Shalane Flanagan drafted up her 712-word retirement announcement message during the summer. As she recovered from reconstructive knee surgery, Flanagan, 37, pondered a transition into coaching. When she brought up the topic, her coach, Jerry Schumacher, would change the subject. While both he and her sponsors were supportive of her decision, they asked her to take a little more time to think about hanging it up for good.
And rightfully so—Flanagan is one of the most accomplished distance runners of all-time. Her resume includes 16 national titles, four Olympic team appearances, an Olympic silver medal in the 10,000 meters from the 2008 Summer Games, a 2011 world cross country silver medal, the third-fastest marathon time by a U.S. woman and a marquee victory at the 2017 New York City Marathon that ended a 40-year drought by American women—all accolades that would set her up to make the Olympic team for Tokyo 2020.
But with 131 days looming until the Olympic Marathon Trials, she hit publish on two Instagram posts on and called an end to her professional running career of 15 years. The next day, she was off to the Bowerman Track Club’s 10:30 a.m. practice in her new role as a full-time coach to oversee hill repeats and some track sessions.
Sports Illustrated spoke with Flanagan about her retirement and reflections on her career. The following interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Sports Illustrated: The sport has definitely changed a lot in the 15 years that you’ve been a professional runner. It could be the way people run or technology like the big shoe debate right now with the marathon. What has it been like for you to see the sport change in that time?
Shalane Flanagan: I think the biggest factor when I graduated from college and started running professionally was the mentality and group training. Back when I graduated, the mentality was just making teams. We weren’t dreaming of medals. We weren’t even dreaming of making a final. If you made the final at a world championship or an Olympics on the track, you were patted on the back and got big congrats.
I remember thinking, ‘Why is that the end goal? That shouldn’t be the end goal. It should be, ‘Can I make the final?’ ‘Can I PR in the final?’ ‘Can I start dreaming of a medal?’ Honestly, if you look back at the 2004 Olympics, I don’t remember too many people making the Olympic final. I remember being perplexed by that mentality. We’re now in the discussion of ‘Which color medal do you want? Which one do you want to earn?’ That was a completely different shift from when I started out in the sport, which is amazing that we can change that much.
Group training has really elevated our success. Everyone pretty much trained alone back then, we’re racing competition within our own training groups and competing for spots to make teams and for medals. The only group that I saw that is similar to what’s going on now is the Mammoth Track Club with Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi. They were the only group that trained together and even then, Deena had to train with a bunch of men. She wasn’t really surrounded by a bunch of women. They had the accountability of each other. They were teammates but they weren’t pushing each other in workouts.
SI: What do you remember about that first professional season after quite a bit of success at UNC?
SF: With my collegiate success, I didn’t actually have too much because I ran the 1,500 meters mainly. As we all know, I’m not the world’s best 1,500-meter runner. I looked at Bob Kennedy and idolized him. In college, he was a 1,500-meter runner before he was great at 5,000-meter running. I really wanted to emulate his career. That was completely in my own head. I told that to my coaches at North Carolina and tried to develop my speed at 1,500 meters before moving up to the 5,000. I didn’t win a lot of track titles—in fact, I won none. (Laughs.) That being said, I was really successful at cross country. That was my bread and butter. If I could go back and do anything over again to re-visit and re-run a bunch of races, it would be college cross country. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my career. I think I only lost like three cross country races in four years.
SI: I find it interesting that you mention idolizing Bob Kennedy and his career trajectory. You probably saw it with all the comments on your Instagram post, you’ve become that figure for people. Within your own group, Karissa Schweizer is following a similar career trajectory. She ran the 1,500 in college, won a cross country title and is now seeing pro success on the track. What are those conversations like in practice, where she gets to work with her Bob Kennedy every day?
SF: It is funny because I am significantly older than some of these women and I’ve been lucky to be around the sport for so long that now I’m working with some of them who had posters of me in their bedroom. Shelby Houlihan [who now owns the 5,000-meter American record from a race that Flanagan paced] jokes that she came out here for Nike Cross Country Nationals and has a backpack with my signature from before we were teammates. Woody Kincaid recently confessed to me that he has a photo of him and me from an awards banquet when he was in high school. I don’t have any recollection but he was saying how he idolized me, which is an extreme form of flattery. Now I get to work with these athletes and they see I’m really not that cool to be honest, which kind of sucks. It’s fun to hear their stories but they realize I am a normal person and that makes things a bit more attainable to achieve whatever they want in the sport.
SI: When you came out of college was there ever any doubt that running was going to be the thing for you?
SF: Right out of college, I had to have foot surgery, which could have completely derailed me, to be honest. I had an accessory bone in my tendon and it was giving me a lot of pain. I had to have surgery right after I graduated. I could’ve been done right there. In college, I didn’t realize that professional running was a sustainable profession so I was prepared to just live out of a van and make it happen because I loved running. I didn’t realize that I’d have a true career and have it sustain me for 15 years. I hoped that was something that could happen and it goes to show there’s been much more investment in the sport. I had a desire to just improve and find the best people to work with while being resourceful. I was desperate to be good and made people work with me to get to that next level.
SI: Was there a moment you realized that it would stick?
SF: I don’t think I had a lightbulb moment but when I made my first Olympic team, it was such a great experience and made me crave more. I wanted to find out if I could be much better. Sitting in the stands in Athens after not making my Olympic final made it a huge motivation to get back and actually do something on that stage. I’ve just been intrinsically pre-motivated to keep pushing. The fact that I’ve been able to go from 1,500 meters all the way up to the marathon I feel like I’ve had new ground to cover and new territory to find out if I could be good at an event. The ability to do a variety of events has helped me sustain myself in the sport longer.
SI: Watching you in your recent races, there’s a different Shalane in competition. When does that turn on?
SF: Jerry taught me to be a lot more patient of an athlete. Before I got to him, I was definitely more middle distance-like to show my patience in races but not very calculated or good. In the 1,500 meter background, you just get to the hurt and the pain right away. In four minutes, it’s over. He really helped me cultivate a much better mentality and racing tactics for how I use my skills. That was a skill set that I had to work on over time. Now, it’s become instinctual. When I deal with younger athletes and they’re not executing and I wonder why can’t they feel it, I have to remind myself that I very much didn't have that early on. I honed that skill in practice. I loved racing and that’s why I didn’t run very many fast marathon courses because I love the art of racing more than anything.
SI: That happens a lot in the late miles of a marathon. What exactly were you thinking in those instances when you’re under pressure?
SF: It’s almost like reverse psychology. When I’m in training, I am literally putting myself on the course in Boston or New York to visualize certain elements and I can replicate what it’s going to be like so I can execute under pressure and not be overwhelmed by the moment. Conversely, when I’m in the moment of a New York or Boston, I take myself back to the training grounds of where I executed a good workout. It’s like this reverse psychology of finding my comfort zones and preparing myself mentally. The greats like Eliud [Kipchoge] are constantly honing the mental skillset to execute under pressure. Early on in my career, in cross country at NCAAs, during my sophomore year, I was expected to win. I crumbled completely under pressure. From that day forward, I really worked on my mental aspect and that was a huge learning moment for me.
SI: Many times after a race, if it doesn’t go well, athletes can pride themselves in their training. Were you ever mad about not winning a race?
SF: Oh yeah, for sure. Almost every time I laced up in Boston. I was upset with myself. I was upset with the circumstances. I felt like that was one of the bigger heartbreaks of my career and not being able to deliver the way I wanted to in Boston. I felt like I was constantly leaving the course frustrated, unfortunately.
SI: Is there anything about not winning Boston that you’re still hung up on, or did you let that go after the win in New York?
SF: I thought about retiring after I won and then the allure and pull of Boston was right around the corner just a few months later. I felt like I was in the best shape of my life [in 2018] and I’ll regret not giving it a go. Unfortunately, I showed up and it was a monsoon. There was only so much my body could give me that day. As much as I mentally tried to will myself not to get hypothermia, it was inevitable. That was a pretty miserable race for a lot of people. Unfortunately, that’s my last Boston. But that being said...who knows if I go back and I run Boston for myself if my knee can healthy enough again. I wish it would have panned out for me to have had a really great race in Boston at some point but I think I have to be super happy with what I’ve done. You can’t have everything you want. I got New York. I’m so grateful I have that moment in New York for me.
SI: What do you think is the element or career marquee that will be most associated with you?
SF: Hmmm...Because marathons are such a visible stage, I have to pick New York. It’s also because of the circumstances of how it was delayed gratification. I had been running marathons since 2010 and I really didn’t have my first breakthrough moment, I felt, until 2017. That’s seven years of perfecting that craft. I felt like there were missed opportunities because of doping. There was just a lot of heartache, having to overcome injury and getting mentally re-engaged and excited about things. I think that’s why it was such an exuberant exaltation at the finish.
[Note: Flanagan famously mouthed “F--k yes!’” before crossing the finish line and the moment was caught on camera by ESPN’s broadcast.]
I had to overcome a lot and it was really hard to get to that moment. People can relate to that in their lives.
SI: Another attribute that people can point toward is your longevity. What was key in staying atop the U.S. scene for so long?
SF: I was motivated to finish off my career at a high level. I wanted to stop before the decline really started. That’s how I wanted my story to go. I felt like I knew myself well enough that I wouldn’t put myself really out there at this level if I genuinely didn’t have a shot to do something special or memorable. That was just a big motivator for me whenever I stepped on the line. I wanted to have a really solid performance that could turn into something very big.
SI: What were those last few days like when you considered yourself a professional runner. You posted excitedly about a 12-minute run on a treadmill on Aug. 12. That set an alarm off to me that there could still be a comeback.
SF: [Laughs.] In my mind, that was definitely not a comeback run for professional running. That was more like, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m so grateful to be healthy to be able to go running again.’ It was definitely a really hard surgery and recovery. I was just grateful to be back running and moving my body in a way that it hadn’t in so long. To take away that movement from me was really not easy to go from a super active lifestyle to so sedentary. It was a celebration that I got to do what I love. It just goes to show that I really love running no matter what. Even if I’m competing or not, it’s ingrained in me and what I was meant to do.
SI: To briefly pick the brain of Shalane the Coach: What is it about your form and technique that really worked well? I know the sport can be one foot in front of the other but when I see you run, what should I be pointing out to inspiring runners?
SF: I certainly don’t have perfect form but I had good enough form that I was fortunate not to have very many injuries in my career. I attribute that to being as strong as possible. I think what served me well was that I have a really long stride, which I was able to use to my advantage to gobble up ground—it was also a very powerful stride. I definitely have some good strength to my running and my legs that did carry me well. I was always consumed with being pound-for-pound the strongest. I was always wondering how strong I could get and that was the focus for me. If I could tweak my form, it would be not to be so heavy-footed sometimes. I wish I was more of a forefoot runner but that’s hard to maintain over the course of a marathon.
SI: What are you going to miss the most?
SF: I think there’s this wonderful state of bliss and fatigue that is unlike anything when you’re in hard training. It’s almost this serene state that you get—almost zen—where you’re so tired, but it’s a happy tired. You use your body well and there’s a contentedness that your body can give you. I’ll miss that a lot. It’s a great feeling of knowing that you did a lot of great work that day and your body is smiling. I’ll miss being really fit. It’s really fun knowing you’re the fittest you’ve ever been. To watch your body naturally do things that on paper seem naturally impossible then you go out and execute is amazing. I’ve gotten to a place in fitness before where I go for a run and didn’t realize I was running because it was so natural to what I should be doing. It felt so aligned with my purpose.
SI: What will you miss the least? Is it the cheats?
SF: [Laughs.] No. It’s the same as how I just described I love that nice fatigue. I won’t miss being so tired all the time. There was also a tipping point. I’d say it to my family or to Jerry that I was tired of being tired. In marathon training, there’s definitely a point where you can get so extremely tired that the thought of doing anything was just exhausting—even thinking or making a phone call. I felt like I was under-living in those moments and I did not enjoy those feelings in the moment.
SI: You’ve read Lindsay Crouse’s Op-Ed in the New York Times on “The Shalane Effect.” To sum it up, you give off a presence and people around you benefit from it in training. What is it that you want your athletes to buy into?
SF: What I’m able to offer is showing them that I care and I believe in them. Having someone that really commits and lets you know that is tremendous. I’ll never forget going into my first marathon and [New York Road Runners President] Mary Wittenberg’s belief in me was so strong. She was so sure of me that I was going to be a great marathoner and I was going to do well in my first marathon. I was terrified. ‘I don’t know if I’m ready for this. I hope I can just finish.’ But her sense of belief was so incredibly strong the only option was to meet her in that belief. Because she was so dead set on my success, I felt like I had to do it. I feel like I learned that and I hope to have that same approach with our athletes. The number one thing in coaching is showing up and caring. If people feel that you care, it really has so much power.
SI: Your dream for a while was to win a major marathon. For a while, it was Boston and then New York. What are you dreaming of now?
SF: Make no mistake of it, my competitive fire is still really bright and it burns strongly. I’m seeking a lot more ‘F-Yeah!’ moments but it’s just going to be transferred to coaching. I’m dreaming of how can I take all this knowledge I’ve gained over the last few years and apply to other aspects of my life. I’m still formulating those dreams but I want to become one of the best coaches out there and have a really great impact.