In the long run, watch out for these U.S. women at the Boston Marathon

Last October, Shalane Flanagan became the first U.S. woman to win New York City Marathon since Miki Gorman in 1977. 

Living history will lace up at Monday’s Boston Marathon. A pack of elite women who have rewritten the U.S. distance-running books are going head to head on a famous course none of them have totally solved. The confluence rarely happens outside of the Olympic trials. But this is a race, not a parade, and it represents perhaps the best chance in more than three decades for an American to break the finish line tape.

Spanning 20 years in age, they form a linked chain of sustained excellence, persevering in an era of East African dominance and doping-clouded results interrupted by rare breakout performances. Jordan Hasay, whose sensational 2:23 third-place finish in Boston last year was the best-ever marathon debut for a U.S. woman, will share the road with her childhood idol, Shalane Flanagan. Reigning New York City champion Flanagan will take her fourth and likely last shot at conquering her hometown event alongside two-time Olympic teammate Desiree Linden, who came within two seconds and one last, late kick of wearing the Boston winner’s laurel wreath in 2011.

Linden’s first Boston Marathon in 2007, run in a raging nor’easter, also featured the only previous appearance at this race by an athlete who helped set the pace for all of them: 2004 Olympic silver medalist Deena Kastor. Now 45, a mother and newly published author, Kastor is returning for her first marathon in 2½ years with rekindled drive and age-adjusted goals.

In the leading rank of U.S. women, only Amy Cragg — Linden’s longtime friend and Flanagan’s training partner, who recently ran 2:21:42 in a third-place finish at the Tokyo Marathon — will be missing from the start. American 10,000-meter record-holder Molly Huddle, whose lone marathon foray to date was a third-place finish in New York City in 2016, will take on Heartbreak Hill for the first time.

Here are thoughts from the four American women with Boston Marathon experience about their motivation and the deep field going into Monday’s race:

Shalane Flanagan, 36
Previous Boston results (3): 2013: 2:27:08 (4th); 2014: 2:22:02 (6th); 2015: 2:27:47 (9th)

On her mindset with a major win already in her pocket:

“I definitely feel a sense of more peacefulness about my career. I felt very validated in that moment knowing I could beat the best in the world in the marathon. For me, this is a way to say goodbye on my own terms. I haven’t had very many bad races in my career, but probably the worst I’ve ever run was my last Boston in 2015. It was just a stinker, a really bad day for me. So, my motivation is at minimum for it to be better than that. I was that little kid standing on the corner of Hereford and Boylston watching my dad run the marathon, and that’s how the idea of becoming a marathoner started. For me, there’s no better way to potentially finish and end it there. There are obviously a lot of emotional ties and in the past I’ve felt antsy to prove myself, but I feel wiser and calmer about the approach to Boston.”

On American women’s distance running:

“We’re in a golden era right now. It’s weird to think I’m in it and part of it and on the cusp of leaving it. Two years from now, in 2020, there’s going to be some amazing marathoners left off the Olympic team. But, and that’s a big but, we have East Africa to contend with. It’s just fun to think that there could be multiple Americans in contention for the top three.”

On what’s kept American women marathoners motivated through all the fallow years:

“Deena had Joanie [Benoit Samuelson], we’ve had Deena, and now I’m kind of that next step down from Deena. We’ve had some great role models to show that it’s possible. It doesn’t happen often, clearly, but there’s that glimmer of hope. Amy and I have totally made each other better the last two years. The accountability, the therapy of going through our training, venting to each other. If I know she’s nailed a workout, when I get to that cycle of my training, I know what Amy’s done and I try to match that. Seeing Jordan debut with a really fast time, we can’t relax. Who can do that next, biggest, best thing? You want to be that person.”

Jordan Hasay, 26
Previous Boston results (1): 2017: 2:23:00 (3rd)

On trying to follow her own act from last year

“My debut went so well, you think, ‘I hope it wasn’t a fluke.’ I have this sense of confidence, really no pressure. My goal is to win. Last year, it was kind of laughable; I was nervous about grabbing all my water bottles. I hadn’t done a lot of long runs. Now a 20-mile run is almost a moderate run for me. Six miles in, I could already feel the pounding in my quads. I didn’t panic. I had a good sense of where the hills are, where people make their moves. At 18 miles when Edna [Kiplagat, of Kenya, the eventual winner] made her move, it still felt like a long way to go. Last year I felt more like I was surviving. I’m more awake this time. I definitely want to drive that last six or seven miles before the race. I was so tired, I don’t remember a lot of it, to be honest.

On the age gap in the elite U.S field

“I’m running alongside my childhood idols. Shalane and I are on different ends of the spectrum. She’s been my idol for years. The pure joy of being out there — I could always sense that in her. I obviously want to do really well, but she’s 36, I’m 26, and I have 10 more years to accomplish my goals.”

On adjusting to life without her mother, who died five months before the 2017 race

“We had talked about Boston, and she’d written it in her calendar. Running gave me something to take away the grief. I did so well, and then it was very tough personally: ‘OK, now I really have to move on and figure out this new future without my mom.’ It hit my father harder first. Then I took it. It’s a never-ending process, and you can’t box it up. We all try to celebrate the time we did have with her. I moved back to central California, and my brother, two years younger, moved back here as well. We call ourselves the Three Musketeers, and we’re all powering through. I run for her honor.”

Deena Kastor, 45
Previous Boston results (1): 2007: 2:35:09 (5th)

On why she only ran Boston once and her memories of the frightful weather that year

“When deciding between Boston and London it was always — Boston you go for a win, London you keep chipping away at time. The decision was really hard to make. It was an agonizing choice. Win this prestigious race — Boston is the epitome of marathon running in the U.S. — or put my American record a little more out of reach. Once, I put two stuffed animals in my driveway. Boston was the bear and London was the moose, and I let my dog pick. I typically enjoy running in adverse conditions. In 2007, I remember people sandbagging the side of the course, and thinking that it only takes a foot of water to displace a vehicle.”

On what it’s like to run with different goals

“It’s been an amazing climb back into fitness. You realize, you were meant to do this. But there was a transition that wasn’t so easy, to accept your fastest days are behind you. This sport is how you get the best of yourself on a daily basis. I love the crux of getting through that discomfort to the other side, and pushing my limits even though my limits are different than they were 10 years ago. My optimism and inner strength doesn’t atrophy. Everyone takes what they want from the sport.”

On the continuity in U.S. women’s marathon competition

“Our sport has such a short history. The first women are still alive and telling their stories, like Kathrine Switzer. I’m no spring chicken now, but I’ve never had inequality in the sport. I’m so grateful to people like Bobbi Gibb and Kathrine Switzer. Now women are starting to run younger. It used to be that you only started running marathons when your track speed started to fade. They have each other. Des jump-started Americans trying to podium with her second-place finish [in 2011]. Molly Huddle just broke my American record in the half-marathon. You can’t become complacent.”

Desiree Linden, 34
Previous Boston results (5): 2007: 2:44:56 (19th); 2011: 2:22:38 (2nd); 2014: 2:23:54 (9th); 2015: 2:25:39 (4th); 2017: 2:25:06 (4th)

On returning to Boston for the sixth time

“My debut marathon [in 2007] was kind of when I was trying to decide whether I was even going to continue with the sport. Most people know my history in the 2011 race: ‘Oh, she was so close, that must be what keeps her going back.’ It’s such a unique distance. You put it on that course with that crowd and that history, just the whole environment of it made me fall in love with the marathon. It’s an easy place for me to go back to. I have every experience there at this point, and I love it all. Every experience I do learn a little bit more about the course, where things break and where I struggle.”

On the ties that bind the U.S. women

“We’ve had really great heroes. When you look at Joanie, she’s this incredible runner and she’s so brave, but she’s also such a gracious, kind person who wants to see others succeed. Deena’s like that, Shalane’s like that, Kara [Goucher] is like that. They raise the sport up instead of trying to hold onto their moment. I think people strive to be like them, and they’ve helped the next generation take a step forward. Training groups are bigger than ever. And if we can create more depth at that level, more people will break through.”

On what she expects of herself Monday

“I’m going to keep trying to win. That’s the goal. The mantra is ‘keep showing up,’ and that’s been my philosophy every day heading into this. I haven’t given up on it yet, and I’m going to keep showing up for as long as the body will hold up, and as long as the mind is excited about it. Some days it’s not, so I show up anyway. I skipped a fall marathon last year and took a little running hiatus to refresh the body and the mind. I think that’s going to pay off this year and maybe the next year or two. I’m on a little bit fresher legs this time. I’m excited to race the marathon again and run the distance I love.”

Leave a Response