Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 12, 2017

History Is Made, Thanks To A Team

We think of running as a solitary pursuit. For as long as words have been written, authors have used the image of the runner as metaphor for loneliness and solitude. In one of the earliest surviving works of literature, a grief-stricken Gilgamesh runs “faster than the wind” through the underworld, in hopes of undoing the death of his friend. The very name of our premier distance race is drawn from the story of Pheidippides, who in the 5th century B.C. runs twenty-six miles from Marathon to Athens to tell his Greek leaders that their army has triumphed. Having delivered his message, the valiant courier collapses and dies. In modern times Elmore Leonard writes of runners who “become lost in the monotonous stride of their pace…thinking of nothing at all.” And of course, Allan Sillitoe’s famous short story, later a movie, is all about “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.” In it, the protagonist uses cross-country racing as both a physical and emotional escape from a bleak and dismal life.

The image of solitude is so set in our minds that when real life paints a different picture, it is worthy of note. So it was at last year’s Rio Olympics, when Nicki Hamblin of New Zealand and Abbey D’Agostino of the United States collided in a qualifying heat for the women’s 5,000 meters. Both went tumbling to the track. First D’Agostino pulled Hamblin back up off the ground. Then, when the seriously injured American went down again, Hamblin turned around and helped her competitor back to her feet. Social media came alive with praise for the mutual displays of the real Olympic spirit.

Given that history, a sports fan who happened to see the picture of Shalane Flanagan crossing the finish line in Central Park to win the women’s New York City Marathon one week ago, tears streaming down her face, might have thought it a moving image of individual triumph. It was that of course, but the victory by the 36-year old native of Marblehead, Massachusetts is a story that belies the conventional image of road runners.

In its first few years the New York City Marathon was a local affair. The original course, from the race’s inaugural run in 1970 until 1975, was simply multiple times around Central Park. In 1976, to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial, the course was changed to include all five boroughs. That layout proved so popular that it became the race’s permanent course. From 127 competitors in 1970, New York has grown to today’s massive event, with more than 50,000 runners and upwards of 2 million spectators lining the course.

As a local race, it was no surprise that Americans dominated the podium in the early years. American men won the first thirteen NYC Marathons, with Bill Rodgers winning the race four times and Alberto Salazar three. On the women’s side Americans were also dominant at the outset. From 1972, the first year women competed, until 1977, an American woman broke the tape each year. But after Miki Gorman won her second consecutive race in 1977, Norway’s legendary Great Waitz made the race her own, winning nine times over the next eleven years.

Waitz was a singular force in women’s distance running, so her dominance disguised other changes that were happening. By the time she posted her ninth victory in 1988, the New York race was well on its way to becoming the outsize event it is today. Runners from all around the globe were starting to view New York as an important stop on the annual racing calendar. Deeper fields of outstanding international runners changed the nature of the race. On the men’s side, after Salazar’s third and final win in 1982, it was more than a quarter century until another American, Meb Keflezighi, won in 2009. For the women, the wait was even longer.

But that wasn’t just because of the quality of the international competition. In this country, a training pattern gradually emerged for female distance runners which focused on aggressive and isolated regimens. The result was runners who were like meteors streaking across the sky on a summer night. They blazed into prominence only to quickly burn out, beset by injury.

Flanagan set state records running at Marblehead High School, and won a pair of national cross-country titles while attending the University of North Carolina. Early in her professional career she set personal best marks at shorter distances – 1,500 and 3,000 meters – and established a then national record in the 5,000. She captured a bronze medal in the 10,000 meters at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, still the only American woman to medal at that distance.

But in international races Flanagan was the exception. Because of the fractured nature of the women’s sport, in 2000 only one American woman even qualified to run in the Olympic marathon. Then in 2009 Flanagan set about to change the state of distance running for American women. She moved to Oregon to join the Bowerman Track Club, organized by noted distance running coach Jerry Schumacher. Initially the Club’s only woman, Flanagan worked tirelessly to attract other female runners. The concept was both simple and utterly different from the status quo: form a team of women distance runners who would train together and push each other to increase their collective success.

The results have been extraordinary. When then 24-year old Emily Enfeld was ready to quit after sustaining repeated injuries in 2014, it was Flanagan who was there to counsel her to stay the course. With support she would have not received even five years earlier, Enfeld pushed herself to greater heights, capturing a bronze medal in the 10,000 meters at the following year’s World Championships.

When Flanagan herself ran into trouble during U.S. Olympic Marathon qualifying last year, it was teammate Amy Cragg who slowed down and paced her to the finish line, allowing Flanagan to make her fourth Olympic team. In Rio Flanagan led American women with a sixth-place finish.

On a rainy Sunday in New York, the women’s favorite was three-time defending champion Mary Keitany of Kenya, who was trying to join Waitz as the only woman with four or more consecutive wins. Early on, as they crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge from Staten Island into Brooklyn, and raced on into Queens, there were nine runners in the lead pack. Across the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan and up First Avenue they ran. Over the Willis Avenue Bridge to the Bronx, and as the race returned to Manhattan via the Madison Avenue Bridge, with five miles to go, the lead pack shrank to three – Keitany, Flanagan, and Mamitu Daska of Ethiopia, running New York for the first time. On the long run down Fifth Avenue at last one runner broke clear. It was Flanagan.

As she ran the final strides through Central Park, now a full minute ahead of Keitany, tears of joy mixed with the raindrops on Flanagan’s cheeks. In the grandstand at the finish line sat the great American distance runner Joan Benoit Samuelson, who said in an interview after the race, “My wish was for Shalane to hit the race that she wanted to hit while the whole world was watching. And the whole world was watching. The world won’t forget, nor will Shalane.” The whole world saw a forty-year drought for American women come to an end. What they didn’t see was that Shalane Flanagan didn’t cross the finish line alone.


  1. A great post to read this morning, Mike. Shalane’s idea to gather a group of top-notch competitors into a working camp for the betterment of all reminds me of the old saying, “None of us is as strong as all of us.”

    • An absolutely true lesson that folks in this very individual sport had a tough time learning, until Shalane Flanagan came along. Thanks as always, Allan.


      Michael Cornelius

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