As Shalane Flanagan suffered to make her girlhood dream a reality, we hoped.
As she pumped her fist and sprinted the final stretch of the New York Marathon, we cheered.
As she broke the tape, ending a 40-year drought for American women winning the New York Marathon, we cried.
Whether we’re accustomed to the top of the podium or are regulars at the back of the pack, what the 36-year-old four-time Olympian did on Sunday inspired runners of all types in myriad ways.
Flanagan is special not just because of her accomplishments but for what she’s come to represent — especially to women. She is an intense, relentless, dedicated competitor who is also gracious, humble and generous.
While she was doing what no American woman has been able to do since 1977, I was picking my sister, Mikie Pylilo, up from a 100-mile race in South Carolina. We had plans to run the last 25 miles together, and after crossing the finish line, I’d hoot and holler as she collected her first ultra belt buckle.
But she got lost during the night, and her race ended at 75 miles in frustration and disappointment. That was exacerbated by the fact that she missed her daughter’s first Mock Trial competition, and not only did Hayley win, but she was awarded "Most Effective Attorney."
I have been there. I’ve been that mom.
I’ve slogged through regret, questioned my priorities and wondered if maybe my goals are just too ambitious for my 49-year-old body and mediocre abilities.
And then I watched Flanagan win.
I got goose bumps. I let the tears fall. And I was reminded that this is why I love sports, especially running. You only know what’s possible if you’re willing to show up for the race.
I remembered that she’d skipped the 2017 Boston Marathon, her hometown race, after learning she had a fractured back. I remember thinking that even the best can’t escape the ravage of time. I remember assuming that a lifetime of elite training and racing had taken its toll. She had a great career, full of accomplishments, I thought, but this is where her decline begins.
It happens to every athlete.
There comes a moment, a race or a season, that is the pinnacle. And after that, even the best days are just shades of what they once were.
On Sunday, Shalane Flanagan showed me — and likely a lot of other people — that our greatest battles come from within.
“I find that the challenges a lot of times for us are not in our legs,” she said in a post-race press conference. “It’s in the head. It’s between the ears.”
I knew I wasn't alone in seeing myself in her triumph, so I reached out to a few friends of various ages and abilities. My question to them was simple — what did Shalane’s victory mean to you?
Their thoughts reminded me how transformative these moments can be.
Brittany Copeland, 34
"Shalane gives me hope that our running dreams are never over,” Copeland said. “With age comes wisdom, and with injuries come important life lessons.
"I cried when I saw Shalane cross the finish line. Why? Because I know the feeling of accomplishing a goal you may have thought wasn’t possible. Last month I became a Boston qualifier for the first time ever. It was one of the best moments of my life. I may not be able to compete on the same stage as Shalane, but I can beat my last race self. That’s what running is all about anyway. Thanks, Shalane, for giving me some added motivation."
Sue Peterson, 63
"Shalane’s win is epic and the culmination of a superb career," Peterson said. "Watching her today was empowering, and I was tearing up as she broke the tape. It was great, controlled, aggressive running. In interviews prior to the race, she believed in the win before she even toed the starting line. She has long been a great ambassador for women’s running, and hopefully today will encourage all female runners to get out there and compete. I really hope Shalane reconsiders retiring. I think she has a lot more to offer."
Kim Cowart, 42
"Two months ago I ran the Top of Utah Marathon," Cowart said. "It was my 46th marathon, and the night before the race, I'd decided it would be my last. Years of racing had taken a toll and I was ready to be done. I was sick of tapers and recoveries. Sick of long bus rides to cold start lines. My thoughts were focused more of family travel plans than training plans.
"Lying in bed the night before that marathon, I sensed a transition. I was unsure what this change would look like, but I knew my focus was shifting.
"I cried when I crossed my finish line. But this time it wasn't about pain and fatigue. As relieved as I was to have the race behind me, I also cried because, well, the race was behind me.
"I pulled my daughters into the living room to watch Shalane Flannigan run the last mile of the NYC Marathon and made no attempt to hide my tears when she won. I wasn't just crying because an American woman won the race, breaking a 40-year drought.
"I cried because Flannigan showed me I can embrace all parts of my life without sacrificing the competitive runner inside. She'd spoken of retirement after her back fracture last spring. She's fostering teenagers. She wrote a cookbook. Her identity as a runner is evolving, and I understood that finish line marked more than the end of a 26.2 mile journey."
Jen Gustavson, 35
"I've been following Shalane for years, and I've seen her succeed and fail," Gustavson said. "As she turned toward that final stretch, and I saw the emotion on her face, I started to tear up too — more than I'd like to admit.
"The marathon, and any race, really, tests your body and your spirit. Nothing rivals that experience. As a former collegiate runner, I totally understand the pain of those final steps, and the dedication and sacrifice that goes into performing at that level. So to see her succeed and accomplish something so huge toward the end of her career was so inspiring.
"As soon as the race was over, I signed up for a few 5Ks myself. I want to experience that sense of accomplishment again."
Arianne Brown, 35
"When I heard the news of Shalane Flanagan’s win, I was crossing my own finish line," Brown said. "I had successfully made it through my first night at home with my eighth baby. He was born just two days before.
"Her win inspired me. Shalane is only one year older than I am, and we took similar running paths in the beginning, although hers was at a different level. While she was breaking records at North Carolina on a national stage, I was running at Southern Utah University, working hard to place at conference championships. And while she continued to pursue a pro career after college, I started a family, and competed at a local level while raising my children. Even though we took very different paths, her recent win inspires me to dream big in whatever life pursuits I have and not to give up on those dreams."
***2 comments on this story
During her post-race press conference, Shalane spoke directly to us. Well, mostly it was to those young, talented runners just starting out on their promising journeys. But I heard a little bit of love in there for all of us who dream and try and fail and continue to show up because most days we find satisfaction in challenging our own limits.
“I’ve been dreaming of this since I was a little girl,” she said through tears. “I hope it inspires the next generation of American women. Be patient. It took me seven years to do this. So there is a lot of work that went into this one moment.”