SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 22, 2014

Phil Stacey column: At Boston, something much more important than a win for Flanagan

Phil Stacey
Sports editor

---- — BOSTON — Success is best determined by the particular mission of the individual.

Shalane Flanagan had just one goal in mind when she toed the line in Hopkinton yesterday morning: win the Boston Marathon. Towards that end, she did not achieve her dream.

But to term Flanagan’s effort, gumption and performance anything less than successful during the 118th running of the Boston Marathon would be farcical.

The 32-year-old Marblehead native went out determined to run her race — and she most definitely considers Boston to be her race — her way. She dictated how it would be run, forced the other elite female racers to accept her challenge and literally gave every ounce of her 106-pound frame, running to the point of near exhaustion and sickness.

While she did not prevail — that honor went to returning champion Rita Jeptoo of Kenya, who won for the third time in a record breaking time of 2:18.57 — Flanagan was a pillar of excellence. She shattered her own personal best in the marathon by more than three-and-a-half minutes, clocking a 2:22.02. Her seventh place finish was the best by an American woman, nearly two full minutes better than 10th place finisher Desiree Linden of Michigan.

And she did it all while emotions erupted inside of her and around her. It was an outpouring of love and warmth, of resilience and strength, on what will go down as the most deeply meaningful day of her professional career.

“It was the most memorable amazing day for the city of Boston and our nation. I wanted to put on the best performance, whatever I had within me,” Flanagan said during the post-race press conference. “I ran as hard as I could.

“The fans were out of this world phenomenal, almost deafening. I felt like my insides were shaking, it was so loud.”

It was the race that she would’ve done anything to win; doing so would’ve meant more to her than winning an Olympic gold. She, like hundreds of thousands of others, was shaken to the core by the horrific bombings that happened at this race a year ago. But she was also furious that it happened to her race in her city, and just three days after last year’s tragic events, she became the first elite runner to sign up for 2014, set on pouring everything she had into prevailing.

“I don’t wish it was an easier race,” Flanagan said while wiping away tears. “I just wish I were better. But it was a really heartfelt effort.”

Taking the advice of good friend and two-time Marathon champion Joan Benoit Samuelsson, Flanagan was intent on running on her own terms; she wanted to see “if it was good enough to win the olive wreath.” And for 19 blistering miles, it looked like she might just do it.

Putting the game plan that she and her coach, Jerry Schumacher, devised after running the Boston course six times in the previous six months, Flanagan shot out of the gate and served as the rabbit among the lead pack. She ran with poise and confidence, almost effortless for 5, 10, 15 miles, leading at every checkpoint from the first mile to the 19th. For the entirety of that stretch, she was on a record breaking pace.

“I’ve fallen in love with this course,” admitted Flanagan. “I’ve had so much fun preparing for this race and I wanted to use it as an advantage. That’s why I attacked the course. I wanted to give everything I had. I knew the tangents, I knew every little divot in the road, where every Dunkin’ Donuts was, where every Wendy’s was.”

Looking across the podium at Flanagan after the race, Jeptoo said simply, “She was tough.”

While admittedly surprised by how many of the elite pack stayed with her, Flanagan was on a 5:20 pace with a quarter of the race to go, still leading at 1:41.11. She felt that a 2:22 finish (which Schumacher told her she’d achieve) would be enough to win.

Then came the vicious hills in Newton.

“I remember seeing the women that pulled away from me. It was about four of them, maybe five,” she said. “I could still see them and so I stayed really positive, kept my head down, keep digging, you never know what could happen.

“Then we turned the bend and I couldn’t see them; I was literally in disbelief. I thought, ‘I’m either blowing up, or they’re having the race of their lives -- and I wasn’t blowing up.”

Flanagan never caught Jeptoo, second place finisher Buzunesh Deba of Ethiopia or the others that passed her. But she kept digging, running with a purpose, and over the last mile or two the emotions that she had tried to keep bottled up all day and focus on her task at hand finally bubbled to the surface.

“I was almost hyperventilating the last few miles,” Flanagan said. “To be part of this city and feel the love I felt ... it’s a moment I’ll treasure forever.”

If strength is measured in mental fortitude and refusal to ever quit, then Shalane Flanagan is one of the world’s mightiest warriors. Her time and finish were not what she dreamed of, but admitted it’s a step in the right direction. She’ll happily take a new PR. She said she’ll use 38-year-old men’s champion Meb Keflezighi as inspiration to keep chasing her dream of Boylston Street glory.

And you’d better believe she’ll be back in 2015.

“I will be back here,” she said emphatically, “until I win it.”

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Phil Stacey is the sports editor of The Salem News. Contact him at pstacey@salemnews.com or 978-338-2650, and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN.