, which was kind of concerning, so I just saw a lot of therapists. I have a couple therapists here that I work with. Then, also, the guru John Ball in Phoenix, who I feel like every track athlete has gone to see at some point in their career. I was able to go see him in Phoenix. About five weeks ago, I flew out to Park City, because he was visiting our team to work on everyone. Amy and I flew in just to get a quick treatment while he was there. That’s when I really rounded the corner. For a while, I thought, “Gosh, this is going to take a lot longer than I thought.”
I had had about 10 weeks off and then about four or five weeks of just general running, getting back up my miles. Then, after I saw [John Ball], I was able to start to do my first workout, so that was about four or five weeks ago.
In terms of injuries, you’ve been pretty bomb-proof throughout most of your career. But this last one put you out of running for 10 weeks. What did you learn in the process of being forced to take that time off and not being able to train for your favorite race in the Boston Marathon, and how has that experience changed your overall perspective, even this late in your career?
Yeah, I had to, for sure, mourn the loss of a dream of running Boston again. It was what got me so excited to start training again after Rio, and it’s all I could think about throughout the whole fall and winter as I was preparing and getting back in shape. Boston means everything to me, essentially. When I got injured, I just was in shock that it would happen at this point in time. I’ve been basically 12 to 13 years of uninterrupted training, virtually, and to have it kind of happen right at that time, I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, the timing is just bad luck.” I realized quickly thereafter, getting over feeling sorry for myself, that I think, essentially, I needed that break. I hadn’t really allowed myself to ever really take any downtime or rest. I just am constantly throwing new projects and goals in front of myself, and I think I needed that break. Not until I allowed myself to just take a step back and rest, did I realize how tired I was. I think [taking a break] has rejuvenated me mentally and physically more than I ever would have thought, and it allowed me to appreciate the other amazing things in my life. I hadn’t taken a vacation in, like, 10 years, and that was really depressing to confess to myself.
I really needed it, and it was a time where I really got to know our foster girls and act as a family. We were able to take them on a vacation to Hawaii and travel more, and they’ve never really traveled before. It was just a really rewarding experience, and I was able to fill my time spending it with family and working on my next cookbook and projects with my co-author, do more speaking engagements, and even dabbling in the world of broadcast. So it opened my eyes to the fact that I can potentially be good at other things than just running. That was rewarding in itself to discover that, “Oh, I actually really like a lot of other things, and I can potentially be pretty good at them.” That just made me feel good that I don’t have to wrap my whole identity into just running. That was a great experience. I look forward to the day when I don’t compete anymore because there’s a lot of exciting things that I can’t wait to tackle.
Switching gears a bit, earlier this year, you learned that your 2008 Olympic bronze medal got upgraded to silver. How did you feel when you heard that news — and via social media, of all places?
I was notified, actually, I think a year or two in advance via Chris Chavez from Sports Illustrated. He had contacted me, and I believe Kara [Goucher], to say that he had heard that [Elvan] Abeylegesse had tested positive. At that time, I was overjoyed. I think it was right before I was heading to Beijing world championships, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is so exciting.” It was very emotional to me. I told my family personally, like, “Hey, I really actually think on that day I was a silver medalist, but we don’t have anything to validate that.” And I would never say that to anyone else, but I told them. I said, “I won’t be surprised if one day I actually get upgraded.” I think they looked at me like, “OK, we believe you,” but I don’t know, they maybe thought I was a little crazy to say that. So I felt very validated in my sense of knowing what’s real and what’s not, so that was just a nice confirmation. Then, two years basically passed, and I was thinking gosh…
Yeah, nothing’s happening. It was really devastating, actually. Then, I was actually notified two years later that it was official — but yet, at the same time, I wasn’t notified by an official, per se. It was via Twitter, of all places, that I saw it. Again, I was skeptical, because I’m like, “Is this really real? No one’s calling me. No one is emailing me of any real credibility, other than just news reporters.” I thought there’s got to be some official person, right, that would notify me. Yeah, it was kind of a crazy experience. Then, I had Tom Ratcliffe, one of my agents, reach out and confirm with the Athletes Integrity Unit, and they confirmed via an email that, yes, it was true and she was taken out of the records. Now, at the same time, I don’t know if I’ll ever see the medal, but I guess in my heart and in my family’s eyes, we can all celebrate that.
In recent years we’ve seen a lot of Olympic and world championships medalists get popped after the fact and lose their medal. How do you feel about the current state of drug testing in our sport? And do you feel like the playing field has started to level out a bit more or do you think there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done so you can step to the line knowing you’ve got a fair shot to compete?
I think forever we will have to work at it. I don’t think it’s ever going to be a day where we can … Sadly, I don’t think we can ever step to the line and be like, “Oh, I for sure know [the field is clean].” I think it’s just going to be a constant battle, and that’s just athletics, I think, though, in general, and in all sports, I do feel a sense that there is some momentum, which is exciting, and hopefully some fear being instilled, because we are catching people and we are changing the records and we are upgrading people to appropriate medals. It’s a little late, but it’s done nonetheless, so hopefully it instills some fear. I do feel like there’s still so much work to be done, in a way. I can’t say that I believe that every time I step to the line, it’s a clean slate and it’s fair.
Along those lines, what do you think is the number one thing that could be done to put that fear in a potential cheater’s mind and deter them from trying to gain an unfair advantage?
There has to be some consequence that’s harsh enough to deter them. I think a lot of athletes have said this, but it has to do, also, with the surrounding people — like the people that are supporting these athletes in these endeavors — that need to be penalized. Once you test positive, I believe [it should be] a lifetime ban. There’s no room for someone in this sport that cheats, so there should be a lifetime ban. Then, it should also implicate all the surrounding people that are supporting this athlete, because I don’t believe, if I were to go cheat, that Jerry wouldn’t know. I believe 100 percent that he would be like, “Shalane, you were a turd yesterday and now you’re amazing. I don’t believe this.” I just genuinely don’t believe when athletes’ coaches or agents say that they didn’t know — they know, and they’re helping the athletes. It’s just not a single-person operation. I think that would deter so many people from doing it if they knew that it was going to be a far-reaching web and it wasn’t just the athlete, as well.
Switching gears again: Even though you weren’t able to race Boston this year, you did some work on a local broadcast team. And for what it’s worth, I thought you were great on the Nike Breaking2 broadcast in Monza. Have you given any thought to doing more of that after your competitive running career is over?
Yes. I actually really loved it. I had so much fun doing the local broadcast for the Boston Marathon. I worked with such a great team, Lisa Hughes and Toni Reavis. I think the dynamic was just so fun and playful, and I felt like I could be myself. Just speaking to the people of Boston gave me so much enthusiasm and love for it. When I had that experience, I thought, “Oh my gosh, I love this,” but, with an asterisk. I didn’t know if it’s just because I love the environment of the Boston Marathon .and the people I worked with were so phenomenal. Then, shortly after the Boston Marathon, I was asked to do the Sub-2 effort in Monza. I was essentially there as a backup for Paula Radcliffe. If the race did not take place on the day that they had set, she was going to have to leave to do another event, and I was going to take over her role. That experience was fun to watch her in motion and action, because she is such a professional and I learned a lot. Craig Masback has been a great mentor. I was talking to Paula, and I said, “Do you really enjoy doing broadcast?” I felt like the way she described it was, I think, the reason why I actually do love it. In a sense, you feel like you’re putting on a performance like racing, and you get an adrenaline rush. You are trying so desperately to try to convey your sport in a passionate light, and you want to do the best possible job. When you’re on air and when you are conveying, you feel like you’re competing, in a sense. You get the same adrenaline and nerves prior, and then afterward, there’s this sense of accomplishment if you feel like you did a good job. Same with running.
It is kind of addicting, I think, because it does feel like kind of a performance, in a way, and you get the same kind of nerves and feelings that you would when you’re competing and racing. I actually really did enjoy it, and I think I have a tremendous amount to learn, but I like being challenged in that setting.
Last summer, you and your husband Steve [Edwards] became foster parents. Talk to me a little bit about that decision and how caring for two teenage girls has changed your lives, especially at this point of your competitive career.
That, again, was another kind of out-of-the-blue, organic experience. I essentially got an email from my teammate Andrew Bumbalough and his wife over the summer, as I was in Park City preparing for the Olympics. The email entailed a bunch of information about two foster girls needing a home. This email went out to the whole Bowerman Track Club team and just said, “Is anyone capable of maybe taking care of these two identical twin teenagers? They’re 17 and go to the local high school here in Portland.” Andrew and his wife have done foster care for years now, usually with infants and small children, so they were just reaching out, kind of on a limb, seeing if anyone would be willing to take on this adventure. I read it and immediately contacted my husband, and just said, “I feel like this is something we should do. We love kids, and we’ve put off having a family because of my career and its demands.” I feel like I have just some unfinished business. I’ve gone all-in on my career, but yet, we love children and would love to have them in our lives. I thought this would just be so fun, I think, for us and a challenge. We knew that. It would definitely be a challenge, but just felt like it was kind of a calling. I just felt this sense and this pull to take on this adventure.
While I was in Rio, the girls moved into our house. My husband was here. He met me in Rio and watched me compete. They moved in, actually, while I was gone. When I came home from Rio, we had two 17-year-old girls in our home. We’ve gotten to know them over the past year, and it’s been challenging, it’s been exciting, and it’s been really extremely rewarding. They’ll be living with us for the next year, as well. Originally, we had said, “OK, we’ll help them through their senior year of high school, and then upon graduation, they may take off and do something else,” but we feel like it’s in their best interest if they stay here in Portland and we help support them as they go to community college next year.
Finally, to bring this all back together, now that you’ve got this track race under your belt and you’re racing USAs on Thursday, what are you thinking in regard to these next couple of months from a competitive standpoint? I know you still have Peachtree on your schedule and obviously, if USAs goes well, that’ll mean world championships in August. I guess that’s my long-winded way of asking: Do you look at this as potentially your last serious competitive track season?
I’ve never, I guess, had definitive lines. I think I’ve just allowed my career to evolve, and wherever my motivations and passions kind of lead me, I go in that direction. I wouldn’t have ever guessed that I would be preparing for a track season at all. I think when I took my spikes off in Beijing at the world championships in 2015 I thought, “I may never put these back on again. I may never wear spikes ever again.” Just knowing that, yeah, my passions and my goals have tended to be more toward the roads and the marathons, so I knew there was that possibility. I think it’s just amazing how there’s twists and turns that you just can’t see. With the injury, it’s just led me to want to get back in shape and have goals over the summer, so that’s led me to just want to give the track one more crack.
Before some of my really great marathons that I’ve run, I switched over to track training. I may not have raced on the track, but I did the training, and I think it’s allowed me to get really great fitness and build up for the marathon. So I think it complements it well if I want to get back on the roads in the fall and run a marathon. So yeah, I guess, in a sense, this possibly could be my last track season ever, so I say why not just go all-in and see if I can represent the U.S. one more time.
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