Shalane Flanagan Pre-Olympics Interview

I spoke with Shalane Flanagan, the 2012 US Olympic Trials marathon champ and Nissan Innovation for Endurance athlete, by telephone a few months ago while she was attending the Bolder Boulder in Colorado. Like her training partner, Kara Goucher (iRF interview), Shalane will represent the United States in the 2012 Olympic Marathon to be run in London on August 5th. If you’re interested in gaining more insight into Shalane and Kara after reading our interviews, consider checking out this and other videos on the Nissan Innovation for Endurance YouTube channel.

Shalane FlanaganiRunFar:  Hi, this is Meghan Hicks from iRunFar. You’re in Boulder, right?

Shalane Flanagan:  Yes. We just finished up at the CU [University of Colorado Boulder] Stadium at the start of the women’s [Elite Bolder Boulder] race.

iRF:  You got to see all the fast ladies go off as you stood on the sidelines today?

Flanagan:  Yeah, it feels weird to be at a race and not actually racing. It’s fun to be a spectator, but at the same time it’s strange.

iRF:  I just got off the phone with your training partner, Kara, and she said you had a good run in Boulder this morning and you’re going to have another run before you head home tonight?

Flanagan:  Yes, as soon as we’re done with a few more interviews, we’ll do another quick run and maybe we’ll get a shower and maybe we won’t. Then we’re hopping on a plane.

iRF:  And if you don’t, you’re not telling anyone on the plane, right?

Flanagan:  Exactly. We’ll just brush our hair and freshen up a little.

iRF:  Boulder is a nice place to train–a little bit of altitude.

Flanagan:  Oh yeah, it’s a gorgeous day. You couldn’t ask for a better day to be a runner.

iRF:  As a girl runner who has followed your career over the years, it’s hard not to be a Shalane Flanagan fan. You that you excel at whatever distance and whatever running surface you tackle. You race well on the track, you race well at short and long distances on roads. You also race well and continue to pursue cross country. So considering that iRunFar is a trail running website, I’d love to ask about your relationship to running on grass or soft surfaces or trails. You must spend some time training on that stuff in addition to racing.

Flanagan:  Because I’m becoming more of a marathoner, I have made myself get on the roads to adapt to the harder surfaces. But my ideal surface is some good grass. If there was a grass marathon, it would be my favorite event. I swear I could be world champion of grass marathons. I love the grass. But I absolutely love to get lost in the woods on trails and it’s probably where I fell in love with running – trail running. It’s just so pure, being able to be out in nature. For trail runs, I feel like I could run forever.

iRF:  You train in Portland, Oregon, which has a pretty robust trail system. Do you get out on the trails?

Flanagan:  Yes, I live downtown which has great access to Leif Erikson Drive, which is a huge network of trails right from downtown. It’s an amazing park to have in a major city. There’s a lot of great singletrack that is good for off-season and being adventurous. But when I’m in season and focused on competing well, I need a little bit better footing, so I stay on the main trail of Leif and that’s by far my favorite in Portland.

iRF:  You just did a block of training in Mammoth Lakes. Did you explore any of the forest-service dirt roads or trails up there?

Flanagan:  Yes. There is an endless supply of trails there in Mammoth. I’ve been there to train maybe three times now, and I discover new trails every time. There are a lot of forest-service roads and they all intertwine. It’s a runner’s heaven there.

iRF:  I understand that when you were there this year you were doing a lot of bulk miles and not necessarily focused workouts or paces, so maybe that allowed you to be more exploratory…

Flanagan:  Yes. We were definitely more adventurous in our selection of trails. We didn’t care about the pace as much for some of the runs so we could just absorb the scenery. If it was challenging, we didn’t worry about the pace.

iRF:  You were there during spring. Spring in mountain country can be beautiful or howling winds and a snowstorm. Do you have any stories, like an epic training day, that you had to plow through wind or snow?

Flanagan:  Yeah, we actually had two good examples. We had one day that was pretty snowy. But it’s kind of fun, because it’s just so beautiful and you didn’t have to worry about the pace. I think we had one really windy day, I want to say it was 50 mph winds in Mammoth. It was horrendous. We saw a car roll across the parking lot, because it wasn’t in park. We actually couldn’t go outside and run that day. Deena Kastor’s husband said, “You guys should not run outside.” So we had to hop on the treadmills. It was that dangerous. Tree limbs were flying everywhere.

iRF:  Let’s switch gears, because I know that you have a singular focus in your life right now. You’re down to the last two months until the Olympic Marathon.

Flanagan:  Yeah, it’s like eight weeks.

iRF:  You’re in the heart of your training. What’s going on in your training day-to-day and week-to-week right now?

Flanagan:  We did our base phase which is a huge bulk of mileage. We’re still keeping the mileage fairly high; I’m running about 115 miles-per-week right now. We’re starting to integrate more of the intense sessions. Last week, I had a fartlek and some quarters to get our legs turning over again on the track. Then, I had a 22-mile steady-state run. So we have some good specifics that are starting to lead us into the meat and potatoes of our training and getting down to race pace which, you know, is hopefully in that low 2:20 marathon pace to be competitive on a world stage. We’re kind of callousing our minds and bodies, our minds and legs to be able to endure that type of pace. I find a lot of confidence in the day-in, day-out routine of training.

iRF:  That brings up a question that I think about when I watch runners train long for a goal event. You said you find confidence in working toward this goal. For some people, they struggle with that, because there isn’t tangible evidence every day and the goal seems so far away. How do you stay mentally strong and committed to a goal that sometimes probably doesn’t feel real?

Flanagan:  It can seem overwhelming and daunting, but it’s kind of like living in the moment and making the most of each workout and enjoying the process. For me, what’s super important is having accountability in the sense of a training group, having people that are just as passionate about running as I am, having a coach that is motivated to get the most out of me. I am intrinsically motivated, but it’s nice to be grounded by people who are supportive. It’s a constant reminder that it’s worth it to put in the work. But it’s focusing on enjoying each workout and each day.

iRF:  You and Kara train together. I imagine there must be benefits from working together that are physical and psychological. What it’s like to have another speedy, cool girl to train with?

Flanagan:  I get excited to go to practice. It’s not work to me at all. I get giddy getting in my car every day to go to practice and see my training partners. We have fun in what we’re doing. It doesn’t seem like work at all. It’s work in the sense that we put each other through the grinder. We suffer together. We push each other to get the most out of ourselves. It’s nice to share the journey with someone.

When we look back at our careers it’s won’t just be about the titles, it’s the little memories along the way, the fun things and places we’ve been. So yeah, it’s a really unique opportunity. Not very many women get to train together at this level. I think we thrive off of it. I gain a lot of confidence when Kara races well, because we do the same training. When I see her do well, I get excited about where I’m at. It’s a really special opportunity.

iRF:  Can you take me for a minute to one of your recent long runs? What’s the atmosphere like between the two of you? Does it have its intense, quiet moments? Are you giggly? Do you talk very much about stuff together? Do you not talk very much?

Flanagan:  We go through phases in the workouts, because in the beginning we feel good and we’re peppy. Then, as the workout gets harder, we get more serious and a little bit quieter. We may be joking in the beginning and lighthearted, but then we’re working pretty hard and there may not be much talking and it’s more like body language. We’re always very encouraging with each other. We know we can’t be perfect every single day, but we try to help each other and get the most out of each workout.

iRF:  You’re not a stranger to the Olympics. You’ve done this before and you’ve got a medal. Is there comfort in knowing what the Olympic experience is like going into it with previous experience?

Flanagan:  Yeah, this is my third Olympics. So if I reflect upon my first ’til now, it’s a huge difference in my mentality. Back then, I felt like a kid, really naive, I didn’t really have any major goals at the end. I was there more as a participant just observing. And now, I come with a lot of purpose to what I’m there for.

The way I look at it, it’s almost a fresh start. The marathon, to me,  is a completely different sport than track. I feel a little bit of naivete  to the marathon in a sense, because it’s only my third and this marathon is on a huge stage, the Olympics. While I’m a veteran in the sense of running, the Olympic Marathon will be a new experience.

iRF:  And you will go into it as the top American having won the Olympic Trials. Do you have goals that you’re ready to articulate? What’s on your mind?

Flanagan:  I’m on track to be in the best shape for the marathon I’ve ever been in. What that correlates to on race day, I’m not sure. Knowing that I’m going into the biggest race of my life with the best fitness of my life, I can’t ask for more. Whatever that translates to on race day, I won’t know until then, because I have no control over my competitors. If it all comes together, I may be able to seize an unbelievable opportunity at the right time. We’ll have to find out.

iRF:  Keep your fingers and toes and everything crossed.

Flanagan:  Yep, everything crossed.

iRF:  And then rely on being the beastly fit woman that you are, right?

Flanagan:  (laughs)

iRF:  Have you ever run a trail race?

Flanagan:  Back in high school, some of my cross-country races were very much trail races. They were very challenging, because you had to have strong ankles and be a really athletic runner.

iRF:  I think some of the girls in trail racing today might like to see what happens if Shalane Flanagan showed up.

Flanagan:  Yeah, it’s a different sport. It would be fun to try something different.

iRF:  I appreciate your time. Best to you on your Olympic journey. We’ll be cheering for you!

Flanagan:  Thank you, I appreciate it. Good! We’ll need it!

iRF:  You’ll have millions on your side.

[Thanks to Nissan’s Innovation for Endurance initiative for setting up the interview.]

Meghan Hicks

is the Managing Editor of iRunFar and the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running.' The converted road runner finished her first trail ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places.