After competing for 15 years, the 2017 New York City Marathon champ will coach the Bowerman Track Club, becoming one of the only women guiding the careers of U.S. Olympic runners.
During the past three years, Shalane Flanagan has felt a shift in her enthusiasm for running. It’s not that her excitement has waned, but she’s noticed that it’s less invested in her own performances and deposited more in her teammates’ results.
It is one of the primary reasons why Flanagan, 38, announced on Monday that she has retired from professional running and officially moved on to coaching the Bowerman Track Club, the elite athlete empire she helped build in Portland, Oregon.
“I love running so much, but I don’t really want it to be my job anymore,” she said, during a phone interview with Women’s Running on October 15. “From the Rio Olympics on, I was running each race as if it were my last and I think that allowed me to maximize my performances. That mentality served me well, because otherwise I literally never would have had one of my greatest achievements—winning the New York City Marathon.”
Flanagan leaves the sport as one of the most-decorated American track and field athletes in history—and certainly in a generation of women, across a range of distance events. A four-time Olympian, she won the 2008 silver medal in the 10,000 meters. She was a world cross-country individual and team bronze medalist in 2011 and ends her career as the third-fastest American female marathoner in history (2:21:14 at the 2014 Berlin Marathon). She placed in the top three at four World Marathon Majors races, including the 2017 New York City Marathon, when she became the first U.S. woman in 40 years to win.
Her final race was one year ago, at the 2018 New York City Marathon. Waving to the spectators who had come to uproariously support her as the defending champion, Flanagan savored an emotional moment at the finish line—as if she knew it was her last. She placed third in 2:26:22.
But during the training leading up to that race, she chalked up the pain she felt in her knees to age and forged on with the high-mileage weeks that had become the staple of her preparation under Bowerman coach Jerry Schumacher. Ultimately though, in April, Flanagan underwent surgery on her right knee, where 75 percent of the patella tendon had torn off the bone. Now she’s preparing for possible surgery on her left knee later this fall.
“I don’t think I can put myself through the arduous training and I don’t want to take the chance of not being able to run for another 20 years because I’m pushing myself through 130 miles a week,” Flanagan said. “My relationship with running has evolved over the last couple of years and I’m in a really happy place to use my love for the sport in new ways.”
As a girl growing up in Marblehead, Massachusetts, just 16 miles north of Boston, Flanagan had varied interests. She pursued art, soccer, and swimming, before dabbling in running.
When she tried cross country during her sophomore year, she won the state title right off the bat. It was apparent she had inherited the endurance genes of her parents, Steve Flanagan and Cheryl Treworgy—two celebrated distance runners themselves (Treworgy held the marathon world record of 2:49:40 in 1971), who had met at the world cross-country championships in 1976 and became parents to their prodigy in 1981, while living in Boulder, Colorado.
Flanagan went on to compete for the University of North Carolina, where she won the individual NCAA cross-country titles in 2002 and 2003. As a Tarheel, she also met her husband, Steven Edwards, who was a middle-distance standout on the team. When Flanagan graduated in 2004, she knew that professional running was an option, but she envisioned making ends meet by working in a running store and living out of a van, she said.
“I wasn’t sure even in college that I had enough success to earn a contract—I constantly thought I wasn’t good enough,” Flanagan said. “In a way that helped me though, because I never felt entitled to anything and I always felt like I would run regardless if I got paid or not.”
She signed with Nike out of college, when she also made her first Olympic team in the 5,000 meters (she placed 22nd). Flanagan was surprised to discover that she could afford a home without wheels.
“I remember being handed the keys and signing the papers and I cried,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that running would allow me to buy a home at age 24. I have never forgotten that—it blew my mind that someone would pay me enough that I could own a home.”
Flanagan trained mostly on her own under coach John Cook during those early years and as her career grew, she convinced Edwards to leave his full-time job at a sports media firm to help manage the increasing demands of her racing and appearances.
“I’m really appreciative that he stepped up to that—I just felt like I needed that to maximize my running,” Flanagan said. “He has been a huge factor in allowing me to enjoy what I do.”
She ran her first 10,000 meters at the 2008 Payton Jordan meet at Stanford University, setting the then-American record (30:34.39), and went on to win the silver at the Beijing Games, which remains the best U.S. women’s Olympic standing in the event (she was originally awarded bronze, but upgraded in 2017 after Elvan Abeylegesse of Turkey failed a drug test).
It wasn’t long after that success that Flanagan began eyeing new challenges on the roads and saw her future at the 26.2-mile distance. To make that switch, she sought out a new training environment, ending up with Schumacher in Portland in 2009. She became the first and only female athlete under his leadership at the time.
“He says in an affectionate and complimentary way that he only agreed to coach me because he felt like I was kind of like a dude,” Flanagan said, laughing. “I think he meant that I was highly coachable.”
The relationship would span the rest of her career and now they will continue working together, along with coach Pascal Dobert, guiding Bowerman Track Club athletes. But it took some significant adjustment during those early days, she said, recalling their first workout together when she ran eight one-mile intervals on the grass. Schumacher made her start the workout over again three times because she began each mile at an unsustainable pace.
“And I’m like, ‘This guy’s crazy. Just let me run!’ But he said, ‘You need to learn patience. If you want to run the marathon, it’s all about patience and delaying the hurt,’” Flanagan said. “He was trying to teach me control—these skills I did not have until I met him.”
Schumacher had never coached a marathoner before Flanagan, either, but the two perfected the preparation over time, leading to two Olympic teams in 2012 (10th) and 2016 (sixth).
“We have evolved as an athlete and coach, and while my physicality is on the decline, his coaching gets better every single year,” Flanagan said. “We’ve always communicated and collaborated well as we picked out what was important to us—we’re both dorks and geeks in the sense that we just love to sit and talk about planning and schedules.”
Mary Wittenberg, former director of the New York City Marathon, remembers Flanagan’s first crack at 26.2 miles in 2010, when Flanagan placed second to Edna Kiplagat after a duel with Mary Keitany through the final undulating miles in Central Park.
“We were celebrating like she had won because she was so strong and competitive—she ran an extraordinary race. It was the best debut we had ever seen,” Wittenberg said. “In New York, we don’t fool around; it was a really competitive field. She really had to fight with Mary Keitany at the end—and that is brutal. Shalane just took to it.”
Desiree Linden, 2018 Boston Marathon champion and U.S. Olympic teammate of Flanagan in 2012 and 2016, said she saw the marathon glimmer in Flanagan’s eye in 2009, when they road in the lead vehicle together to watch the New York City Marathon—it turned out to be a front-row seat for Meb Keflezighi’s victory.
“You could see her soaking in the event and her sheer joy when Meb won,” Linden said. “I didn’t really know her before that, but I could definitely see her passion for the sport.”
Little did Flanagan know that her brightest day would come at that same finish line, eight years later. She had multiple tests of faith, mixed with many moments of joy and accomplishment ahead of her. One of her often-overlooked, but greatest performances, was at the 2011 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Punta Umbria, Spain, where she took the bronze medal in one of the most competitive fields of her career—and led the U.S. team to third place in the process.
Molly Huddle, 35, who captured the 10,000-meter American record (30:13.17) from Flanagan in 2016, was a member of that cross-country team and considers it one of Flanagan’s biggest achievements.
“For somebody of my generation, who is pretty close to her in age, it was important to see her doing things we didn’t think were possible,” Huddle said. “She’s raced with no fear, which has been a really good model to have. [World cross-country] was the most-humble of award ceremonies and probably the hardest medal she earned. We were just standing in a field and like 10 people were watching.”
Over the years Flanagan never shied away from sharing her goals—even the ones that eluded her, like setting an American record in the marathon or winning her hometown race, the Boston Marathon—where she stood as a child, cheering for her father and dreaming of one day racing to Boylston Street, too.
The Boston victory is the one item on the career checklist that is “a thorn in my side forever,” Flanagan admitted. Her fastest time there was 2:22:02 in 2014, which was good enough for seventh, after Flanagan led the race for the first 19 miles. The result has been upgraded to sixth after winner Rita Jeptoo was banned for taking performance-enhancing drugs. It’s little consolation for Flanagan, who had crafted her training and bold racing strategy based on what she thought would give her the best shot at beating Jeptoo, who ultimately was unbeatable because she was cheating.
“No American has run faster at Boston and normally that time would win, so I’ll always have a hint of regret,” Flanagan said. “If I could write my storybook ending, it would involve a win in Boston, although I’m very happy with how things panned out for me.”
Over time, Flanagan’s goal became elevating the performances of U.S. women in track and field. While she grew up emulating Lynn Jennings, who is the only other American woman to win an Olympic medal in the 10,000 meters (1992, bronze), and Deena Kastor, who won the 2000 Olympic bronze in the marathon, she felt like the bar was set too low for the sport as a whole. Making U.S. teams and sneaking into final rounds was not enough, she thought.
“If you had said at the beginning of my career that I’d win a major marathon and have an Olympic medal and a world cross-country medal, I would have never believed it—because what’s the saying? You can’t be what you can’t see,” Flanagan said. “I have always wanted whatever I am doing to count for something and contribute to moving women’s distance running forward.”
Wittenberg observed the growth of an athlete who “filled the biggest stages” with her athletic prowess, but in the beginning didn’t have the biggest presence in the public eye. That developed as the performances demanded that Flanagan spend more time in front of cameras and among an increasing number of fans. No she can add Super Bowl commercials and television broadcast commentary to her résumé, too.
“Shalane is such a New Englander. She loved the attention as a competitor, but you never saw her take over in the post-race conferences—she’s grown beautifully into it,” Wittenberg said. “And then she had this evolution as this ‘Mama Bear.’ I think Shalane is responsible for more women making Olympic teams than any other athlete and maybe any other coach, too.”
Gradually, Flanagan and Schumacher began inviting more woman to train with them at what eventually became known as the Bowerman Track Club, taking the team concept to extremes at times. Among her first female training partners was Lisa Uhl, who Flanagan helped in the 10,000 meters at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, when Uhl’s shoe came untied. Flanagan moved to the front of the pack to slow the pace down while Uhl tied her shoe, made her way back to the lead group, and made the Olympic team, thanks to the teamwork.
“I remember thinking in that moment that Shalane had it right. She was an individual fierce fighter who was becoming somebody who was going to fight for others, too,” Wittenberg said. “She’s not shy to own her ambition or competitiveness and through that she also has a unique ability to lift other people. Now that’s her hallmark.”
The same year, Kara Goucher had trained with Flanagan for the marathon trials and came in nervous that an injury had prevented her from getting fit enough to contend. She too, made the Olympic team, and gave credit to Flanagan for the help and friendship—their partnership continued through the London Games.
During that time, Emily Infeld also joined the enclave. Flanagan has been there for every step (and misstep) of her career, including the first years when Infeld was plagued with serious injuries and contemplating whether she was cut out for professional running. Flanagan sat down over a glass of wine and listened.
“I was devastated and just at a loss and didn’t understand why my body wasn’t cooperating,” Infeld said. “She was so kind. We didn’t know each other that well at that point, but she said, ‘I really think you can do incredible things.’ I was so lost at that time, but she talked me out of the dark hole I was in. She’s not a bullshitter, so her belief in me carried so much weight. If I hadn’t had her to talk to her in that moment, I don’t think I would have continued in the sport.”
At the 2017 New York City Marathon, Schumacher recalled a distinct moment he knew that the Bowerman group would expand to include more women. Flanagan and Infeld were running individual workouts on their own when a group of 10 male teammates took to the track to grind through a speed workout together.
“Emily and Shalane looked at me like, ‘Really?’” Schumacher said.
By 2016, the “Bowerman Babes,” as they’re now known, had grown to a group of seven who each made it to the Rio Games, making it the most successful U.S. women’s training group to date.
“I’ll affectionately blame that on Shalane,” Schumacher said, later adding, “We finally got the pieces together where we felt like it was the right group of athletes…they’re driven, motivated, they want to do big things in the sport and that’s an easy group to work with when they’re like that.”
In a full-circle moment at the 2016 Olympic Trials, it was Amy Cragg, who had joined the BTC earlier in the year, who encouraged Flanagan through the final miles as Flanagan was experiencing heat-related illness. Cragg went on to win and Flanagan finished third to make her fourth and final Games.
Without the women like Cragg around her, Flanagan believes her pro career would have ended years ago.
“It can be a very lonely pursuit if you don’t have that support system and I’ve just been able to enjoy it a lot more with them around,” Flanagan said.
And it’s because of the BTC that she found her next calling in coaching, which will allow her to continue her pioneering ways in the sport. Few women coach at the Olympic level—she will be among the first. Flanagan remembers how she landed on the idea—it was at the 2015 world championships, when Infeld won the bronze in the 10,000 meters. Flanagan had also competed and placed sixth.
“It actually made me realize I really wanted to get into coaching—after helping Emily overcome her injuries and her doubts, then having her big moment achieving a world championship medal,” Flanagan said. “That night in Beijing, it felt like I had won a medal. She did it, but it felt exactly the same to me as if I had achieved it. That was a turning point for me.”
Infeld still reflects on the race—and Flanagan’s belief in her abilities—with awe.
“She was so proud of me and that meant the world to me,” Infeld said. “She had always been a mentor to me and to be able to share that moment with her was so cool.”
Along with the support of her family and coaches, Flanagan also gives credit to Elyse Kopecky for helping extend her running career, evaluating Flanagan’s nutrition and giving her new ideas to nourish her heavy training. The duo teamed up to create the Run Fast, Eat Slow cookbook franchise, which has landed them on the New York Times bestsellers list twice.
“It’s been satisfying to set good examples of how to eat as athletes,” Flanagan said. “I think that kept me in the sport longer, too. I wanted to perform well to showcase that Elyse had really given me a gift in learning how to cook and feed myself well.”
Huddle said that Flanagan’s attention to that kind of detail is part of the legacy she leaves the sport.
“It was always eye-opening to get a glimpse into her work ethic,” she said. “It showed me what I need to do to get to the next level. It’s your profession and you really have to put more than a couple hours a day into it. There won’t be many people repeating what she’s done—she’ll be legend status.”
Linden will remember a competitor who was as fierce as she was friendly—the culmination of which was the 2018 Boston Marathon, when Linden wasn’t feeling well during the first half and offered to pace Flanagan back to the pack after an unexpected stop in the porta-potty. Linden, of course, rebounded and went on to become the first U.S. woman Boston to win in 33 years.
“It didn’t matter the race, it didn’t matter the conditions, it didn’t matter who lined up against her—she just had this belief that she belonged and that she could win,” Linden said. “She carried other people along to have that belief in themselves—even people like me who aren’t necessarily her teammate but bought into her enthusiasm and found a little bit more in themselves because of what she tapped into.”
When Flanagan ran the final stretch of the 2017 New York City Marathon, she famously let the “F*ck yes!” fly from her elated heart, it was the final feel-good moment she had wished for before calling it a career. It was everything she dreamed of for herself, her team, and her family. And it almost didn’t happen.
“I had been feeling depleted and deflated, just coming off an injury and not feeling optimistic about the sport because of doping—it was kind of getting me down and I was ready to just tap out,” Flanagan said. “It was so exceptionally gratifying to win for so many reasons—it was an accumulation of a lifetime of work for that one moment.”
Her next mission is to help other talented women realize those moments can be theirs, too. As the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials loom in February and the track and field trials approach in June, Flanagan is relishing a new role in helping athletes like Courtney Frerichs and Colleen Quigley in the steeplechase, Shelby Houlihan in the 1500 meters, and Karissa Schweizer in the 5,000 meters, reach their potential.
“For 15 years I’ve only known one thing and that is waking up and running—it’s been the only foregone conclusion every single day,” Flanagan said. “But how lucky am I that I got to do this amazing job for 15 years and now I get to move on to a different passion? It feels good.”
Flanagan may be gone from the starting lines, but her influence will no doubt remain strong throughout the running community. Wittenberg is sure that Flanagan’s big moments and barrier breaking are far from over.
“I think she’ll be the greatest American coach we’ve ever seen,” Wittenberg said. “Why wouldn’t I think that? The sport needs people like Shalane—and she’s had a hell of a career.”
And in many ways, it seems, she’s just getting started.