Much has already been made of Shalane Flanagan’s victory at Sunday’s New York City Marathon: It was the first World Marathon Majors win of the 36-year-old’s career, the first WMM win by an American woman since Deena Kastor broke the tape in London in 2006, and the first win in The Big Apple by an American woman since 1977. But that’s not all.
En route to making history, Flanagan threw down five straight sub-5:20 miles at the end of the race to run away from the most dominant female marathoner on the planet, three-time defending champion Mary Keitany, who ran an eye-popping 2:17:01 earlier this year in London. She also beat Edna Kiplagat, the reigning Boston Marathon champion (and 2x world champion), who topped both Flanagan and Keitany in New York the last time they all raced there together seven years ago. Flanagan’s win on Sunday was arguably the biggest accomplishment of her competitive career—a feat that stands out atop an already impressive resume that includes numerous national titles, American records, Olympic Trials wins and an Olympic silver medal.
But those aren’t the only reasons Flanagan’s triumph was significant. It’s the longterm impact of her victory that will sustain far beyond the finish line in Central Park.
“I’ve dreamed of a moment like this since I was a little girl,” an emotional Flanagan said in the post-race press conference. “And so this, it means a lot—to me, to my family, and hopefully inspires the next generation of American women to just be patient. It took me seven years to do this. A lot of work went into this one moment.”
That one moment, I believe, will go down as one of the most important that American distance running has ever seen, right up there with Meb Keflezighi’s historic 2014 Boston victory. And that’s not to take anything away from Kastor—the American record holder in the marathon and an Olympic medalist in her own right who has also won a major marathon on American soil (Chicago, 2005)—but we live in a much different time now, one where athletes can connect directly with fans, followers and other runners in ways that they couldn’t have imagined 10-12 years ago. Flanagan, long a fan favorite, has the platform and personality to influence current and future generations of elite and non-elite American runners alike, especially women, who will be inspired by her story of persistence, struggle, and triumph—much like Keflezighi, whom she dedicated her race to on Sunday. Flanagan recognizes the importance of that one moment on Sunday and has already started running with it. And unlike two-time Olympic medalist and recently crowned Chicago Marathon champion Galen Rupp, Flanagan is empathetic and easy to root for, isn’t continually mired in controversy, and has made herself relatable—and accessible—to average and elite runners alike, not to mention fans and media. None of these factors can be underscored when beginning to understand the impact of her victory not just American distance running, but on distance running in America.
“There’s always moments of doubt,” Flanagan said Monday on Live with Kelly and Ryan. “A lot of runners can associate with this, that you think, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to be possible today.’ …but the closer I got to the finish and I could sniff it, and I was just thinking about what happened here in New York in the past week, and I thought, ‘I have to put a smile on New Yorkers’ faces today, I’ve got to do this.”
A version of this post first appeared in the morning shakeout, my weekly email newsletter covering running, writing, media and other topics that interest me. Sign up here to get it sent to your inbox first thing every Tuesday morning.
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