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Shalane Flanagan — January, 2015
Shalane Flanagan has won two Bronze Medals while representing the United States on the world stage - at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China in the 10,000 meters and at the 2011 World Cross Country Championships in leading the U.S. team to back-to-back Bronze team medals. She is a three-time Olympian at 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon. Shalane’s versatility is evident by her 18 U.S. Championships with six each on the roads, track and cross country venues. Her marathon debut at New York City in 2010 resulted in a Silver Medal finish. Shalane finished in tenth place in the 2012 London Olympic marathon. In 2014 she twice set personal bests in the marathon with a 2:22:02 for 7th place in Boston and a 2:21:14 for third in Berlin. Shalane won the 2014 Jacksonville River Run 15k in an American record 47:03. She competed for the University of North Carolina and is a three-time NCAA champion in cross country (2002, 2003) and 3,000 meters indoors (2003). Shalane is a 15-time NCAA All-American and 14-time ACC Champion. She was named to the Atlantic Coast Conference 50th Anniversary teams for cross country, indoor track and outdoor track; 2002 Honda Athlete of the Year for Cross Country and 2002 ACC Athlete of the Year. At Marble Falls (MA) High School she finished first in the All-State one-mile, was champion and record holder in the All-State two-mile and won the one mile-run at the Indoor National Scholastic Championships in 4:46. Her personal best times include: 1500m – 4:05.86; 3,000m – 8:33.25; 5,000m – 14:44.80; 10,000m – 30:22.22; 15k – 47:03, half marathon – 1:08:31 and marathon – 2:21:14. A graduate of the University of North Carolina who majored in history, Shalane lives in Portland, Oregon. She was kind enough to spend over an hour on the telephone in December, 2014.
GCR:Perhaps your greatest running and racing achievement was winning the Olympic Bronze medal in the 10,000 meters at the 2008 Beijing Games. Describe the magnitude of this; especially since east Africans are dominating distance events from 5,000 meters to the marathon.
SFThe general public does love to recognize Olympic medals and it is meaningful. It was a lifelong dream as a little girl to make it to the Olympics, yet alone to receive an actual medal so it just was like a perfect storm of everything coming together to have that moment be tangible and be achieved on that day. It was a lot of hard work and one foot in front of the other – somewhat basic – but a lot of dedication to get there.
GCR:If any other race can compare to that Olympic performance, it is your Bronze medal at the 2011 World Cross Country Championships. How tough was it to succeed on that stage which combined all of the world’s best from distances from 1,500 meters to the marathon and how meaningful to you was that race performance?
SFObviously the Olympic stage is what most of the general public recognizes, but I actually think I have a medal that tops that one which is not as recognizable to the masses. My Bronze medal for World Cross Country is one of my more meaningful ones because both of my parents competed in World Cross Country and east Africans dominate. When you run cross country there are a full six from each country. So there are six Kenyans, six Ethiopians and more as opposed to just three on the track from each country. So the medal of which I am most proud is my Bronze medal from World Cross Country three years ago.
GCR:Also, on the World Cross Country stage you were on a United States team that got into the medals twice. How exciting was that?
SFI’ve always thrived on being part of a team. This sport in general can be a bit lonely at times with all of the miles we put in and the time in our own heads. So I thrive on running for something bigger than myself whether it is my country or for other people that I care about. I feel that I bring my best when I am part of something bigger. It’s a blast to get to go and represent my country and to have teammates, six people that have the extra toughness pulled out of ourselves when we have USA across our chests and people counting on us and it’s not just individuals out there.
GCR:Speaking of having USA on your chest, you’ve been a three-time Olympian now, but how exciting was it in 2004 when you placed third in the Olympic Trials 5,000 meters to make the Athens Olympic team. Do you remember the emotions when you crossed that line and realized you were an Olympian?
SFI was kind of a newbie to the event as I hadn’t run very many 5ks. It was kind of a dream season. I was kind of this punk high school kid who came into college at North Carolina in 1999 and said, ‘I want to try to make the 2004 Olympic team.’ I’d never run a 5k on the track at that time, my PRs were high school quality, but I had this desire to try to make an Olympic team. I had the foresight four years in advance to say that I wanted to redshirt my senior year to try to make the team. I think the coaches who recruited me at the time may have thought I was a bit silly for saying that which was a bit outlandish, but I did follow through with that goal, redshirt and achieved the A standard before the Trials. On paper I was maybe only the fifth fastest going into the 5k final, but I felt like I had to dictate the race and dictate my future. So I ran a real aggressive race and then got outkicked with 200 meters to go, but I hung on just enough to get third place which allowed me to make that first Olympic team. That is one of my greatest track races right there. It was probably the most thrilling race of my life just because it was such a huge breakthrough moment for me and there was kind of that validation that my dreams are real and they are valid. So, that was a really, really exciting race.
GCR:When you talk about being aggressive it reminds me of aggressiveness that the legendary Gerry Lindgren and I have spoken about. When you race how important is it to have a strategy specific for certain opponents tendencies and then to be proactive rather than reactive and to be aggressive rather than passive in order to place as highly as possible and to contend for victories?
SFI think that’s my personality and that’s what I thrive on. I don’t like to be passive. I like to feel engaged. I think that when there is a paced race I tend to fall asleep and it doesn’t feel like a race to me. It is more of my personality to be the aggressor instead of the bystander and that’s why in my workouts I like to attack. There is a time and a place for everything, but I find I am most proud of my efforts when I am aggressive. When I am a little bit more submissive, overall the satisfaction after the race is not the same for me. When I go out to perform and race I want to put out something that is very uniquely me, is my style of racing and one I’m going to be proud of. I thoroughly enjoy pushing myself and finding out how good I can be. So that coincides with that kind of racing tactic.
GCR:Let’s talk about the two marathons you raced in 2014. First, in April at the Boston Marathon you led for 19 miles and I know the crowds were pumped after coming off of the tragedy of 2013. Describe your preparation, how that race developed and how exciting the crowds were.
SFI prepared for 2014 very methodically. It was poignant as I knew that the magnitude of this race was greater than other Boston Marathons due to the fact that 2013 was a devastating experience for a lot of people. My goal and objective was to run the best race of my life and to bring some joy and happiness back to the community where I grew up and that supported me. I felt like I was gathering all of my strength to put on this beautiful piece of artwork and this performance that would make me proud and make my community proud. Obviously, trying to win the race I felt was the best thing I could do to give back to the people. It literally began a year ago on the day after the bombings. I knew I was going to be coming back and I started plotting how can I become the best athlete possible to be back here a year from now? My coach and I sat down and we meticulously planned out a year in advance what we needed to do to contend for that win. We felt like going out on the course and training on it as if I lived there was really important to really no every nook and cranny of it so that I could be able to attack it and feel confident. We wanted to feel like it was a piece of me. I feel like we did do that. We targeted a time that we felt like on basically every year would win which was 2:22. I thrived on the energy of that day. The crowds were unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in any setting athletically. I felt so much passion and enthusiasm that carried me.
GCR:How did you to change focus when the possibility of winning slipped away and how do you evaluate your race performance?
SFWhen we crested the top of heartbreak Hill, when they literally broke me, I tried to stay positive the entire time. I was thinking that I was running a record-type pace and there was a chance they all may crumble and come back to me. I was running faster than almost anyone had ever run on the course so I thought they might come back and I stayed really positive about it. The closer I got to the finish and when people weren’t coming back it was really tough as I knew this was it and I wasn’t going to win. But I kept on thinking how I wanted to make everyone proud of me and feel like they saw an amazing performance regardless. It was probably one of the proudest races I’ve run, but it’s funny to say that a seventh place finish is one of my greatest races. It’s kind of an oxymoron, but it inspired people, which is ultimately what I was out to do. I did run a 2:22:02 and, unfortunately, that was only seventh. It’s the fastest an American woman has ever run on the course so I took some consolation from that and that I created the fastest race ever in the history of the Boston Marathon. It’s tough as the end result isn’t always a reflection of the work that was done.
GCR:I was watching and it was exciting to watch you try to win it rather than just hanging out back in fifth or sixth place and then you might have finished third or fourth perhaps, but with no chance to win. So it was exciting as a spectator and an American to watch what you did out there.
SFThere are different ways to run a race, but if you want to win it you have to kind of be in the mix. I’m not a fan of running from behind and picking people off. Some people thrive on that but if you really want to try to win you go all out for it.
GCR:In September you raced similarly aggressive in Berlin as you went for Deena Kastor’s American Record of 2:19:36 and notched your second personal best this year with a 2:21:14 for third place. Some people thought that maybe you could have run more conservatively and run 2:20 and change. But did you just feel that you had a goal and were going for it and how would you evaluate your effort?
SFI believe that the more times you set yourself up to go for that ultimate goal, the better off you are. We probably bit off more than we could chew and if we went out at a more conservative pace I am very confident that I could have run a 2:20 mid or 2:20 low. I was on that pace until about 2k to go for that time of 2:20ish. But I really went for it and I suffered dearly the last 2k. Really only the last 8k and specifically the last 2k I did not finish well. But those are the chances we take when we are trying to better ourselves and push ourselves to our maximum limits. Some days you’re going to hit it right and you’re going to hit your maximum limits and make it to the finish in flying colors. And some days you crawl in like I did. I really don’t have any regrets. I feel like the more times I put myself in that position, in that uncomfortableness, the more innate it will feel and I’ll be able to handle it for having done it. My body and my mind will remember what it feels like and I’ll be able to handle it better the next time around. I only have so many chances to run hard and fast and I felt like I didn’t want to play it the safe and easy way because you never know what can happen on any given day.
GCR:When you look back on these races, maybe you could have been a little better with your pacing, but what did you do in training in 2014 that fueled your improvement from running 2:25s twice in 2012. You only had four marathons under your belt prior to this year, so maybe part of it was training and part of it was experience.
SFIt’s a little bit of both. I had more tactical marathons in those other four races. In the Olympic Trials I didn’t want to go out and then not make the team so I played it conservative. In the Olympic Games it is more racing. New York City in 2010 was my first marathon and I was terrified of the distance. As I became more comfortable with the distance I felt I could genuinely race it. My training a couple of times before indicated I was a 2:22 athlete, but I never raced it from the gun. I just played it safe and raced my competition instead of racing the distance. I had more confidence in myself in covering the distance instead of fearing not finishing. That was genuinely a fear of mine to not finish sometimes just because it is a long distance. So I committed to a certain pace to become a 2:22 marathoner and aimed all of my training toward 2:22 so that hopefully on the day I could execute that time. That’s what I did. I just raised the level of expectation in my training and decided to commit. It was scary to try to run five seconds per mile faster than I ever had over the course of a marathon, but it was a necessary push. My coach said we were going to train for Berlin to run 5:19 per mile and that is really fast to string it together for that long of a distance. But we committed to it and felt that if it didn’t pan out in Berlin we were better served for having done the training and that at some point in the future maybe it would come together. We don’t believe it’s all in vain as it’s just raising that bar and committing to the training and saying that I have to do this in order to get better.
GCR:Like you said, if you played it safe you might have averaged 5:21, but as you get ready for the next couple of years and the 2016 Olympics, what do you have to do in your training to get it to where you are another few seconds faster per mile so that nobody can do anything to defeat you and you are right at the top no matter their tactics?
SFIt’s just a continuing commitment to the training. The more consistent I train at that high level I may make some further leaps. So expectations are no longer 5:25 a mile. The expectation is 5:18 to 5:20 and I’m going to train like I’m that type of marathoner for every marathon. Hopefully, in one of them I will strike gold with that mentality and it will pay off. It’s just a lot of repetition of training the mind and body for it. I’ve been really fortunate to not have any injuries limit those kinds of goals. So I hope that my consistency pays off.
GCR:How long do you go on your long runs? I’ve interviewed about twenty major marathon champions and I get different variations of answers. Do you go over the marathon distance, close to it or stay in the 20 to 22 mile long run range that most people tend to do?
SFAs a new marathoner within the first year or two I didn’t go over the distance. But as I’ve become more seasoned and able to handle the workload it has become more natural to me. We’ve integrated three hour long runs which takes me over the marathon distance of 26 miles. The furthest I’ve ever gone is about 28 miles in training. We cycle from 22 miles to 28 miles so we go for a variety of long runs in duration and intensity. Usually the 28 mile run isn’t high intensity. It’s getting through it at whatever feels comfortable that day. I think it is good to practice being out there for a long time and staying focused.
GCR:One runner whose long runs are very interesting is Steve Spence as, when I interviewed him, he talked about when he was coming into 1991 when he won his marathon Bronze Medal at the World Championships. He did thirty mile runs where the first half was pretty easy and then the next ten or twelve miles was at six minute pace, maybe a minute off of his race pace. Then he ran miles 28, 29 and 30 under five minute mile pace which was faster than his race pace. He said that was a key workout to make him really tough, those it is hard to do. If you were doing something similar, you’d be doing your last three miles in 5:15. Very few people have got to that. Is this a long run workout you might try to get to?
SFI try to do that at the end of some long runs and sometimes I’ve been successful at squeezing it down while others I haven’t. It depends on the ebb and flow of my fatigue level. That’s a skill I’m trying to develop – being out there for a long time and then getting down to race pace or faster. It’s all about fueling properly as sometimes I feel like I just don’t have any energy at the end. I’ve done some up tempo three hour long runs where I’m running like 2:40 marathon pace all through which is good, quality running. That is an amazing skill to be able to finish and close fast and that’s something I’m working on in the marathon instead of a slow, decay of pacing – to actually finish it off a bit stronger. If I were to run a slower marathon now, a 2:25 marathon, I could finish nice and fast. But on the edge like I’ve been trying to run it is harder to finish strong lie that. It is more survival.
GCR:When we spoke about the World Cross Country Championships, you mentioned how proud you were of your Bronze Medal because the east African runners are so strong with six athletes per country. You’ve raced at a high level with east Africans for many years. Do you believe they have some genetic advantage, or is it just strength in numbers as a huge proportion of young athletes in east Africa are drawn to distance running when compared to the United States as a way out of poverty or since running is more of a national sport?
SFI think it is a perfect storm and in David Epstein’s book, ‘The Sports Gene,’ he delves into how east Africans really do have unbelievable bodies for distance running – the size of their ankles and calves, the fact that they are born at altitude, their lung capacity – their bodies are like gazelles naturally. Their body composition is perfect for distance running. You take that and that they have great genetics. I’ve always said that I chose my parents well. I have great genetics behind me. So with their great bodies for running, being in a part of the world where there aren’t a lot of distractions like we have, a simpler lifestyle to a degree and motivation as it is a way out of poverty, running is a way to enhance their lives. For a lot of women it is a way out of being a cook in a hut and rearing children. It enriches their lives in different ways, provides for their families and they become business women. So there is a huge motivation factor to literally change their lives if they want. They aren’t lazy. They put in the time, they use their genetics and the fact they are born at altitude and live at altitude and that really helps the endurance in distance running. So it is a perfect blend of everything coming together. They have become more systematic and organized the last couple of years. Their training is enhanced and their recovery is enhanced so they are definitely on an upswing.
GCR:You spoke about picking your own parents well. Your mom was the first woman to break 2:50 in the marathon while your dad was a sub- 2:20 runner. How important is it to have this genetic heritage, to know in your mind that you had it and how supportive and encouraging were they of your early running efforts?
SFI do have siblings, but they didn’t get the competitive bug like I have. So, as much as there is a genetic component there also has to be a mental wiring because they definitely aren’t as loony and crazy as me. Or competitive. When I was growing up I really didn’t know that my parents were these great runners. It wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I had somebody tell me how great they really were. So I think honestly that the genetics helped me to be drawn toward running because I was good at it and kids love to do what they’re good at. It built self-confidence as I was this little girl who could beat all the boys in my school. I thought that was so cool. There was a self-confidence it gave me and I thrived on that. It started out very simplistic as I just enjoyed beating the boys. Then I realized I loved running. I had a lot of energy and I always wanted to go run. It felt so natural. It felt very freeing to me. I actually had a connection to it because for my siblings it wasn’t like that for them but it was for me. There is definitely a mental component that goes along with it as well. Having my parents support was a tremendous benefit. A lot of kids get into a sport which their parents really don’t know much about. Their parents can be supportive, but I have another level of support, the understanding and compassion for what I was going through. That was probably an advantage growing up – having parents that were there and knew what I was going through when I was nervous. The understanding made it much more enjoyable with them.
GCR:When I interviewed your mom, she said that her current running hero is you, and that people just don’t realize how hard you train and the sacrifices you and others make to be at your competitive level. She also said that she didn’t realize until recently how close the two of you are mentally and in terms of how you are as people and maybe that is what has driven both of you to be successful as marathon runners.
SFYes, marathoners and distance runners are probably wired similarly, so there are probably some similarities my parents and I share that have been passed down. It’s amazing to see how far the sport has come since my mom first started running. Just the simple fact that there weren’t any women running and there weren’t even any running clothes. I get all of these amazing clothes from Nike and they blow my mom’s wardrobe away. She was running in cheerleading outfits. There wasn’t any real organized women’s running. It was completely different. It has come a long way and I feel really, really grateful for people like my mom for setting the stage and making it possible for all of us women to be out there competing. Obvious there are pioneers and it had to start somewhere and my mom was one of the pioneers. My training has advanced from what she did. She didn’t necessarily know as much and was relying more on raw talent.
GCR:Looking back to when you started running, your high school coach was more of a hurdler than a distance runner, so maybe you leaned more on your dad for training. How quickly did it come together from not even being on the cross country team to succeeding at the state level?
SFMy high school coach didn’t know much about distance running so we were massively undertrained. I had the desire to get better and I knew that we weren’t quite doing enough to get better. I was devouring running books. If I went to a running camp I would take notes at the running clinics. I would bring them back, show my dad and my mom and come up with my own training plans. I made up workouts in high school for myself. I would show them to my coach and tell him I wanted to do them and half of the time he would have the team go through it with me as he didn’t know what to give us to do. It was in a way a method to have personal accountability at a young age. I thrived on not being an innocent bystander and an actual creator of my fitness. I enjoyed that. I had a sounding board with my parents or it probably wouldn’t have happened.
GCR:As you developed your own training, with help from books, clinics and your parents, what were some of your favorite workouts?
SFMy dad and I created a one kilometer loop on a grass field that I just loved. It was super hard and there was only one little hill. If I could run a marathon on the grass that would be my perfect race. I loved doing that grass loop during cross country season. Then during track season I would go over and run with this north shore training group. It was usually a bunch of master’s men and we would do 12 by a quarter mile with a minute rest. I remember thinking that it was so hard but that it was great being part of a group. My high school provided me with a similar structure, but I thrived by being around other people running. So those were my two favorite workouts in high school.
GCR:As a prep in cross country you were one of the top runners in Massachusetts your junior year and well out in front your senior year. Was it a matter of getting another year under your belt as you were still green your junior year?
SFI didn’t really run over the summers in high school as I didn’t know that was what I should be doing. Going into my senior year I did run over the summer and I think that did make a big difference. In the past I would take off and swim and be a kid over the summer so coming into my senior year I realized that if I wanted to go away to college and run I had to do more running. So that was the biggest change.
GCR:Your prep success included All-State performances and State Championships. What are some of your more memorable prep races either due to great competition, a surprising performance or a fast time?
SFI never made it to the national Footlocker cross country race as I always seemed to have a terrible regional race. I had a really special race at Franklin Park my senior year in a race that was a qualifier to go to the State Championships. It was the same exact day as the NCAA Division I Northeast Regional that was on the same course about an hour after my race. I ran a course record of around 17:08 and it ended up being faster than what the collegiate women ran an hour later. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’m in really good shape. I beat all of the collegiate women.’ Ray Treacy, coach of Providence came up to me and said, ‘Wow! You just beat all of my women!’ That was a pretty special performance that day as, not only was I the best high school runner, but I raced faster than a couple hundred collegiate women that day.
GCR:At the opposite end of the spectrum, some kids I’m coaching or other high school or college kids who have a bad race look at someone like you and don’t realize that all of us went through that and have had some bad races. To motivate some of these kids could you talk a bit about your Footlocker qualifying races that didn’t quite go as you had hoped?
SFMy junior year was the first year I tried to qualify for the Footlocker National Championships, but my whole family came down with the flu or something. All of us were a mess and we didn’t even have Thanksgiving. My dad decided we would still go to New York and race the Regionals. We tried to be positive even though we’d been really sick. My dad kept saying, ‘You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine.’ I got out there and I ran okay. I missed qualifying by one spot so it was really close. The next year I thought that since I had missed qualifying because of the sickness I was really motivated to win and to set a record. I wanted to lay it all out there as I felt I had what it took to go for the national title. I put so much pressure on myself not to just win but to set a course record. I wanted to just annihilate people. That kind of aggressiveness did not serve me wisely. I didn’t know how to reign in my excitement levels and use it to my benefit. I would get too nervous. I remember going out at a blistering pace through the mile and the only person following me was Erin Donahue from New Jersey who later became my teammate at North Carolina. The two of us went out at like a five minute mile. In the back woods of Van Courtland Park we were just trashed. We were so tired. She ended up finishing like 200th place or something and she had been to Footlocker nationals a year before and was a great runner. I literally collapsed in the finish area maybe a hundred meters from the finish, face down, couldn’t get back up, never even finished the race. In some ways that is an amazing skill to be able to push yourself so much that you can’t even finish a 5k. I appreciate it as I obviously have this desire to push myself and had to learn how to use it to my benefit and to monitor my excitement. I see a lot of kids who do this and I think there is nothing bad about it as it’s a tough lesson to learn as a kid. It served me well, though I still had some bumps in the road in college. In a way I turned it into a way to benefit me, though I’ve had to learn how to use it as a skill.
GCR:In college you came out strong your freshman year in cross country finishing fourth at NCAAs, but finished only 22nd your sophomore year. What happened during your second NCAA cross country race?
SFI was in phenomenal shape and actually was predicted to win the race. The night before the race I got an award as the national runner of the year. It freaked me out. I literally psyched myself out. I was in the lead and then there was a point in the race where my coach told me to run an all-out 800 meters to pull away from everyone. I did. I ran an all-out 800 and it broke me. I broke myself and had to stop and start walking. I basically walked it in to 22nd place. It was a mixture of not being able to read my body very well and trying to race above my fitness level. But I was in great shape and had I been able to execute better I probably would have had three NCAA titles in cross country. I didn’t know how to control my nerves and excitement and I wasn’t able to execute races properly because of that.
GCR:The next year when you won your first NCAA Cross Country title there were a few girls who finished ten or twelve seconds behind you. Did you stay in a pack with them to execute more smartly that year?
SFI was still aggressive and a front runner, but I didn’t push so hard early. I waited and had more self-confidence. I was able to monitor my nerves a lot better and it clicked and came together for me. I controlled the race up front and didn’t push too hard from the gun.
GCR:Fewer women finished close to you the following year, with Kim Smith the closest over ten seconds behind you. How tough was it to come back and defend your title?
SFKim Smith was a great college rival for me, I looked forward to racing her and we have a great friendship still to this day. I was just starting to become at a level where I was closer to a world class runner as the next spring I made my first Olympic team. I was making leaps and bounds my senior year, learned to control my emotions and executed some really good races.
GCR:You mentioned about how you like running for a team. Even though your North Carolina Tar heels weren’t competing for national cross country crowns, was it a great part of your experience at NCAAs to be there with your entire team?
SFOh yes, absolutely. My teams were almost like a sorority. We were very close and a great group of girls. We are still very close to this day.
GCR:North Carolina competes in the Atlantic Coast Conference. How much emphasis was there in track to win ACC individual titles and to win ACC team titles?
SFIt was a big part as at North Carolina it was all about the team. I don’t think I ever lost a single ACC race at the conference meet so there was a little extra pressure and it was special to score big points for my team.
GCR:Until 2008 you raced distances on the track from 1,500 meters to 5,000 meters. Why was the decision made to move up to 10,000 meters and how different was it to adjust to the physical and mental demands of racing a 25-lap race?
SFI felt like the further I ran the better I was. In 2007 I watched the 10,000 meters at the Osaka World Championships and I thought that I could do really well in that event. As I watched the race unfold I thought this was an opportunity and that I could be good at the 10k. My 5k time correlated to a great 10k so it was something to consider for the Olympics and that it might be more my event than even the 5,000 meters was. So we made an effort to see what I could do the next year and it was really good. I had the second fastest time in the world going into the Beijing Olympics. I just wanted to see if I could run a fast time, and I did, so it seemed that maybe this was my next step. It was kind of a leap of faith. Looking at the competition and where I stacked up in the world it seemed like a good move.
GCR:Similarly, two years later you again moved up in distance in 2010. You won your first half marathon in Houston, the USA Half Marathon Championships in 1:09:45 and improved by over a minute at the Philadelphia Half Marathon with a time of 1:08:36. How smooth was this step up in distance from 10k to the half marathon?
SFIt wasn’t that rough. Moving up to the marathon was definitely a harder transition. I was not a high mileage athlete in general. When I started working with Jerry he started training me with more volume, but the intensity was still pretty high, so that was sort of a rough transition. I came out on top but was more tired than ever when I started training for the marathon.
GCR:That same year you debuted at the New York City Marathon in second place in a time of 2:28:40. I’ve run that race three times and it is a tough course for a debut. What was your race plan going into the race, how did it play out and where did you see your main areas of needed improvement?
SFJerry and I felt that if I trained to be a 2:25 marathoner I would have a hard time running it on the New York City marathon course, but training to run that fast would make me competitive in any major marathon at that level of fitness. We trained with that in mind, but there were so many unknowns about how I would react to the distance once I got out there. We just committed to what we thought was a high level of fitness and had no expectations. He told me to not lead but to just be competitive, tuck in and try to follow and to have a good experience. We wanted to not try to set any records, get through it and learn from experience. My level of expectation standing on the starting line was, ‘Oh, I hope I can finish!’ So from hoping to finish to ending up on the podium in my first major marathon was a great experience. Then there was an affirmation that I could be a great marathoner.
GCR:Two years later in 2012 you won the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston in 2:25:38 and finished tenth at the London Olympics in 2:25:51 in races that were more strategic and tactical. You were improving, but when you reflect on those performances, what did you and your coach plan to do to move up another level?
SFIt wasn’t what I dreamed of, to be honest, tenth place. I dreamed of something much bigger. But I feel like in any given race it appears like there has been some doping that has occurred over the past couple years and I may not have been tenth – I may have been much higher than that. But I can’t control what other people do. I just train to my best ability and hope that I am awarded the correct position. But there are the reports that the Russians used systematic doping and there was a Russian who got the Bronze Medal who passed me with about eight miles to go. Not to be negative, but there is a likelihood that I am deserving of higher than tenth place. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but Jerry and I prepared like we never prepared before. I probably never put more effort into a race preparation other than Boston this year. It’s one of those things where I’ll just keep doing what I do and I’ll be rewarded at some point hopefully with a big win. But you never know when those moments will come and if they’ll be just around the corner.
GCR:Another race which really impressed me, and I’ve raced it quite a few times including two sub-47s, was when you won the USA 15K Championships in Jacksonville, Florida in March, 2014 with your 47:03 breaking Deena Kastor's eleven year old American Record by eleven seconds. That told me that you were in excellent shape. How did that race feel and was this an indication that you were ready for some faster marathon times?
SFHonestly I don’t even know how I ran that fast in a way. I knew I was really fit and I wanted a hard effort. I went out to run it fast and I knew what Dena’s record was. I didn’t know if I would have a good day or how I would feel as I was in the middle of a marathon build up. I just felt unbelievable that day. It was one of those special kinds of days. I believe if it had been a half marathon I would have run a 1:07 flat or a 1:06 high. I could have continued the extra few miles. I felt on fire. I felt unbelievable. I achieved a special performance that I’m really proud of. Especially since Deena told me it was one of her races she was most proud of as she thought it was a flawless execution. She told me she was so impressed that I was able to break it.
GCR:Let’s switch gears back to your Olympic experience. We talked about your first Olympics. How different or exciting was it to be a member of the 2008 and 2012 United States Olympic teams, since you had been there before?
SFIn 2004 it wasn’t like I was on vacation, but I didn’t have any tangible goals. It was new and I felt like more of a spectator. To be honest, I felt overwhelmed. It had been a long year as I came off of collegiate running and now on to the Olympics and it seemed like a big jump. I remember sitting in the sitting in the stadium and watching my 5k final that I didn’t make and thing that this was a bad feeling. I did not like being a spectator at my own event. So literally at that moment I said to myself that I was coming back with much more purpose and that I would strive to be a much better athlete. Within those four years I came back with a lot of momentum and a lot of enthusiasm to make it a different experience. It is more stressful when you feel like you have a lot to lose. I did feel like that in Beijing and London because of my preparation. I felt that I had put in a lot of dedication and time and effort. I had a lot of dreams in front of me. In 2004 I didn’t even know what to expect. There were no goals, just to be there and to be present in the moment and that was about it. They were very different experiences from 2004 to 2008 and 2012.
GCR:As part of your Olympic experience, even though you were focused on running fast the last two times, did you march in Olympic Opening or Closing Ceremonies, go to other Olympic sporting competitions and experience the sights of Athens, Beijing or London?
SFThe only time I was in Opening or Closing Ceremonies was in Athens. I didn’t in the other two Games as I had the experience and loved it, but there is a lot behind the scenes that people don’t realize. It takes so much time to do both of them and when you are running a marathon to go and stand for about five hours to walk in the Opening Ceremonies didn’t seem appealing. I had put in too much time and effort and too many sacrifices to hypothetically fatigue myself unnecessarily in a way. It is a beautiful experience and one of those moments I will never forget, however my coaches and I thought I made too many sacrifices to have something go awry at the last minute. So I opted not to do the Opening and Closing ceremonies. I’m okay with that. I don’t feel like I missed out.
GCR:You have been coached by John Cook and Jerry Schumacher post collegiately and Dennis Craddock and assistants at UNC. What did each coach do to contribute to your success mentally or physically as a runner or racer?
SFMy college coach was really great at being enthusiastic and positive and in setting up a good support system for me. He didn’t over train me. He let me discover myself as an athlete and supported me. Coach Cook was so meticulous and taught me the value of recovery, taking care of myself and making sure I stayed healthy. If I had any little thing bothering me he would have me see someone. He was really good with specifics of training and other details and I appreciate that he instilled that in me. I really learned to take care of myself well under him. He also emphasized that I needed to be a good athlete and that being fit was a key component in keeping me healthy. His injury prevention and some of his funky German workouts where you would run a lap and then do some jumping jacks were fun. It was very obscure and off the cuff and different from anything I’ve ever done. I enjoyed the training under Coach Cook quite a bit. With Jerry he has taught me ultimate dedication and pure distance running and how to work very, very hard. I’ve never worked as hard as I have under Jerry. He has also taught me the art of patience for sure (laughing). To be a marathoner I didn’t necessarily have the patience in my racing skills. He helped me develop patience and the ability to control and execute to have great races. His level of expectation is very high and as a result it makes me change the perspective of what my goals are based on the fact that he has very high goals.
GCR:You mentioned that you weren’t a high mileage runner and that Jerry got you into high mileage with intensity. What type of mileage do you do per week when you are in a base training period and several months out from your next marathon?
SFAt a minimum I run about eighty miles a week in the base phase. So, I’m running anywhere between 80 and 100 miles a week. It’s kind of dictated based on my obligations or travel. I think I thrive in that range. It’s kind of a big range, but if I don’t have much going on one week I’ll run 100 miles. I’m not averse to putting in the miles. I like it. But if I have a lot of other obligations and things going on I don’t try to force the mileage to happen. This fall I’ve been I that range of 80 to 100 miles and that seems very reasonable. I know I’ll start training hard in January for a spring focus so then my minimum will be about 100 and maximum about 120 miles a week.
GCR:What were some of your favorite strength or speed sessions when the focus was on 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters that you still do and what have you added as you transitioned to emphasis on the marathon? Desiree Linden told me how she added repeat two-miles as she stepped up to the marathon – how about yourself?
SFMy training as a marathoner has evolved and progressed and we fine tune things. I still do some 5k and 10k stuff. For Berlin we did some workouts that indicated I was in 10k shape as some of the workouts rivalled what I did before I ran my 10k PR. We never lose sight of a little bit of turnover. The biggest adjustment has been the volume and focus of doing workouts like three times three miles or four times three miles. We also do two-mile repeats. I’ve done a workout on grass with some repeat miles and two-miles where I do up to 16 miles worth. There is a lot of volume involved and some of it is real high quality work.
GCR:I believe you spoke briefly about negative splits. Say you are doing mile repeats or two-mile repeats, do you try to take the average time you are aiming for and start slower so you finish faster or do you stay steady during the workout?
SFIt’s dictated by what Jerry wants me to do that day. We never slow down. It’s nearly always starting off at a certain pace and squeezing it down. Sometimes, if we do an all-out effort, then we stay at the same pace throughout the workout. Generally, we don’t try to average what we want. We start at what we want and try to get progressively faster.
GCR:With your great success on the track, roads and in cross country, with an amazing 18 U.S. Championships split equally with six in each discipline, which is your favorite and why?
SFCross country is probably my absolute favorite. Unfortunately sometimes it doesn’t fit into my other goals so it kind of a little bit neglected at times. But I totally love cross country. It is something that I get super excited about.
GCR:Are you looking at trying to compete in the 2015 Cross Country World Championships?
SFNo, it isn’t going to fit with my other goals. It’s all the way in China. Our U.S. Championship is in Boulder and I won’t be training at altitude prior to that. So, I’m not going to be doing it this year.
GCR:When you look at your progress after several years focusing on the marathon, current training and what lies ahead in the future, do you think you are close to reaching your potential as a marathon racer and what are your goals for the next few years as your competitive years draw to a close unless you compete on the Masters level?
SFI just kind of take it year by year. I have goals for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, but I honestly don’t know what goals there are beyond then. I have the next two years kind of mapped out as to what my goals are. Afterward, I really don’t know and I feel like I have a lot of other interests going on in my life as well so I feel that I could be swayed in any given direction where my passion is flowing. If the passion isn’t as strong I can see myself moving on somewhere else. But I think I’ll always be passionate about running – it’s just whether or not I have the passion for the training. If you don’t have the passion for the training then the race results are not going to follow. That’s a key component to training. I feel like I’m 33 and I set two American Records and two PRs this year so I don’t feel like I am on a decline. I feel like I’m just starting to evolve into the seasoned marathoner that I want to become. There is still room for improvement. I came into the higher mileage game later than some other athletes so I may have a little more in me to give because of that. I’m still having fun and still feel really excited to get out and run and to do what I do. So I don’t see it ending anytime soon, but beyond Rio it just depends if I have goals that get me excited to get up and to achieve them.
GCR:Running is your sport, but it is also a job that only can last so long due to the limiting factors of aging. Do you hope to be involved in the sport like Deena Kastor or Joan Samuelson as an ambassador for the sport of running or could you possibly go in another direction with your history degree or love of art?
SFI just put on my first road race this fall in my home town of Marblehead, Massachusetts to help raise money for a new track and we got about 1,400 people to come out and run and walk. I thoroughly enjoyed doing something for my community and putting on a race. Joanie Samuelson and NYC Marathon Race Director, Mary Wittenberg, came out along with Tom Grilk of the B.A.A. So that was an avenue that I can see myself being more of a part of – creating races and community efforts. I actually adored it so I can see myself doing more of that. I’m in the midst of creating a cookbook proposal with my friend who is a college teammate and she is now in the culinary world. Portland is a huge culinary place so we kind of combined this marriage of my love for athletics with helping women to achieve their own physical and nutritional goals. My friend’s background is a great story and of sharing great food recipes. That is something we’re talking about and I want to do. I would love to coach at some point. I think it would be a great experience trying to help other people to achieve their goals. So, those are all areas where I’m interested.
GCR:You’ve helped coach distance runners at both North Carolina and Portland State. How exciting is it to help others to move forward with all of your knowledge and experience?
SFI find it very gratifying. Sometimes, as athletes, we find it hard to let go of the sport, because we have this attachment to athletic highs. But I feel I can still fulfill these highs through seeing other people achieve their goals, their excitement and how happy it makes them. I feel like I am very good at living vicariously through other people. I genuinely enjoy seeing young athletes making themselves better people and better athletes. I thoroughly enjoy doing volunteer coaching and can see myself doing more of that.
GCR:Shalane. I’ve got a couple of wrap up questions. First, for younger runners who may be reading this, what advice do you have as they compete in track and cross country to help them to be more consistent, avoid injuries and reach their potential when they are starting out in high school and college?
SFI think you took the words out of my mouth in a way. It is about consistency. If you want to become a better runner it is literally just doing it over and over and putting in mileage. It’s consistency. It’s not just here and there. It’s making a dedicated effort to become a runner. With that being said, surrounding yourself with a great support system to help you achieve your goals is essential – whether it’s teammates or a teacher or a coach. Creating that support system to make it fun and enjoyable can make it a lifelong sport and not all sports can say that. Some of the friendships and connections you build can be life long and can enhance your life. Running has given me more than I could have ever dreamed. I think that can happen as running can be whatever you want it to be and it can start at a young age. In the high school years it can transform lives, create new opportunities and connections through sport. That is pretty cool about our sport.
GCR:You may have segued into the last question, but is there anything else when you are giving a talk about major lessons you have learned during your life from working to achieve academically and athletically, the discipline of running and your racing success that you say which you would like to share with my readers?
SFWhen I am trying to decide to work hard and if I’m having trouble finding motivation to put in the time and effort, I always operate on the level of not wanting to regret anything. So I always feel that to over prepare is the best way to go. I always over study, always over prepare for the race, because I don’t like living with any regrets. That’s how I’ve operated and it’s not easy to be on your ‘A Game’ all of the time. But sometimes if we ask ourselves, ‘will I regret not doing this?’ it sort of answers a lot of questions and unknowns.
 Inside Stuff
Hobbies/InterestsI love any type of camping or fishing – outdoor stuff. I like any places with mountains or oceans. I love being outdoors. My number one vacation would be doing something outdoors. I’m really into food and nutrition and fueling, so my passion is helping to try and create some recipes for runners. That is my new-found passion. I also love art. I’ve been studying and using my creative side to create this cookbook and to try to think of some really cool ways with photography to showcase food
NicknamesMy best friend when I was growing up called my ‘Shooby’ and other people called me ‘Laney’
Favorite moviesMy all-time favorite movie is kind of a sappy one, but it makes me cry almost every single time and its ‘Meet Joe Black.’ It’s probably because it’s about a daughter and a father and it’s a tear-jerker every time for me
Favorite TV showsI don’t watch a ton of television. It’s sad because I don’t know. I really don’t have a favorite TV program
Favorite songsI like all kinds of music but I’m a sucker for country music and bluegrass. I love some good bluegrass. One of my favorite bands is called, ‘Chatham County Line,’ and I actually lived in Chatham County when I was in North Carolina. On a lazy weekend that is probably my favorite music to listen to
Favorite booksI like boring books. I tend to always pick non-fiction, so anything non-fiction that makes me think. ‘Unbroken’ is a great book that I just finished reading. ‘The Sports Gene’ by David Epstein, which I read recently, was great as it creates a good discussion which is what I’m in to. I wish I had one favorite book, but I don’t. I love non-fiction and devour them. It goes back to my ‘history side’ as I love learning and non-fiction is good for that
First carMy first car was a Volvo station wagon – a real old one. I don’t remember the year, but it looked like a tank. It finally just totally died. We were a Volvo family – my dad had a Volvo, My mom had a Volvo, we all had Volvo tanks
Current carI’ve had my current car for a while now and it’s a Nissan Murano
First JobI worked at a sporting goods store called ‘Athlete’s Corner’
Favorite Halloween costumeIn college I dressed up as Dale Earnhardt. That’s probably one of my favorites
SiblingsMaggie is my sister and John Steven is my half-brother. I’m the sports dork and my sister is the humanitarian as she was in the Peace Corps in Madagascar for three years. She’s like a hippie who lives in Fort Collins, Colorado and works for a non-profit company. She’s got the brains. I’m a dumb jock and she’s the brains and humanitarian. My brother just graduated from the University of Washington and he is in the political world right now. He has been working on campaigns and elections this past fall. It’s funny as we are three very different kids
PetsI’m obsessed with my cats as they are basically my children. I usually have black and white framed pictures of my cats in my bathroom. We’ve had some pass away, but my current cat, ‘Shooby’ is her name, is in kitten mode. She’s super hyper and a fun cat. I’m totally obsessed with animals in general. I would have a dog, but I just travel too much
Favorite breakfastI’m so boring. Irish oatmeal is my favorite with a bunch of fruit and nuts in it – nothing crazy
Favorite mealAny type of salmon here in the northwest. Chinook salmon is mouth-watering. It’s oh-so-good. It is so good here, like buttery melt-in-your-mouth. I could eat it every single day
Favorite beveragesI love a good cup of coffee. Here in Portland they make great coffee and great beer and wine. Any of those three are my favorites
First running memoryI was born in Boulder, Colorado and my first running memory is running around the block with my parents. I’ve been back to the house and the block I would run around. At the time it seemed like it was forever. It was a huge block. But it was literally maybe a 200 meter run. But that is my first memory of me running – in my neighborhood around that block and thinking I had conquered Mount Everest by running it
Running heroesHonestly, it’s just my parents. I can’t think of a better example of some great runners
Greatest running momentsWorld Cross Country is up there as something I couldn’t believe happened. I think sometimes those moments that you know you have in you that actually come to fruition. I knew I had it in me to do well at cross country as I have an innate gift as a cross country runner. Probably my second place finish at the New York City Marathon because I had this dream as a little girl of being a marathon runner. In my first marathon to be successful at it affirmed the belief in me was true
Worst running momentsIt’s probably the combination of my high school Footlocker race where I didn’t finish and in college at NCAA cross country when I had to stop and walk. Those are pretty embarrassing
Childhood dreamsThe Olympics were it for me. I was totally obsessed with the Olympics and everything about it. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I thought how cool it would be to be an Olympian one day
Funny memory or embarrassing momentI don’t really have any that stand out. I was just asking my coach the other day this question and he said, ‘Yes, any time you’ve had to walk in a race as that is funny and totally embarrassing.’ So that’s happened twice in my career where I haven’t had good races, but I can’t really think of anything else. Terrible
Worst date everThis is terrible too. I didn’t really date ever. I didn’t date in high school and I met my husband when I was 18. I met him the first couple weeks into college. That could be a part of my embarrassing story as I didn’t date ever
Favorite places to travelOne of the most beautiful places is Switzerland. I could absolutely live there, in St. Moritz specifically. When we go to train there it is breathtaking. I could adopt the cows there. The cows are the most beautiful cows I have ever seen. That place is a running mecca and is gorgeous. I feel I could explore there forever. I feel so alive there. It is stunning. The food tastes better there. I feel healthier there. In the U.S. there is really nothing better than being in Boston. I feel this great energy and connection with Bostonians. I’ve come to appreciate it more during the time I’ve been away. I realize what a special pace it is with its history and its culture – the unique character it holds. It’s a fun place that I didn’t really appreciate when I was growing up. But time has passed and I’ve lived in a variety of other places and I really appreciate it. The people there are funny because they are kind of crass, but are some of the most loyal, supportive honest people I know