“I’ve broken bones, torn tendons, and lost too many toenails to count. I’ve experienced otherworldly highs and abysmal lows. I’ve loved (and learned from) it all.”
If anyone has earned a few easy miles, it’s Shalane Flanagan.
For the better part of two decades, the North Shore native, who retired from competition Monday, has been the face of women’s distance running. Check that -- she’s been the face of American distance running, the most recognizable figure, male or female, in a sport that struggles to garner a tenth of the attention as football, basketball or baseball. She’s running’s David Ortiz, Tom Brady and Larry Bird, the athlete everyone knows even if you don’t follow their sport. And she belongs in the New England sports pantheon with those guys, too, displaying the talent, dedication and hunger to take on the best of the world. She lives in Oregon, and she raced around the world. But she’s one of ours.
Flanagan has graced the cover of Runner’s World magazine more than any other athlete, is a regular on morning shows and has used her popularity to market two best-selling cookbooks. She has come back to Massachusetts to cheer on local runners and help raise money to repair the local track. She’s such a beloved figure there that many kids go out trick-or-treating in Shalane costumes.
But make no mistake: Beneath that friendly facade lurks a competitive drive that rivals that of Brady. In an era where top distance athletes often carefully pick races and situations where they’re all but guaranteed a fast pace or a podium finish, Flanagan measured herself against the best, seeking out the deepest fields and toughest competitions.
She started young, with a record-breaking career at Marblehead High School that culminated in a state championship, followed by NCAA cross country titles in 2002 and 2003 for the University of North Carolina. She raced in four straight Olympic Games (2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016), winning a silver medal in the 10,000 meters in Beijing, China, in 2008. She won three bronze medals in the World Cross Country Championships and still holds the American women’s records in the 10,000 meters and 5,000 meters.
She is most well-known, of course, for her marathon career, which included four attempts at Boston and three top-three finishes in the New York City Marathon. Most notable, of course, was 2017, when she became the first American woman to win New York in 40 years, crossing the finish line after dropping an exuberant epithet that was the embodiment of Massachusetts grit.
“Now that all is said and done, I am most proud of the consistently high level of running I produced year after year,” Flanagan said in announcing her retirement Monday. “No matter what I accomplished the year before, it never got any easier. Each season, each race was hard, so hard. But this I know to be true: hard things are wonderful.”
Flanagan’s career would be impressive enough if it were judged simply by her times on the grass, track and roads. But like Joan Benoit Samuelson before her, Flanagan’s influence went far beyond the finish line.
As the United States’ premier distance runner, she used her celebrity to advocate for cleaning up a sport dogged by doping scandals. Indeed, her 2008 silver medal in Beijing was originally a bronze; it was upgraded to a silver in 2017 after it was revealed the second-place finisher failed a doping test.
Now, Flanagan, 38, will turn her attention to coaching.
“This amazing opportunity in front of me, to give back to the sport that gave me so much, is not lost on me,” she said. “I’ve pinched myself numerous times to make sure this is real. I am well aware that retirement for professional athletes can be an extremely hard transition.
"I am lucky, as I know already, that coaching will bring me as much joy and heartache that my own running career gave me.
“I believe we are meant to inspire one another, we are meant to learn from one another,” she said. “Sharing everything I’ve learned about and from running is what I’m meant to do now.”
Of course, Flanagan has already been doing that for decades.
And someday, say at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, there will be a new generation of American marathoners toeing the line, all having grown up watching a kid from Marblehead fight for every inch of every mile in every race she ran. That is as great a legacy as any medal.