NEW YORK – Soaring through Central Park on an overcast Sunday morning, American Shalane Flanagan didn’t glance over her shoulder once as she made her way towards the New York City Marathon finish line.
And she didn’t need to.
Thirty-six years old and competing in what could be her final marathon, the Marblehead, Massachusetts, native shocked the running world with an emphatic triumph, besting second-place finisher and three-time defending champion Mary Keitany by over a minute.
“Oh my god!” she yelled as she broke the first-place tape. “Oh my god, we did it.”
It had been 40 years since an American woman had won in New York and eight since Meb Keflezighi did so on the men’s side. Flanagan, racing in her first marathon in over a year, was an unexpected victor and led a pack of six U.S. women to finish inside the top 10.
“I’ve dreamed of a moment like this since I was a little girl and it means a lot to me and my family,” Flanagan told reporters after her win, pausing to brush away tears. “It took me seven years to do this. In those final miles I was thinking of those people who have put me in this position. It was a pretty flawless race for me.”
The last year had been anything but flawless for Flanagan, who had finished sixth in the marathon at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, the last 26.2-miler she competed. She was forced to withdraw from her home race at the Boston Marathon earlier this year due to a fractured bone in her lower back, writing in February, “I have shed a lot of tears this past week… I'm heartbroken,” upon announcing her withdrawal.
What that period of inactivity turned out to be was a blessing in disguise. Flanagan went some 10 weeks without training. It allowed her body to recover from what has been a non-stop career.
“My preparation was different in that I haven’t run a marathon in over a year,” she said. “It was a shorter build up and fewer actual workouts, but it allowed me to throw myself into those bigger miles. It allowed me to feel really good.”
Not a career marathoner, Flanagan won the bronze medal in the 10,000-meter at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which was upgraded to silver in March of this year. She also holds the indoor 3,000- and 5,000-meter U.S. records, and is a two-time NCAA cross-country champion for the University of North Carolina.
But after finishing second at the 2010 New York marathon, Flanagan was 10th in London at the Olympic Games in 2012 and then closer to the podium last year in Rio, her fourth appearance at the Games. Then came her injury earlier this year, suffered during a snowy training session in Portland, Oregon, where she now lives.
“I was heartbroken about not getting the chance to race Boston… it hurt quite a bit,” Flanagan said Sunday. “But I told myself that there was going to be delayed gratification to make up for it. … This is the best performance of my life.”
Flanagan was part of the lead pack from the get-go on Sunday morning, keeping stride with Keitany, as well as Mamitu Daska, the eventual bronze medalist.
She made her move after the 23-mile mark, however, breaking from the pack and building a 14-second lead by mile 24. Keitany, unbreakable in this race the last three years, looked weathered, and by the time Flanagan was headed into her last mile she had a nearly half-minute lead.
From there, with the American fans in Central Park bringing her home, Flanagan quite literally sprinted to the finish. Her final two one-mile split times: 4:52 and 5:12. And over-the-shoulder glances in that same period? Zero.
“It’s never over until you cross that finish line,” Flanagan said when asked about her resolve to not check the status of the race behind her.
She had history ahead of her, instead. That 40-year winless streak snapped for the U.S. women in New York (Miki Gorman won it in 1977), while Flanagan is also the first American woman to win any of the major marathons since 2006, when Deena Kastor was victorious in London.
On the 40-year streak, Flanagan said: “It’s too long. It’s way too long. I knew that it was possible. I believe in amazing things. This is going to feel good for a really long time.”
Flanagan also hopes it serves as a motivator for a new generation of American girls coming up. The U.S. women had six top-10 finishers, with Daska in third, Allie Kieffner registering a personal best by nearly 30 minutes for fifth, followed by Kellyn Taylor in eighth, Diane Nukuri in ninth and Stephanie Bruce in 10th.
Flanagan clocked a final time of 2:26:53 and is the sixth American woman to win the race in New York history.
With much of the racing world focusing on Keflezighi’s final competitive race on Sunday, Flanagan chose the 42-year-old legend’s story to motivate her in her final strides, as well.
“Today I thought, ‘Be like Meb as much as you can,’” she said. “He’s the person you want your kids to emulate and I want to emulate Meb. I was trying to keep it together those final few miles.”
Keflezighi himself was overjoyed for Flanagan.
“I heard that she had won (when I was) at mile 24 and I think I did a jump, both hands in the air,” he said, smiling. “I couldn’t be happier for Shalane. She deserves this. We’ve been texting a lot.”
Before running in New York, Flanagan had told Sports Illustrated two weeks ago that she was “mentally acting” as if this was her “last” marathon. Asked Sunday after her win if that was still the case, she replied: “I think I’ll sit with my coaches and we’ll have some decisions to make tonight.”
Whatever she decides, this day belonged to Flanagan. And served as a reminder that hard work does pay off. Sometimes later rather than sooner.
The traditional winner’s olive wreath crowned squarely on her head, Flanagan went from tears to smiles to laughter in her post-win press.
Was she planning to remove the wreath anytime soon?
“I’m going to wear this all day,” she beamed. “It’s the only appropriate time to do so."