BOSTON – Shalane Flanagan grew up watching her father round the final turns at Hereford and Boylston before crossing the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Now she holds the fastest time by an American woman on the course with her 2:22:02 run from 2014.
Flanagan most recently punched her ticket to her fourth U.S. Olympic team and will run the marathon in Rio de Janeiro in August. Without enough time to recover for another spring marathon, Flanagan will be back in Boston as a spectator this weekend and will possibly hold the finish line tape for winners.
“It’ll be a completely different perspective to have as I’m on the other side of the finish line waiting for runners to pour in,” Flanagan says. “I can’t even lie. The competitor in me is having such a hard time being here and not competing.”
Sports Illustrated caught up with Flanagan after her brief trip to Rio to impart her wisdom and tips on how to approach the challenging course in Boston.
Getting off the start in Hopkinton
“The initial reaction when the gun goes off is excitement—you want to get going. Take a deep breath. Make yourself run slower than you think because you’re going to end up running faster than you think. There’s a nice downhill to start but there’s actually a little flip of an uphill about 800 meters into the course. That always shocks you because everyone says ‘It’s completely downhill but there’s actually that little hill.’ However, you will scream as you go down that first 400 meters. Think about conserving your muscles because you don’t want to put damage on your quad muscles.”
Mile 1 to 4: Gradual downhill running
“At this point, you’re on automatic pilot. It’s super exciting and you don’t feel like you’re running the marathon yet. There are lots of people cheering and it’s easy to get caught up in fast paces but it’s an important time to hold back and hopefully your breathing is super easy. Tune out and go through the motions. You don’t want to invest time thinking into what you’re doing quite yet because it’s going to get harder and you’ll need to tap into your mental toughness. Ideally in Boston, you don’t want your first half to be faster than your second half.”
Miles 4 to 12: Fairly flat with gradual rolling hills
“This part rolls down and then gets pretty flat. Consider it as a preparation spot. You’re preparing for the hills. You know they’re coming so embrace the flatness. Savor it. You’re going to have to have some serious energy reserves to get up through those Newton Hills.
Mile 12.5: Approaching the half and the “screaming tunnel” by the Wellesley College women
“Remind yourself about delayed gratification. At that point in the race, it’s easy to let your emotions run wild. The screams are deafening. My heart rate always tends to get higher every time I pass the Wellesley women. There’s so many checkpoints of inspiration on the course and you can keep that in mind.”
Mile 13.1 to 15: The transition into the hills
“The roughest transition for me is going down the Newton Lower Falls and then into the hills. It’s a really tough part of the course that tends to shock people. Use the momentum from the Wellesley girls to get you through that section and then get ready for the inevitable tough running in the sections ahead.”
Mile 16: The race begins
“With the pounding of the Newton Lower Falls and how steep it is, up the hills into Newton is where the race begins. The good thing about the hills is how tough and challenging they are but there is some reprieve in there. There are some flatter sections in there to prep you for the next hill. It’s continuous and requires a lot of focus. The fans are really thick in that area. There are throngs of people. There’s grilling going on. People took time to write messages on the pavement. It’s fun to run along and see them.”
Training tip: How to mentally break down the hills
“Sometimes I just think how many minutes it will take to go up a hill. I’ll tell myself ‘OK. You’re going to really have to commit to two minutes of hard running here and then you get a little bit of a break and reward yourself.’ That helps break it up. It makes you dig a little deeper and not make you feel so hard on yourself.
Mile 17: Turning onto Commonwealth Avenue and getting ready for Heartbreak
“There’s not many turns on the course so it’s a significant thought. You make that right on Commonwealth Ave and pass the fire station. It’s an inspirational point. They always have a huge crowd there. This is what people are preparing for mentally. Now you have to switch gears and tell your body to use different muscles. It’s tough to flip over to uphill after you’ve been doing so much downhill running. The fans are really intense. It’s a major marker and it’s one of my favorite spots on the course.