T&FN Interview — Shalane Flanagan

The long and storied running career of Shalane Flanagan wrapped up with a 3rd in the ’18 NYC Marathon. (MIKE SCOTT)

SCORE A WIN-WIN for the sport any time a great athlete doffs the spikes and racing flats after a long, tough-as-nails run but keeps her hand in. That’s exactly what Shalane Flanagan, Olympic 10,000 silver medalist turned marathon star — the premier U.S. 26-miler of the Teens Decade — has done since announcing her competition retirement in the fall of ’19.

While Flanagan and husband Steven Edwards welcomed new baby Jack into their home via adoption at the end of April ’20 — perhaps life’s greatest role change — the 12-time No. 1 U.S. Ranker across the 3000–marathon range also took up a new post as a coach on Jerry Schumacher’s Bowerman TC staff alongside fellow assistant and former elite steeplechaser Pascal Dobert. (Continued below)

Flanagan, now 39, attests in the conversation that follows that C19 year 2020 threw up enormous challenges for a first-year coach as it did for anybody working any job, but the pre-Olympic season that was supposed to be an Olympic campaign brought her a rewarding professional transition.

No fan can forget Flanagan’s stirring and nationally televised stretch drive through Central Park to win the ’17 New York City Marathon. Thereafter she picked herself up for two more buildups toward the storm-battered ’18 Boston race, in which she placed a physically bedraggled and hypothermic 6th, followed by her not-bowing-out-on-a-downbeat NYC swan song race, a 3rd-place showing in the Big Apple’s autumn spectacular the next fall. ’19 was given over to bilateral knee reconstruction and a year after that last race, Flanagan made her retirement official.

As you follow expected Bowerman TC magic at the Olympic Trials and Games that’ll be here before we know it, rest assured that squad has one more eminently qualified set of hands on board to guide and support their efforts.

Flanagan shared thoughts on all of this by phone from her Portland area home on a late-March afternoon after putting infant Jack down for a nap.

We started on the new-parenthood topic. The new mom & dad had put in some “training” for the event fostering a pair of teen sisters in ’16 and ’17. “Now they’re in the process of getting degrees,” Flanagan says, “and we’ll see what that looks like in the next couple of years for them. We’re super proud of them.” From there the conversation moved on to coaching and career reflection.

T&FN: Thank you for doing this. I know moments to spare for a chat can be scarce for new parents. That’s an awesome life change. You’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of parenthood and Jack’s first birthday, yes?

Flanagan: Yeah, that’s right. We’re pretty excited. We’ve kept him alive and he seems to be happy and thriving.

T&FN: Excellent. That’s the goal, right? I guess welcoming a baby must have been a super satisfying way to shift gears and start a new life chapter Timing threw your family right into it there, in a very positive way, though, I guess.

Flanagan: Yeah, the process of adoption is lengthy, however, so we’ve known for a long time that my husband and I wanted to adopt. But obviously we also kind of wanted to make sure that we were adopting when my career was over. So thankfully, I retired and Jack soon thereafter entered our life, and I am so grateful to have him in our life. Especially [with his arrival happening] last year, which was such a tough year. It was honestly such a blessing to have him during a pandemic. We spent so much time bonding as a family in the last year and it made the life transition away from athletics, my own personal athletics, to the next chapter of my life so much easier. It’s so much better because he was part of it for sure.

T&FN: I’d kind of guessed that might be the case. You officially announced your retirement in the fall of 2019 although clearly you had been contemplating it for some time. You cranked out two great marathons there at the end. Was the adoption in process already then?

Flanagan: Just gathering all the paperwork and the coursework that’s required and background checks takes a very long time, especially just because of the nature of the work I was doing.

When I was home my husband and I would work on chunks of the adoption process. And then I’d take off to go train at altitude for a few months, and then not a lot of progress was made. So it was probably a lot longer process than it could have been because I also was unsure of when I was going to retire. But it should be a difficult process. It shouldn’t be easy to adopt, to be honest. Not everyone should probably adopt, but it’s so rewarding. So 2019, I officially retired. I believe everything was handed in basically that fall. We handed in our paperwork and then in January of 2020, we were notified that we were matched with Jack’s birth mom. And then he was obviously born at the end of April. So once we submitted our paperwork and everything, it actually moved fairly quickly.

In Beijing Flanagan celebrated a bronze-medal finish that subsequently turned to silver. (MARK SHEARMAN)

But yeah, to me it seemed forever. I think it’s like I had been yearning to be a mother for so long that it felt like forever. But when I think about the timeline in terms of when we actually handed in all the paperwork and our profile was out in the world to adopt possible birth moms, then it actually did move fairly quickly.

T&FN: I sort of guessed Jack’s arrival early in the pandemic might have been a welcome chance to focus on something positive. Was there also some anxiety with doctor visits and all that stuff in the beginning?

Flanagan: Our main concern was for the birth mom. She handled it like a champ. She just had this really nice calmness about her, but I think that we were more concerned about her health and Jack’s health. So as we were entering into the pandemic, yeah, it was kind of unknown. We had met her for a few visits in a traditional doctor’s office, and then quickly thereafter we weren’t allowed to go to the doctor’s appointments. And then she actually had to switch to a birthing center and not a traditional hospital because the hospital restrictions were really complicated and she felt like it was just not going to be a good situation to give birth there. So we had to completely switch the birthing plan. A lot evolved and happened.

But thankfully she’s very young, she’s only 19, so just really strong and healthy. And she had a very smooth birth process. But that being said, I was the only one allowed to go in and meet Jack and his birth mom at birth. Steven had to wait out in the parking lot to meet Jack because there were restrictions concerning how many people were allowed in the birthing center.

So I got to meet Jack in the birthing center within like two hours of his birth. And then Steven met him shortly thereafter, but it was outside in the parking lot. We literally got a phone call that morning from the birth mom and her mom, and I talked to our birth mom between contractions and she literally within 30 minutes gave birth to Jack. And then we were over at the birthing center a few hours later, once everything was good. Then we took him home and I think he was in our home at like 3:00pm. It blew my mind.

But yes, there definitely were concerns around COVID just ’cause we just didn’t know much about this virus.

T&FN: Understandable, for sure. I’d like to ask about your transition to coaching and what that’s been like. It’s obviously been an atypical year and I can’t imagine how much that would have affected the normal dynamics of the Bowerman TC. Have you had any adjustment issues on race days since you personally no longer get to let it all out on the track?

Flanagan: I had been mentally preparing myself for retirement. And as you had alluded, I kind of had shared the fact that I felt like each race was probably going to be my last and that’s how I went into each race so I could maximize myself and just throw myself into the training and into the race and really ultra-focus on the task at hand and kind of savoring each moment.

So even though I was really excited about the next chapter, transitions, regardless, are still uncomfortable and can be hard even if you do have something to look forward to. I knew Nike was excited about me coaching and Jerry [Schumacher] and Pascal [Dobert] and the team were all very much supportive of the idea of me helping out and being a coach. However, when it did come time to transition into that, it still was uncomfortable just switching roles and kind of knowing exactly where I fit within the team.

I knew my role and how to operate on a daily basis as an athlete and it was very clear cut. However, when I transitioned to a coach, I think I was very unsure about what my assets were and where I contributed and trying to navigate what exactly I should be doing. So even though it seems really intuitive, it can kind of feel like a little bit of an imposter syndrome. At least that’s what I felt like.

Like people would call me “Coach” and I’d look around for Jerry or Pascal, not assuming it was me. So even though I was really excited by the idea and the potential, it just still felt a little weird at first not being the athlete.

I really think the pandemic made it a little bit harder, to be honest, because we were so restricted in seeing athletes and working with our athletes. So I felt very under-stimulated in terms of work. I think a lot of people miss their jobs and certain aspects, and I thrive off of being around the athletes. And so not to have our big practices with 20-plus athletes, interacting with them and getting feedback; that’s my favorite part.

I love the daily grind with them and the training aspect even more so than the racing. If I had to pick one or the other, I like going to training camps and I love watching them work hard — even more so than the glamorous Olympics and World Championships. Those are great to be there and fun. So that being said, it was a tough year. I think for everyone obviously, but yeah, I wasn’t able to experience what a true coach would get to do. So I think I definitely struggled more than I anticipated because I couldn’t do my job like I was envisioning and planning for. It was this strange year to be starting a new job because I didn’t really get to do it, to be honest.

T&FN: I want to ask you more about your coaching role. First, I’m curious about the end of your running career. You ran New York, obviously, in 2018 and you finished 3rd after winning the previous year. You didn’t officially announce your retirement until the fall of 2019. Remind us what was happening during that time.

Flanagan: So I won New York and then the thought of trying to obviously turn around and run really well in Boston and even potentially win was on my mind. That’s what kind of kept me going. You know, “Win in Boston, wouldn’t that be magical and incredible?” I felt actually at the top of my fitness and capabilities in marathoning. It’s like it had culminated in New York. And I finally actually felt like I was a really good, strong marathoner. And so I got greedy and I said, “OK, now let’s turn around and run Boston and I’ll just take one marathon at a time.”

So 2018 Boston, as we know, was horrific weather and unpredictable, you know, in terms of just being able to execute my race. I mean, hypothermia took over and I was just lucky to finish. That’s by far the hardest race I’ve ever run. I wouldn’t even call it racing, I would call it surviving.

Then that was kind of deflating after New York. You know, win on a high and then to go into Boston and run just so terribly. Obviously not exactly my fault, but then I was like, “Oh man, I can’t end on that.” That’s not a fun ending to finish on: hypothermia and just surviving, not thriving.

So I was like, “OK, you know what? I can get excited about coming back to try to defend my win in New York. That makes me excited.” Every time I just turned around [and asked myself], “What’s exciting to me?” And so that was exciting. But I started to experience some knee pain in that build up, pretty severely.

I had to really compromise my training leading into 2018 New York. And to me that was just kind of a sign, like not only do I keep searching for reasons to keep going, that excite me, it wasn’t coming to me naturally to be super excited. And then with the knee pain, I was like, “This is kind of a sign. I think I need to probably move on. The writing is on the wall. My body is starting to show signs of needing more rest and I’m searching for reasons to get excited, which I never really had to do before.”

So that’s when I was pretty certain that that was going to be my last race — which it was. And then shortly thereafter I had knee surgery the whole next year on both my knees. (Continued below)

T&FN: Back off my sidetrack. What is your current role on the Bowerman TC staff? Do you work with particular athletes or across the board? Perhaps better to ask what your role has evolved into so far?

Flanagan: I think it’s going to be constantly evolving, to be honest. Jerry and Pascal, I look at them as my mentors and, you know, I’ve accumulated a tremendous amount of knowledge through my own career and through the coaches that I have been lucky enough to work with. But there’s definitely strengths and weaknesses to all of us and what we can offer.

I’m definitely finding my way. I work with all of the athletes 100%. I think my strengths are in communication with the athletes. I like to check up on them and make sure that they are mentally doing well. You know, there’s obviously a lot of physical focus.

Jerry is great at physically preparing them. Pascal and I just make sure that the athletes are thriving and are happy and emotionally stable.

So there’s a lot of communication on that end. I also didn’t realize as an athlete how much management goes on behind the scenes of a team like this where you’re doing things like ordering equipment for a gym that we had to build this year because we haven’t had gym access, booking housing for our altitude camps, helping organize for flights or athletes getting blood work done. It’s a huge undertaking when you’re helping to manage. I call Jerry like our general general manager and I’m helping with just all the different aspects.

You know, we had to put on a lot of races, as well, so we’ve had to make sure everyone’s getting COVID tested and making sure we have the timing system and everything is legal. And there’s so many things behind the scenes that I took for granted and I didn’t realize that was done for me.

So it goes beyond just what happens at the track. It’s a lot of work that goes on at home, making sure that things are organized as an entity, as the Bowerman Track Club. So I feel like I do a little bit of everything, to be honest. There are times when Jerry may ask my input on a workout and we tweak things based on my feedback. I’m out there timing with him, to then also helping make sure we hire the right physical therapists for the athletes, and massage therapists. Hopefully that answers it. I feel like I do wear a lot of hats and do a little bit of everything. (Continued below)

T&FN: I think anybody who has been a distance runner on a team can relate. Are there any observations you can make about the way the athletes have dealt with this pandemic? Anything you’re proud of them for or real challenges you can cite?

Flanagan: Yeah. I think every athlete deals with uncertainty, and with COVID specifically, they all grieve differently. Some of our older athletes, knowing that they’re at the tail end of their career, I think definitely had a harder time with the delay in the Olympics. Whereas maybe our younger athletes look at it as an opportunity to get stronger and better.

So everyone grieved different aspects of this past year — just hopes and dreams that they had and a vision for what they thought was going to be. And so we’ve had to help every athlete process it a little bit differently and just allow them to grieve the way they need to grieve. But in general, I feel like as a team, it actually made us a lot closer because we had to really rely on each other because we couldn’t see a lot of our family.

A lot of us are not from Portland, Oregon. And so we had our own little pod and bubble and we’re able to still thrive despite kind of a crappy year, a bummer of a year. And I think that that’s because we have great leadership. Jerry’s a great leader, and Pascal and I hopefully bring just a lot of positive energy. So we’re able to pivot and create new goals and dreams.

They weren’t the same but we were able to focus on what we could control and that was, “OK, well, let’s just see how fast we can run. We may have to run against each other and with each other and be paced by each other. And it may not look like the season we could even have dreamed of, but we’ll make the best of it. And we need to focus on making ourselves better people and better athletes in this year despite things not going the way we had thought.” I think we did a really good job of it, to be honest. I was super proud of our group last year.

T&FN: We’re starting to see some light at the end of the C19 tunnel. That’s a good thing. Is there anything that especially excites you as you look forward to this season and coming seasons for the Bowerman athletes?

Flanagan: Yeah. I mean, already we have been able to get in a few races where we’ve had some outstanding performances. We for sure have one athlete going to the Olympics for Thailand. So that’s great. We’ve got at least one athlete and then we’ve got a whole bunch more. But everyone seems very excited and healthy for the most part. You know, you’re always going to have a few niggles at this point in the season. I feel like everyone’s so fit.

It’s like, as a coach, I always have this visual in my head of wanting to just bubble-wrap everyone and then deliver them to the start line of the big race. I wish we could just fast-forward, like three months ’cause they’re all in such great shape right now.

We’re just putting the finishing touches on by going to altitude camp soon and just sharpening up. There’s still gains to be made, but they’re already in a really great position. I’m excited by where they’re at so far. We don’t have a lot of work to do in front of us, just like a little bit.

But we still have a few more races that I think people are going to get in. Pretty much everyone on our team has the Olympic standard and qualifiers. So that’s a great position to be in. We maybe only have like two people, maybe two or three, that need a standard, but out of 20-plus people that’s pretty good. Basically, we’re just waiting for a few steeplechase races so that we can have our steeplers get their times in.

T&FN: I get that. Steeplechasers had essentially zero opportunities in 2020.

Flanagan: Yes. We’ve been using a lot of high school facilities and high school tracks really don’t have steeplechase pits. So we’ve been very limited. Really the best tracks that we’ve been able to use are private Catholic schools and they just don’t have steeplechase pits. So that’s why we need a few of our men to go run some steeples and Courtney [Frerichs] hasn’t steepled in over a year either. We’re basically waiting, and then we’ll have everyone pretty much check that box to get their Olympic standards so that when they stand on the [OT] start line they’ve got that, they don’t have to worry about it, they just have to be top 3.

T&FN: It would be great to hear a little reflection on your own competitive career. Can you identify one or two or three, whatever, races that were the most exhilarating for you at the time or that give you goosebumps when you think about them now?

Flanagan: Yeah. I would say one that’s an accolade I don’t usually mention just because it doesn’t resonate with a lot of people except for the nerds and the geeks of the running world is getting a bronze medal at World Cross Country. That for sure was exhilarating. When I first started running, I was really a cross country runner. I didn’t start running track. I ran cross country first and that was kind of my gateway into the sport. And it’s like my ultimate love.

I always would joke with Jerry that if there was a cross country marathon on grass, I’d be the World Record holder. I just loved cross country. So getting a medal at World Cross to me just blew my mind. It’s one of my proudest moments. And I guess what’s full circle about that as well is that that’s how my parents met: at a World Cross Country meet and they both represented Team USA. That’s also kind of funny to me.

The versatile Flanagan raced to a bronze in the ’11 World XC Champs. (MARK SHEARMAN)

So cross country runs deep, like in my blood and being Irish or something. I don’t know what it is, but that to me is one of my favorite personal achievements. It doesn’t get mentioned a lot and I probably don’t talk about it a lot, but it’s just because the masses don’t understand it.

And then probably my other one is running when I set the 3000 American Record indoors at Reggie Lewis in Boston [8:33.25 in ’07]. It was one of my first big breakthrough races.

I just had foot surgery that fall and was at the beginning of my career. It was pretty pivotal because I feel like it changed the trajectory of my career and how I thought of myself as an athlete. My dreams became a lot bigger. I ran 8:33 and was really close to Meseret Defar, I got 2nd. It was just a huge breakthrough and just to have it in Boston and my family was there.

Like I said, it was very crucial, pivotal moment after a surgery on my foot to regain confidence and then not only that, but think of even bigger goals, which led to, I think, believing in myself to do really well in longer distances.

I think that led to the confidence of the ability to run great 5Ks and 10Ks on the track too. So I’d say those are two of my favorites outside of the obvious of an Olympic medal and New York.

T&FN: You’ve mentioned how much you loved high school cross country. Anyone who’s ever competed in it knows it’s such a cool sport. Was there any moment in high school or college that in effect set your course to pursue running passionately for two decades?

Flanagan: My mentality in college was, yeah, the Olympic dream was very much part of my vision. I didn’t know how I was going to get there, what that looked like. I didn’t know exactly. But I was so willing to do whatever it would take. You know, my vision was like, “OK, well, even if I graduate college and I could just like live out of a van and maybe work at a running store, I don’t know if I’ll get sponsored.”

I didn’t know if I was good enough. I didn’t know what it would take to be a professional athlete. I knew in my heart that I wanted to pursue running beyond college but I didn’t understand the mechanics of how that works. So that was my thought: “OK, well, do as best as I can in college, maybe I can get a contract. I don’t know if I’ll be good enough.”

At the time I had won an NCAA title in cross country, but I didn’t know if that was good enough or not. I just had no idea. I was pretty naïve. So my vision was to live out of a van and work at a running store and maybe travel around the country and chase good weather so I could train. So that was my vision.

And you know, I was pretty much a 1500m runner in college because I wanted to be like Bob Kennedy. I idolized him. I thought, “Well, he ran a lot of 1500s before he became a really great 5K runner so I’m going to take a page out of his career and I’m going to just run the 1500 a lot, which I was not very good at.”

I had like a lot of 3rd-place finishes at NCAAs, so it was super solid but nothing earth-shattering. I think I ran like a 4:09 out of college, which is good, but, yeah. Then I switched over to the 5K my senior year and made my first Olympic team. So obviously the Bob Kennedy method worked well, but yeah, I experimented, I did a lot of 1500-meter running combined with cross country running. And I think it just set me up really well for having a lot of upside and room for improvement once I actually got out of college, which was also a goal: to do just enough to be good but still keep improving.

T&FN: I actually remember that Olympic Trials 5000 in 2004 fairly vividly. I thought you were really gutsy as the collegian in there against a pack of veterans. You were the one who made it a 3-woman race, savvy-savvy move in an OT competition.

Flanagan: I did, yeah. That also is one of my favorite races. I probably should have listed that one. I had redshirted in my senior year to try to make the Olympic team. So my dad and I flew around the country, getting the Olympic standard. He went with me ’cause I wasn’t with the university that spring. He and I flew around the country to get the standard, and I got my standard. I think I ended up running like 15:05 and on paper I wasn’t in the top 3 going into that race, but I was just determined to control the race and my destiny. So yeah, after like maybe, I don’t know, a lap, I took over and I secured my spot with like 200 to go. I think Shayne Culpepper and Marla Runyan took off sprinting. They had great kicks — especially Shayne Culpepper. So I just hung on for dear life and managed to defend my third spot and made the team and yeah, great race.

T&FN: It was cool to see the young college senior have the presence of mind that pressure-cooker situation to grab the lead and drop most of the field. Makes for an appropriate point to ask what advice you have for today’s young athletes to stay centered and happy and succeed in such a hyper-competitive environment?

Flanagan: Gosh, I could write a book on that, but, you know, I think my, my pro tip of the day is to always make decisions where you have no regrets. I’ve told [that to] a lot of our athletes or athletes that have sought my advice that aren’t Bowerman. I always say to chase the dream and not the money. I always feel like I’ve made choices to surround myself with the best possible people and be in the best possible position to achieve my goal. I haven’t let any outside factors in to change that direction. And I feel really good. I feel like I did make a really good transition out of the sport with my own career because I really feel like I have no regrets. I feel really good about what I did and I feel like I didn’t leave anything on the table and I’m not, you know, lying awake at night bothered by things I didn’t get to do. I feel like I really did it all. But I stayed very focused on those factors of always keeping my dream of the utmost importance first and foremost.

T&FN: OK. Well thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. Great talking to you, and I know our readers will enjoy reading everything you’ve just had to say.

Flanagan: Great. I appreciate it. Thanks for thinking of me.

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