Japan has one of the most extraordinary running cultures on the planet, unlike anything I’ve ever come across. Thousands of professional runners compete for corporate teams in some of the most competitive races in the world. The 135-mile Ekiden Relay Race is the nation’s premier sporting event. The legendary ‘Marathon Monks’ run a thousand marathons in a thousand days in their quest for spiritual enlightenment.
The 2017 marathon season is now officially over. In the past three months we’ve seen runners in Berlin, Chicago, and New York post some very fast times, getting ever closer to the magic 2:00 threshold. It won’t be long before a runner breaks 2:00, but it didn’t happen in 2017. In my opinion, this year’s most remarkable marathon story happened last Sunday in New York.
Happy endings are especially hard to come by for elite marathoners, who generally have just two chances to compete each year in the narrow window between their mid-20s and mid-30s… and that’s if they stay healthy. It’s been eight years since an American broke the tape at the New York City Marathon (the last American to win the race was Meb Keflezighi, in 2009). And it’s been even longer — four decades, to be exact — since an American woman came in first in the NYC Marathon. But Olympic medalist Shalane Flanagan did just that last Sunday, at age 36!
Earlier this year, Ms. Flanagan’s Beijing 2008 bronze medal in the 10,000-meter event was upgraded to silver after the runner who finished ahead of her was disqualified for doping. The World Marathon Majors, which include both New York City and Boston, have now implemented an extra measure of drug testing and an aggressive new course of action to seek the repayment of illegally acquired prize money. Rio 2016 marathon winner Jemima Sumgong tested positive for EPO last spring. Kenyan Rita Jeptoo still holds the 2013 Boston Marathon title but was stripped of her 2014 championship after a doping violation.
The sport’s new drug deterrence policies were of little relevance to the impeccable Ms. Flanagan who once again ran fueled by the lifelong conviction that she had one big, perfect race inside of her. “My coaches told me that it was possible — the training I put in was the best I’ve ever put in,” said Flanagan who had been preparing as if this would be her final race. Ramping up for New York, she had not run a marathon for more than a year. She altered her traditional training routine, opting for a shorter buildup period and taking more rest between her longest runs.
She intended to go out under her own power and run bravely, ‘right at’ her most formidable opponent, Mary Keitany of Kenya. Keitany, 35, would be seeking to cap a banner year, in which she won the London Marathon with a blistering time of 2:17:01. Keitany had also won the previous three marathons in New York decisively.
Shalane had also adopted a mental strategy: Stay patient. Keitany might decide to front run early. If so, let her go ahead and try. But when she didn’t, Flanagan could sense her opportunity. Nine hopeful runners stayed in contact until the last few miles when three contenders, Flanagan, Keitany and Ethiopian Mamitu Daska pulled away. Then, inexplicably, Keitany suddenly sagged behind and drifted to the east side of 5th Ave before veering back on course.
A good race often comes down to a series of surges and Shalane must have known it was ‘go time.’ Without showing any extra effort, she calmly quickened her leg rate and entered the Engineers’ Gate into Central Park with a commanding lead. A simple mantra filled her mind: “Keep it together, just keep it together.” She finished in 2 hours, 26 minutes, 53 seconds, about a minute faster than the vulnerable Keitany, who could never catch up. Daska finished a close third.
“That’s for Meb,” she exclaimed, in honor of the inspiring performance by her friend Meb Keflezighi, the American male winner of the first Boston Marathon after the bombing in 2013. The Keflezighi (who finished in 11th place in the 2017 NYC Marathon) had been texting and emailing words of encouragement for Flanagan throughout the spring and summer. “I just couldn’t be happier for her,” he said. “She deserves one of these, whether it’s here or at Boston, and I’m so delighted for her.”
As she neared the finish line, Shalane let it all hang out, expressing the heartfelt emotion of her historic victory. She wept openly, gestured triumphantly and shouted with joy (with a few choice words thrown in!). The love and affection shown by friends and family rejoicing in her wonderful accomplishment had a quieting effect on all those present at the finish line.
“That’s for Meb,” she exclaimed, in honor of the inspiring performance by her friend Meb Keflezighi, the American male winner of the first Boston Marathon after the bombing in 2013. The 11th place Keflezighi had been texting and emailing words of encouragement for Flanagan throughout the spring and summer. “I just couldn’t be happier for her,” he said. “She deserves one of these, whether it’s here or at Boston, and I’m so delighted for her.”
“It took me seven years to do this… a lot of work went into this one moment. Hopefully, this will inspire the next generation of American women to just stay patient,” Flanagan told reporters Sunday. “Forty Years was way too long. These are the moments we dream of as athletes. This is going to feel good for a really long time.”
“Shalane Flanagan cut such a familiar figure Sunday, running toward the cameras in Central Park at the New York City Marathon, that it seemed odd she hadn’t been seen on a marathon course since the 2016 Rio Olympics. With her upright carriage, high cheekbones flushed with exertion, chin tucked, blond ponytail switching back and forth like a metronome, she has been a fixture in big international distance races for 10 years now: always in contention, never quite able to close the last gap. Now she was the one who was accelerating beyond reach.”- WBUR.org