My Weekend With Shalane Flanagan

Back in August early on a Sunday morning, I pulled myself out of bed not to log my marathon training miles, but to watch the women’s Olympic marathon. With my caramel macchiato-infused coffee in hand, I watched my American idols, Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher, cruising up in front of the pack, clipping off mile splits faster than I can clock a single one. After seeing Bernard Lagat race in person back in college–and then taking to the track to plod through my own 3-K–I can say pros really do make it look, well, pretty darn effortless. These women, even as they navigated the cobblestone streets in London, ran with the same grace, agility, and seemingly superhuman strength. Like I always do when I watch elite races, I sat dumbfounded.

Having been a competitive runner most of my life, I’d like to think I have a reasonable understanding of what it takes to run fast–I’ve completed my fair share of mile repeats and tempo runs. But because I can barely begin to fathom the level of commitment and sacrifice it must take to reach their impossibly speedy level, women like Shalane and Kara simply amaze me. Period. How the heck do they run so fast? Over the past few years after having watched them compete and read (and reread) their stories in Runner’s World, they have become my idols. Or, as I like to explain it to my running-illiterate parents, I revert back to my 12-year-old, soccer-playing self, saying, “They’re like the Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain of running! Get it?”

Now you can only imagine how I felt while I waited to pick up Shalane from the airport before the Runner’s World Half & Festival a couple months later in October. (She was our one of our special guests for the weekend, and I’d been assigned to be her assistant for the weekend. Seriously. Talk about work perks.) The level of nerves in my belly rivaled pre-race jitters. Believe me when I say I spent the previous month composing myself for this moment–I really didn’t want to freak the poor woman out with my hyper excitement over meeting her, a three-time Olympian and American record holder. No biggie, right? Like she always does, my mum brought me back down to earth with a text saying, “Remember, she puts her underwear on the same way as you!” Thanks for that mom.

As the stream of passengers filed through the terminal, Shalane was easy to spot. (Side note: It’s no secret that professional running is so glaringly detached from other sports, and yet it seemed crazy to me that no one on her flight seemed to realize they were flying with an Olympic bronze medalist. Then again, it was late at night in Allentown, PA’s tiny airport.) She was toting a navy blue U.S.A.-emblazoned suitcase, to which she confirmed that it was indeed the one she brought to London. I tried to wrap my brain around that fact as I loaded it into my trunk.

On Friday afternoon, after spending the day at a RW blogger meet-and-greet and later a signing, I picked up Shalane in the hotel lobby for a shakeout run with participants of the event and local runners. Off we went, running down to the towpath where the run was to be held. On the way, Shalane mentioned that she didn’t know what to do with her hotel key, and I said I’d hold it for her. She said she sometimes sticks it in her sports bra even though her guy friends think it’s gross because it gets sweaty. I told her, “Heck, I do that too! Cards are just about the only thing I can store down there!” We laughed. Flat-chested women for the win!

On Saturday morning, Shalane had to log a 90-minute workout before her first commitment for the day. She hopped in my car at 7:30 a.m. so we could head over to Lehigh University’s athletic campus for the run. She mentioned that a wedding party had kept her up the night before and that she had called the front desk to ask them to quiet down the partiers. She admitted that she told them she had a race (rather than a workout) to run in the morning, because she knew they wouldn’t take her seriously if she had said “workout.” I’ll have to keep that clever little trick in mind for later. She also told me she wasn’t exactly excited for the workout, wishing it would just be over with and done. I thought, “Halleluiah! Even the elites don’t like waking up at the butt crack of earliness to log tons of miles!” It was so wonderful to realize that she’s so refreshingly…normal.

It was a stunning autumn morning, cool and misty, perfect for running. We warmed up together for 30 minutes, pausing only to hit the porta-potties where Shalane exclaimed after shutting the door, “YES! There’s toilet paper!” Yes, every runner appreciates toilet paper.

Near the end of the warmup, our pace had progressed to the point where it felt like a tempo run. Ooof. Then she told me she was going to kick it up a notch to start her workout, saying, “Catch ya on the flip side!” And off she went. I slowed down to a walk, trying to catch my breath. Talk about an out-of-body experience. I had just run alongside an Olympian, someone I’ve looked up to for years. Did that seriously just happen?

The trail was out-and-back, so I waited for her at the end so we could meet up and cool down back to campus. A while later in the middle of the workout, I spotted her bright-pink top and blonde hair charging soundlessly toward me. The moment struck me because it mirrored the London Olympic Marathon’s pace truck’s camera angle from which I watched her race just a few months earlier. Except this time, she was actually running at me on a trail that I’d done workouts on last year in college. Pure, utter craziness. Seeing her smooth stride was incredible, and, to be honest, it made me feel like I look like a baby giraffe when I run. After her workout, we cooled down a mile back to the car… at 7:10 pace no less.

Come lunchtime, we were both in desperate need of caffeine. Little did I know, Shalane literally “runs on Dunkin.” Deprived of her obsession on the West Coast in Portland, Oregon, I took her to the joint by Lehigh’s campus. (She even tweeted about it, and we went again on Sunday before she left so she could satisfy the craving.) We both ordered her favorite–“French Vanilla regular with cream and sugar”–and an assortment of doughnut holes because heck, she ran a crazy-hard workout this morning!

We had some time to kill, so we sat in the car and started talking, downing our pumpkin-flavored doughnut holes and coffee. She told me about she and Kara’s plan to race in Australia in December so they could snag the 10-K A-Standard for the 2013 World Championships early before the Boston Marathon in April. Then the topic moved on to having children. Between Lauren Fleshman’s recent blog post on the topic and the fact that she’s best friends with Kara Goucher, it was fascinating to hear her perspective. She said she hopes to continue racing professionally through the 2016 Olympics in Rio and then maybe a year or two after that, saving starting a family with her husband, Steve, until after she’s done. She said she has no problem following in the footsteps of fellow pro-runner Deena Kastor by being an “older” mom. Then we spoke about how she met Steve at the University of North Carolina, and I confided in her that I wasn’t quite so lucky in college in that department. Love it. Once we were reenergized on caffeine and sugar, we decided to explore the expo where we picked out some sparkly headbands that added the perfect touch to this photo that we took on a green screen at the RW Booth: Image

Who would’ve thought I’d be “sharing the RW cover” with Shalane Flanagan? It was especially wild because I life-size photo from her 2010 real cover was just a few feet away.

After more signings and a panel, she decided she would crash early. She was incredibly conscientious about her rest, explaining that on trips like these, she has to take extra measures to take care of her body so she avoids getting sick. This sounds obvious, but this is something we should all try to do on race weekends. Smarty pants.

On half-marathon morning, Shalane–wearing her signature white compression socks–and I headed over to the start. Shalane had decided earlier that weekend to run the half as a training run, shooting for 7:00 to 7:10s. Because I was just two weeks post-marathon, my “goal” was to try to stay with her for as long as physically possible, then drop off and enjoy the ride. As we wove through the runners to get to the front of the corrals, the announcers kept asking the crowd if they’d spotted Shalane, and we giggled because, well, we knew where she was!

Besides my over-excitement for just being at our event that we’d been working on for nearly a year, it was so neat to be there alongside Shalane. Once the gun went off, the two of us set off through the streets of Bethlehem toward Lehigh. We were flying. We rounded a turn heading into the first hill at mile 1 at 6:45 pace. Ooof. Much too fast. At the top off the hill, I was already spent and dropped back from Shalane to settle into my own pace. Yep, she’s fast, not like I didn’t know that already!

The race was absolutely awesome. I’ve run through those streets countless times for Lehigh cross-country training runs, and to get to race through them was incredible. Along the way, I ran into old Lehigh friends, spoke to RW readers, and even ran alongside Dean Karnazes for a few minutes. I finished in 1:37:52, which was much faster than it felt, so I was thrilled. I soon learned that Shalane had paced the female leaders for much of the race and let the winner break the tape. How freakin’ cool? I don’t think there really is another sport where an Olympian can run alongside a regular runner. Talk about reasons why I LOVE this sport! The thought of it just gives me chills.

Seeing that moment reaffirmed what I’d come to realize over the course of the weekend. Running bridges the gaps between all ages, shapes, sizes…the list could go on. I realize that sounds epically cliché, but it was truly eye-opening to see it right in front of me. I realized that an elite like Shalane really wasn’t “superhuman”–like the rest of us, she sometimes dreads those early morning runs and doesn’t mind occasionally rewarding herself with a doughnut hole or two (or three) after a workout–but that her commitment and dedication to her passion is what has elevated her to the level she’s achieved. Talk about inspiring, right?

Before I dropped Shalane off at the airport, I admitted that I needed to geek-out at her for a second and that she needed to sign my race bib – the perfect memento for a perfect weekend.

If you got to hang out with an elite runner, what would you ask them?

QUOTE OF THE POST: “Every time I fail I assume I will be a stronger person for it.” – Joan Benoit Samuelson

Read my other Race Reports here

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