It was easy to take Shalane Flanagan for granted as a marathon contender. She brought that on herself with sustained excellence. She started a dozen races over a nine-year span, all in the competitive crucible of majors, U.S. Olympic team trials and Summer Olympic Games; she finished in the top 10 in every one.
That is a remarkable history, considering all the variables that can come into play along 26.2 miles of asphalt, including weather, injuries and the natural inconstancy of desire. She often spoke about how much work it took and how much she loved that work, but it was still harder than she ever let on.
Flanagan, the 2017 New York City Marathon champion who announced her retirement and transition to coaching this week, likes to turn the lens on other women and the satisfaction she felt in helping lift the general level of American distance running. But this is the time to take stock of her.
She already had a distinguished résumé in cross-country and track before I first interviewed her in 2010 on the eve of her marathon debut, also in New York. She owned a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympic 10,000-meter event (later upgraded to silver due to a doping disqualification), and would go on to hold multiple indoor and outdoor titles and records. Flanagan was earmarked for brilliance, according to pretty much everyone. She herself was cautious, saying she'd have to see how she liked the distance. Turned out she did, and the feeling seemed mutual as she came in second. In her next marathon, the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials in Houston, she soloed to victory.
Having started so close to the top, Flanagan spent the five years trying to bridge that last, elusive increment in international competition. I was present for a lot of those moments, and whatever her degree of disappointment or frustration, Flanagan was always analytical, accessible, and classy.
She stood in the rain on The Mall at London 2012 after finishing 10th and made no excuses. "It was tough just to let people pass me, and I had no oomph to go with them,'' she said. "I tried to react, like in a track race, but it is really different for me in the marathon.''
At the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials in Los Angeles, heat exhaustion made her wobble but her inner autopilot kept her upright after she told training partner Amy Cragg to go on alone in the last mile. Flanagan collapsed in Cragg's arms past the finish line, but got up from a wheelchair to give a shaky post-race, pre-medical-tent comment. "Sweet Baby Jesus, I'm so thankful for her,'' Flanagan said.
That valiant effort got her to Rio 2016, where her result wasn't significantly different. Flanagan faced reporters in an outdoor pen, speaking over samba music and explained her race strategy. "I'm happy I hung in as long as I could,'' Flanagan said. "Maybe I gave up a little bit too much ground, but that's all I had. That's who I am.''
The subtext of her comments lurked unspoken, and surfaced months later when Jemima Sumgong, the first Kenyan woman to win marathon gold, tested positive for the blood booster erythropoietin. But that bust didn't apply retroactively, and Flanagan is still in sixth place in the books.
No goal loomed bigger than Boston. Flanagan put it on a pedestal and imagined herself on the podium from the time she was a young girl growing up in the North Shore town of Marblehead, Massachusetts. When serious injury sidelined her in early 2017, it looked as if that aspiration, among others, would be beyond her.
Thus, it was a little surprising -- even for someone who was always in the conversation -- to hear her frame her ambition in blunt terms and say outright how badly she wanted to win in New York that fall. When she did, fellow runners hailed it as both deserved and believable. Flanagan's long, steady string of footprints eclipsed speculation about the benefits of new shoe technology. She was a known quantity.
And she wasn't quite done. Chilled to the bone in the blustery weather conditions at Boston 2018, well shy of winner Desiree Linden's pace, there seemed to be little reason for Flanagan to finish, except that she always finished. Flanagan later hugged Linden in the lobby of the Fairmont Copley hotel without a hint of wistfulness.
Yet when I think of Boston and Shalane Flanagan, my most vivid image is of sitting with her at the bar in that same hotel in 2013, locked down and unable to leave the building after the bombings that killed three and maimed so many. Flanagan was pale, with just a touch of high color on her cheekbones betraying the shock and anger she felt.
The attack drove home, savagely, how nothing can be assumed. Our reporter-athlete relationship was never exactly the same again. Whatever walls necessarily existed there evaporated for an afternoon. We glimpsed each other's humanity in a different way than we would usually allow.
That's part of why I'm not hesitant to say I'm glad Flanagan hung in there until she bagged her second and biggest win, punctuating it with a third place in New York last year in her final race. Watching an elite athlete channel their outsized internal pressure and do something they expect themselves to do is a rare and fascinating thing. That's who she was. This is all she had.