Shalane Flanagan Q&A: Recovery, final goals and life as a foster parent
Four-time U.S. Olympic distance runner Shalane Flanagan, 35, was gearing up for what she thought might be her last Boston Marathon this month, an important emotional destination for the native of Marblehead, Massachusetts.
Her 2016 season featured a personal best in the half marathon and an American record in the Boston Athletic Association 10K, leading up to her sixth-place finish in the Rio Olympic marathon. Instead, sidelined by an iliac fracture in her lower back that has forced the most significant layoff of her career, Flanagan will throw herself into promotional events and do race-day television commentary.
The Portland, Oregon-based Flanagan has spent the months since Rio exploring new roles as a cookbook author and foster mother to 17-year-old twins Breauna and Keauna Cobb, but she's also determined to race again. She explained why in a recent interview with ESPN.com.
Bonnie D. Ford: What was the experience of this injury like, and where are you at with rehab?
Flanagan: I'm really in tune with my body -- that's one of my biggest assets, listening to my body and adjusting to fatigue, so I'm kind of perplexed as to how it happened. I was running in conditions I've never run in, snow and ice and a lot of treadmill running. I grew up swimming and skiing during the winters. I never really ran during those months. I think throwing off my mechanics and my gait was just enough to tweak things. It just progressively got worse as I trained on it. Things came to a head when I took a long flight over to Japan to run a half marathon. I was experiencing so much discomfort just walking around. It was so debilitating that even coughing hurt. I had a couple of MRIs done and that confirmed it was an iliac fracture.
I was on bed rest for two weeks. Got back into some light swimming, progressed to getting on the bike. Took my first vacation in seven years, which was very much welcome, [with] my two foster girls that my husband [Steve Edwards] and I look after. When given lemons, you make lemonade -- let's celebrate the fact that I have time to do this with them. It's one of the best vacations I've ever taken. It was only the second or third time they have ever been on a plane. To see a place so different from Oregon through their eyes just made it that much better. I'm not happy not to be running Boston, but it was the best way to heal my soul a little bit. We didn't want to leave. The night before, I could tell my girls were a little down. They were saying, "Can we try to miss the flight tomorrow?" We had so much fun.
It's not healed yet. My pain is basically gone. I have some tightness in attachments and muscles protecting the bone, probably from running on it for about a month when I was in pain. I'm getting a lot of physical therapy, I can tell things are progressing, I'm just not quite 100 percent. I started with 5 minutes and now I'm up to 25 minutes of running, and it's glorious.
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Q: I imagine the mental part of rehab is harder than the physical?
A: It's a lot of self-control and self-restraint, and getting over the fear of the injury. I'm just so terrified of reinjuring myself. I get these phantom pains -- is it real pain or in-my-head pain -- because I did run for a while where I was in a lot of pain, and it's almost like your mind and your body remember that. I'm so hungry to get back to running and back to racing that the hardest part is having the self-control and the patience to go nice and easy.
Q: Have you started to set some cautious goals for the rest of this year?
A: I would love to get back to some races this summer -- they may not be the best races I've ever produced, but just to get back out there and push myself and remind myself what it's like to race again. I'm looking at doing a fall marathon. Those are the tentative goals.
Q: What about the worlds on the track? [The IAAF world track and field championships will be held in London this August.]
A: That would put a little more pressure on me to get back, and I just want to take it as it comes. That would be a really aggressive goal. Our U.S. women's team is really tough to make, especially the 10,000 [meters]. I don't think I'd be ready to put in the miles to do that. It would require me to be up and running pretty solid during the next month, and I just don't want to rush anything.
Q: What is driving you to come back? What's left on the table?
A: I'm not good with regrets, and I would just regret not giving it one last go at two more major marathons. I was thinking this might be, potentially, my last Boston. I definitely want to start a family. I've loved my experience with my foster girls. My cookbook has been extremely rewarding and I'm working on a second one. I think there are other things I could be good at, so that's exciting to me, but I feel like there's still some unfinished business. I just can't envision this is how it would end. How my career ends is super important to me. It doesn't mean I'm going to win a major, but at least I'm going to try to win a major marathon in the U.S., and I need at least two more events.
Q: You just learned you're getting an Olympic medal upgrade for a race, the Beijing 2008 10,000, that happened nine years ago. A casual observer might say, "You were on the podium, you got a medal, what's the big deal?"
A: If I were actually handed the silver medal, I think I would bawl. I'm not a super emotional person, but I think it would be really emotional to hold it. When you're racing, dopers change the game. They change the dynamics of the race. We witnessed that in Boston with Rita Jeptoo. In Beijing, instead of dreaming of just a medal, if I had known, if I'd been racing and been in second place, why wouldn't I have dreamed of winning gold at that moment? I'm not presumptuous in thinking I could have beaten [Ethiopia's Tirunesh] Dibaba on that day, but who knows? [Elvan Abeylegesse] took off and Dibaba had to chase her down in order to win. The thing is, if Dibaba hadn't taken off, maybe I could have ... the whole situation changes. It's the loss of something potentially bigger than the silver, it's the loss of thinking I could have won a gold medal.
The way I found out was through social media. The courtesy of a phone call was never even made, and that's disgusting to me. People dedicate their life to this profession, and then to have to find out that way? I still haven't received any information. I guess my faith and my trust is a little shaky, to be honest, in the process. I hope there is some way that Kara [Goucher] and I can celebrate that we're getting upgrades. [Editor's note: Goucher will be upgraded to a 2007 world championship silver in the 10,000 after another Turkish athlete was disqualified.] It's extremely important to set an example, and it's important to our sport and our families and support system.
Q: You've been very outspoken on anti-doping. How has it felt to have people speculate that you might have received an unfair advantage from the shoes you wore at Olympic trials and in Rio last year?
A: That's been interesting. I would love to invite everyone to try them out. Unfortunately, not everyone is sponsored by Nike. I will say this -- it's a shoe; it's a great shoe, but it's just a shoe. There is nothing unfair about it. Shoes are a percentage of what comes into play during a race, but you can't just throw anyone on the start line without having done the training. Do I believe I have some of the best shoes on the starting line? I actually do. Everyone has the ability to access foam and plates. Other companies have accessed all these materials as well. The minds and the brains at Nike came up with a product that is a great shoe, a phenomenal flat. I believe in it. They're fun shoes to run in. But it would never change, in my mind, the outcome of an actual race.
Q: What can you tell me about your foster daughters' background?
A: Both their mother and father are deceased. They do have a grandmother and they go visit her. They have two brothers from the same mother. Their family members have not been able to take care of them. We try to make a point to visit and spend time with everyone. We hope we're doing a good job.
They have a great track program at the high school they go to, with phenomenal coaches who care a lot. Their first meet is this week. I proposed they do cross-country, and I slowly realized they hated it. That made me feel terrible, because I didn't want them to do it just because of me. They're sprinters, and that gives them self-confidence. I tried to go spy on them at practice the other day, but they were off doing hills, so I failed in my attempt to spy on them [laughs]. It'll be fun for me to see what they can do.
Q: What have been the biggest challenges and joys of caring for them? What has surprised you?
A: When I first proposed this idea to my husband, I was definitely scared, but I think the hardest part of being an athlete for me is delaying having a family. We want to have a purpose and we want to take care of kids. The hardest part has been earning their trust and getting them to open up. The fact that they're identical twins and have each other, and have always had each other, is good and bad. They don't separate easily. They finish each other's sentences. So trying to figure out who they are as individuals has been a challenge, because they like to be together all the time.
The more time we've spent with them, taken them on trips, taken them out of the home environment, the school environment, seeing new things together, we've really gotten to know them more. In the car -- I pick them up from school and I try not to ask them too much about their day and be annoying. But it's amazing, when young adults don't have to look at you in the face, they can actually tell you a lot more.
It has been by far one of the most rewarding things my husband and I have ever done, and we've talked about how we could envision doing this all the time, maybe never even having our own and just doing foster care. There's such a need for it. We haven't had any incidents to deter us, or hardships. My only regret is that we didn't get them sooner. But we're changing the trajectory of their future and their life.
They're obtaining a driver's license. We'll have them enrolled in a community college and they'll probably end up living with us for at least another year until we get them stable with school and the routine of jobs. Getting them to be self-motivated and advocate for themselves and realize that if they work hard they can obtain things they want -- it's been a crazy, fun experience. There is the prospect of them leaving in June when they graduate, because they'll be 18, but we just can't envision them leaving us just yet. We're excited to help them transition and be self-sufficient adults.