On Monday morning, Shalane Flanagan, a towering presence on the American running scene for almost two decades, announced her retirement on Instagram.
“From 2004 to 2019 I’ve given everything that’s within me to this sport and wow it’s been an incredible ride!” Flanagan wrote. “I’ve broken bones, torn tendons, and lost too many toenails to count. I've experienced otherworldly highs and abysmal lows. I've loved (and learned from) it all.”
Flanagan’s last race was the 2018 New York City Marathon, in which she finished third. The year before, she upset Kenyan superstar Mary Keitany to become the first American woman to win New York in 40 years.
In the wake of last year’s race, there were rumors that Flanagan’s retirement was imminent. She was 37 years old at the time, and had nothing left to prove. What’s more, this past spring, she had reconstructive knee surgery—a late-career comeback seemed unlikely. However, in a further display of the professional discipline that defined her career, Flanagan didn’t want to retire while she was injured. Making such a consequential decision while physically impaired didn’t sit right with her. So, characteristically, the official announcement didn’t come until she had started running again.
Even though she wasn’t able to compete this year, Flanagan has still been active in the wider running community. She was a commentator for the CBS broadcast of the 2019 Boston Marathon, as well as for the Ineos 1:59 Challenge earlier this month, in which Eliud Kipchoge became the first man to run 26.2 miles in under two hours.
Flanagan has also been a conspicuous trackside presence at her team’s workouts, bolstering her reputation as a runner deeply invested in advising the next generation of athletes. Since 2009, Flanagan has competed for the Bowerman Track Club, arguably the best distance running team in the nation. Initially, she was the only woman on the BTC, but the roster now includes world championship medal winners like Emily Infield (10,000-meters) and Amy Cragg (marathon), as well as American record holders Courtney Frerichs (steeplechase) and Shelby Houlihan (5,000, 1,500).
This proliferation of talent has been attributed to Flanagan’s influence. Despite being hyper-competitive and deeply invested in her own success, Flanagan embodied a teamwork ethos that seemed vaguely at odds with such an individualistic sport. And yet, it brought results—both for Flanagan and her fellow Bowerman runners.
“She’s helped me so much in the past four months. I’ve kind of just been hanging on to her,” Cragg said of her BTC teammate after winning the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials by working with Flanagan for much of the race.
Therefore it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that, on the day that she announced her retirement as an athlete, Flanagan also gave official notice that she will now be beginning a career as a professional coach for the BTC. In a sport where the dearth of high-profile female coaches has long been conspicuous, Flanagan seems well positioned to pave the way for others in the same way that she did as a runner.
Very few, if any, coaches have had a running career as distinguished as Flanagan’s. Two individual NCAA cross-country titles. American records over 5,000 and 10,000-meters. An Olympic silver medal. Four podium finishes in World Marathon Majors, including her victory in New York in 2017. Too many national titles to count.
Beyond such benchmarks, Flanagan set the standard for toughness in a runner, as demonstrated most memorably in that 2016 Trials race. Despite starting out strong and working with Cragg to ditch the rest of the field, Flanagan became severely dehydrated in the second half of the race and looked to be struggling with heat exhaustion. Nonetheless, she hung on for third place, securing the final spot on the Olympic team.
“Each season, each race was hard, so hard,” Flanagan wrote in her retirement announcement. “But this I know to be true: hard things are wonderful, beautiful, and give meaning to life.”