Boston brings Shalane Flanagan full circle

Courtesy of Steve Flanagan

From left: Shalane Flanagan's husband Steve Edwards, sister Maggie, third from left, and brother John know how much her first Boston Marathon means.

Most runners entering their first Boston Marathon worry about surviving Heartbreak Hill, the incline at Mile 20 that tests both quadriceps and morale.

Shalane Flanagan has a different problem. She's afraid her heart will burst -- figuratively -- before she pushes off for her first stride.

"I'm just worried I'm going to lose it emotionally before the gun even goes off at the start or that I'm going to curl up in a ball because I'm so excited. I've dreamed of this day before I even knew much about running," said Flanagan, who grew up in the nearby North Shore town of Marblehead. "To participate in it after having been a little girl on the sidelines, to have my own experience -- it's surreal. It's a really big full-circle moment for me."

I'm just worried I'm going to lose it emotionally before the gun even goes off at the start or that I'm going to curl up in a ball because I'm so excited. I've dreamed of this day before I even knew much about running.
Shalane Flanagan on running the 2013 Boston Marathon

Sentiment can't help but color this event for Flanagan, 31. She vividly recalls her father, Steve, running the 100th edition of Boston as an amateur in 1996 and being so sore the next day he had to crawl down steps backward. At that same race, she saw women's winner Uta Pippig of Germany finish with diarrhea running down her legs. Instead of being repulsed, 14-year-old Shalane was awed and fascinated.

"I remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh, this event is brutal,' but admiring at the same time," said Flanagan, whose mother, Cheryl Treworgy, was among the pioneering generation of female marathoners in the early 1970s. "[Pippig] pushed her body to the absolute limit; there's nothing left. She's been sick and running in front of all these people. That takes a lot of courage."

But Flanagan knows she can't allow nostalgia to draft off her heels, lest it overtake her. She'll have enough to cope with Monday if she aspires to be in the mix down the stretch in the typically strong international field.

Taking a better approach

Flanagan wanted Boston to be her first marathon after transitioning over from the track, where she was an Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters in 2008. Her coach, Jerry Schumacher, nixed that, and she now understands how wise that was.

This will be Flanagan's fourth foray at the distance and the one she says she is best prepared for mentally and physically. She exceeded expectations by finishing second in her 2010 debut in New York. She soloed to victory at the Olympic trials in Houston last year in an event-record 2 hours, 25 minutes, 38 seconds. Then, by her own admission, the ever-driven Flanagan pushed herself too hard leading up to London and paid for it dearly.

"I was fatigued before I even started the race," she said. "I was dreaming of a really big race, and I didn't want to leave any stone unturned, and for the first time in my career, I overtrained for an event.

"I went for it. I faded in the last 2 miles literally from fourth or fifth to 10th and literally didn't know if I was going to make the finish line."

By contrast, her buildup for Boston has been ideal. She has the benefit of excellent recon from Oregon training partner Kara Goucher, who has finished third and fifth in Boston. And Flanagan will have another, more visceral kind of support from one of the thousands of amateurs who will stream through the streets in her wake.

Big assist from little sister

Maggie Flanagan hasn't run a race with her older sister since they were on the same high school cross country team. They share the same congenital stamina, high cheekbones, almond eyes and broad smiles but have taken completely different paths. Maggie's wound through a stint with the Peace Corps in Madagascar, which led to her job as programs director for a nonprofit that promotes economic diversity by supporting tech start-ups. Running is her hobby, not her calling.

Courtesy of Steve Flanagan

Shalane Flanagan and her little sister Maggie (shown at ages 8 and 6) will run together for the first time since high school in the Boston Marathon.

"I have the genetic aptitude, and I don't have to put in a lot of miles or work to get some pretty good results," Maggie Flanagan said recently from her office in Fort Collins, Colo. "But I lack that focus and drive toward one goal that you need in order to be an elite athlete and that Shalane has in spades."

They grew up "thinking that all adults exercised four to six days a week," said their father, Steve, who with their stepmother, Monica, made running the currency of the household. "A lot of our family vacations were around track and field events."

So when Shalane put Boston 2013 on her long-range calendar more than a year ago, it was only natural that she would tell her family she wanted company in the race, someone to run with and not against her, even if they never laid eyes on each other. Maggie looked around the room at a holiday gathering and realized she was the logical and perhaps only candidate. This will be her first road marathon, but she's no endurance neophyte, having run a couple on trails -- including a 34-miler on the Slickrock Trail in Moab, Utah.

"I sent her some training gear and cute clothes to get her out the door," Shalane said. "She said, 'This makes up for that 14-miler I just did with snow goggles on.' She's probably taking it a little more seriously than she lets on. It means a lot to me that I'll be suffering and she's suffering at the same time. I know she'll do a good job."

When London didn't go as planned, the three-time Olympian experienced her first real bout of post-Summer Games depression. She tried to elbow it aside by training for the world half-marathon championships in October but showed up sick and ran a subpar race. That's when she realized she needed to stop grinding.

"I switched gears, and instead of doing long endurance stuff, I switched over to do some track speed stuff, which was fun and light and fluffy to me and didn't take a lot of mental work," she said.

Refreshed, she won the U.S. cross country championship earlier this year -- "Anytime Jerry has put me on the grass, it's like I'm a dog and my tail's wagging," she said -- then posted a personal best half-marathon time of 1:08:31 in New Orleans.

"Hopefully I will have worked out the kinks and faults and mistakes and can execute my best race, give Boston my best by having gone through other experiences," she said. "It would be so nice to nail it the first time instead of having a humbling experience. It would be really fun to hit a home run."

All the roads Flanagan has traveled inevitably led back to Boston, and her sister thinks the time is right for that convergence.

"She knows how to take the momentous emotion that comes with a culminating event and focus on a purpose and execute on her goal," Maggie Flanagan said. "Shalane is going to have to have a little bit of tunnel vision, but I know she'll be trying to soak it in."

Indeed, Flanagan has contemplated wearing sunglasses as she lines up for the start so she can look around without letting anyone see how badly she wants to end that day as homecoming queen.

One person she will not fool is her father, who said, "It is this one above all others, no question."

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