It’s official: Shalane Flanagan will return to New York City this November to defend her marathon title. The announcement came last week via a New York Times article by Lindsay Crouse, in which Flanagan put her affection for the world’s largest marathon in terms that would make Nicholas Sparks go weak in the knees. “When I think about running New York, I get a feeling of ecstasy; my stomach turns,” Flanagan told the Times. “It’s like if you’re dating someone and it goes well and you want more.”
From a fitness perspective, Flanagan’s announcement shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Not only is she the reigning NYC Marathon champion, but, just last month, Flanagan helped pace her Bowerman Track Club teammate Shelby Houlihan to a new American record in the 5,000-meters. Clearly, the 37-year-old matriarch of American distance running has still got it.
Nevertheless, racing another New York City Marathon isn’t an obvious choice at this stage in her career. As Crouse notes in her article, Flanagan doesn’t have anything left to prove as an athlete, and has a coaching job waiting for her at Nike when she decides to retire. The company also already named an executive parking spot at its headquarters after her. (That’s more than most of us can claim, but when you consider that Michael Johnson got a 400-meter track and statue, Flanagan surely deserves something a little more prestigious than a few square feet of cement.) Furthermore, unless she sets a new course record in November, or pulls off an improbable come-from-behind victory, it will be nearly impossible for Flanagan to top last year’s performance, in which she became the first American woman to win NYC in 40 years. It would have been the perfect swan song, as Flanagan herself has acknowledged.
“I can think of no better way to end a career and my story, than with a major win,” Flanagan said before last year’s race.
So why try to do it again?
There might be some financial incentive. While Flanagan took home $125,000 in prize money for winning last year’s NYC marathon ($100,000 for being the first overall finisher and $25,000 for being the first American), it’s near certain that she would have received ample appearance money in addition to the official race purse. Appearance fees are notoriously hush-hush in the elite road-racing world, but it’s possible that the New York Road Runners offered Flanagan more than her winnings from last year just to show up in 2018. Flanagan is probably the most prominent American marathoner at the moment—how many other runners can you name who have appeared in a Super Bowl beer commercial?—and there have been reports in the past of star runners receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in appearance fees. For example, a 2010 Times article (which mentions how adamantly Mary Wittenberg, the erstwhile NYC Marathon race director, wooed Flanagan to make her marathon debut in New York that year) cites “several agents” who claimed that “a small cadre of superstars” could receive $400,000.
For a distance runner on the verge of retirement, anything in that neighborhood is a pretty sweet plum.
Which isn’t to suggest that money is the reason Flanagan will try to defend her title in New York. She is, after all, one of the most competitive athletes that this sport has ever seen. Take your pick: Two-time NCAA cross-country champ. Four-time Olympian. Olympic silver medalist. Former American-record holder in two separate events (5,000 and 10,000-meters). The list goes on.
And yet, two recent races that didn’t quite go her way are perhaps just as exemplary of Flanagan’s limitless drive. She was clearly disappointed with her Boston Marathon showing in April. It’s the race that she’s wanted to win more than any other, but on Patriots Day, frigid, wet weather laid waste to the elite fields and resulted in 19 professional DNFs. But despite entering a state of near delirium, Flanagan never dropped out, and finished a respectable seventh. Conditions-wise, Boston 2018 was the exact opposite of the 2016 Olympic Trials Marathon, which went down as the hottest iteration of the race to date. That day in Los Angeles, Flanagan also struggled, this time with dehydration so severe that during the last few miles of the race she was unable to see straight. Flanagan willed herself to the finish, holding on to the third and final spot on the U.S. Olympic team. She collapsed immediately after crossing the line and was subsequently administered an IV.
Anyone wondering how Flanagan can still be motivated to once again put in the absurd amount of training required for NYC needs only to watch the last few miles of that Trials Marathon. This is an athlete who will never quit—until it's on her terms.