Time is now to push herself
Flanagan will debut in marathon in NY
By now, Shalane Flanagan has checked off every other box on her road, track, and trail To-Do List: the 1,500, 3,000, 5,000, and 10,000 meters, the half-marathon, cross-country. Only one remains undone: the 26-miler.
“It’s the ultimate challenge for the distance runner,’’ says the Marblehead native, who already has a collection of medals and records from shorter events.
So Flanagan has decided to make her debut where most top American marathoners have, in the Big Apple, signing up to take on US record-holder Deena Kastor and what is expected to be a top international field at the New York City Marathon Nov. 7.
Though the five-borough race from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Central Park offers a demanding layout, Kastor, Meb Keflezighi, and Kara Goucher all ran promising first marathons in New York.
“Our history with debuts is strong,’’ says race director Mary Wittenberg. “It’s a good place for significant athletes. They can throw the pressure of time out the window and just race. Shalane is a racer.’’
Flanagan, who will turn 29 next month, has a history of submitting spectacular efforts when she moves up in distance. In her first try at the 10,000 two years ago, she broke Kastor’s domestic mark by nearly 16 seconds in 30:34.49, then went on to win the Olympic bronze medal in Beijing. In her inaugural half-marathon in January in Houston, Flanagan broke Colleen De Reuck’s course record by a minute and 14 seconds.
“You talk about a tremendous competitor,’’ says Jerry Schumacher, Flanagan’s coach. “When she tackles something, it’s head-on to be the best. That’s Shalane for you.’’
The obvious next step was the marathon, and the natural place for a North Shore denizen figured to be Boston in April.
“I’m from Boston and it’s a dream of mine,’’ says Flanagan, who was a legendary competitor at Marblehead High School before becoming a 15-time All-American in cross-country and track at North Carolina and competing on two Olympic teams. “But it clearly just wasn’t the right timing for me.’’
By running in New York this fall, Flanagan can compete on the track during the spring and summer, have enough recovery time to return to the track next year and make a bid for the US team for the summer world outdoor championships in South Korea, then build up her road base for the Olympic marathon trials in Houston in January 2012.
“There comes a time when you have to get your feet wet with the event,’’ says Schumacher. “To wait too long would not be very smart. You blink and the Olympic year is on top of you.’’
New York has been a dependable springboard for top track runners looking to evolve into marathoners. Two years after he made his first 26-mile bid there in 2002, Keflezighi won the Olympic silver medal in Athens. Last year, he became the first US male to win in New York since Alberto Salazar in 1982.
Kastor, the Waltham native who finished seventh in New York in her 2001 debut, went on to claim the Athens bronze, then set the American record (2:19:36) while winning in London in 2006. Goucher, who’d won the world bronze in the 10,000 in 2007, finished third in New York in 2008 in the fastest debut time (2:25:53) by a US woman, and placed third again in Boston five months later.
“Seeing Deena and Kara make a really smooth transition, I believe that I have the same potential they do,’’ says Flanagan, who holds US records in the 3,000 (8:33.25), 5,000 (14:44.80), and 10,000 (30:22.22) and has won US titles in cross-country and the half-marathon this year.
Making the track podium in Beijing essentially gave her the green light to sample much longer distances on the road.
“Sometimes I think the medal is a burden, but it has set me free,’’ says Flanagan, who was the first American to win an Olympic medal at the distance since Lynn Jennings in 1992. “It was a major goal of mine and I have accomplished that. I would love to win another Olympic medal, but more than anything, I would love to win a major marathon.’’
No American woman has won New York since Miki Gorman in 1977, when nine domestic runners finished in the top 10, but Flanagan is downplaying her chances of taking Manhattan in her first run-through.
“There are so many miles in front of me,’’ she says. “I just really want to test myself, to find out what I’m capable of. Winning won’t enter my mind until the last couple of steps. I’ve been daydreaming about what it would be like, and I can’t say I haven’t thought of that just a hair.’’
For a woman who has run a race only half as long — and that only once — the prospect of going 26 miles against a seasoned field is sobering.
“I’m excited, but I’m scared of the marathon,’’ confesses Flanagan, who’ll end her outdoor track season next month to start preparing for New York and plans to increase her training workload to as many as 120 miles a week by late August. “It’s very daunting. There’s an unknown element I can’t practice for.’’
The quality of the New York field, which in past years has included the likes of world record-holder Paula Radcliffe, Catherine Ndereba, Jelena Prokopcuka, and Derartu Tulu, is likely to be exceptional.
“It’s going to be deep and it’s going to be formidable,’’ predicts Wittenberg. “The field will be so strong that the pressure will not be on Shalane.’’
Nor will there be pressure to post a fast time, since New York’s topography makes that difficult for a newcomer.
“It’s a championship-style course, challenging and gritty,’’ says Flanagan, who checked it out in a car last year. “Just throwing out the clock and listening to my body will take out an element that shouldn’t matter for my first marathon.’’
So her plan is to do what she always has done when she finds herself in fast company at an unfamiliar distance. Just race.
“I envision myself being surrounded by at least 10 or 12 women all the way,’’ Flanagan says. “Hopefully, I’m not dropped early. I’m going to stick to the leaders like glue. It’s going to be great to be a rookie along for the ride.’’
If the ride is smooth, she may well lock in on the marathon for the London Games in 2012. If not, Flanagan can return to the track with a strong chance of making her third Olympic team.
“Deena ran her 10,000 record after her first marathon,’’ Wittenberg points out.
But no matter how she fares in New York, Flanagan plans on eventually turning up at the starting line in Hopkinton.
“I would love to run it before 2012, but realistically I don’t want to over-marathon myself before the Olympics,’’ she says. “After the Olympics would be the best time. One of my No. 1 priorities is Boston. Top of the list.’’
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.