Nikki Rafie and Helene Hutchinson met with Shalane Flanagan in her home in Portland, Oregon, in early November to congratulate her on her amazing running career and to primarily talk with her about her next opportunity coaching elite runners.
To highlight her running career, Shalane has been an amazing runner since high school, as a two-time winner of the Footlocker XC (before NXN existed!), three-time state of Massachusetts XC all-state performances and numerous track records. She ran at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill where she won national XC titles in 2002 and 2003 and multiple track accolades. Post collegiately she raced and held records in the 3k to the marathon, made four Olympic teams, running the 5k in 2004, earning an Olympic silver in the 2008 10k and placing 10th and then 6th in the 2012 and 2016 marathons respectively.
Most recently, Shalane won the 2017 NYC Marathon, the first female American winner since 1977. This just touches the surface of her talent, accolades, and impact on running.
Over the past several months, Shalane TV commentated two globally watched running events – the INEOS 1:59 Challenge and NYC Marathon. When asked about this experience, Shalane talked about how she really enjoys TV and loved talking about other people’s running.
“It’s one of those things that never in a million years I thought I’d be into, yet I really love it. I actually love the investigative side, the media side and doing the homework on the athletes and figuring out how their training is going, their mindset and all the nuances and studying them… And it’s fun to stay in the sport, have a contribution and it not be about my running.
There are not very many female commentators or female coaches so I feel a need to step up to the plate and not just shy away into the background. It’s time to step up and use that knowledge, then showcase as more women may be interested in commentating and coaching. Until you see it you don’t know it’s a reality or a viable option for a career.”
As she moves into coaching elite athletes, she humbly recognizes that her insights are limited right now. She feels like she has been on a bit of an internship this past year, knowing when she ran NYC in 2017, that coaching is what she intended to do next. Very exciting for us all!
You just recently announced your retirement from competitive racing, why now and was it a hard decision to make?
There were a variety of factors that went into the decision and I gave myself a lot of time the whole year since my last race. I’ve known since the 2016 Olympics that this was something I really wanted to do yet I just didn’t know the timing. I wanted this to be intuitive and not forced. I realize that it’s a blessing to be able to decide when you retire.
I realized that I was more into the athletes I was training with, their results and their training, than I was my own. That was a sign. So this was a pretty easy decision. I had this desire in the past couple of years to have one more big moment beyond getting an Olympic medal. When I got it in New York, I just felt like I was very much at peace with everything I had done. I felt like I had done it all and I could keep going, but I actually feel like I have more to give now in these new roles than I do with running.
Like with any job, you feel that you have maximized it and now need a bigger challenge. How do I become a world class coach in an area where there are not many women? That’s a brand new big challenge.
So in a roundabout way it was a variety of factors. I knew it was coming over the past couple of years, which made it a little easier to transition. It was in stages and it wasn’t forced. Everyone was very encouraging to have me to wait to make sure. There was no pressure to move on in any capacity. I wasn’t pushed. If anything, it was like ‘you should keep running’. And even my teammates were like what? You are not going to keep running?’ So, it’s nice to leave on the terms of people wanting more instead of ‘oh my gosh, is she still here?’ It’s kind of a different vibe which is kind of fun.
Was coaching something you’ve thought about more recently or throughout your career?
When I first got into running, I thought that coaching would be something I’d be into. I thought that it’s maybe the next natural step. But, it never resonated as much as until a friend, another one of the Bowerman Women, was having a tremendous amount of injuries and set backs. It was really rough for her and I needed to convince her to stay in the sport. She was ready to quit. Ready to be done. Then she worked through it, had a phenomenal season in which she went from having the lowest of expectations to earning a medal at the World Championships! I had been a part of that process of helping rebuild her physically and mentally in confidence. And then actually being in that race and watching her fly by me and earn a medal. She completely blew her own mind and everyone’s mind that she was capable of this.
Literally that night in Beijing China, I was like ‘I need to coach’. I need to help and be part of this. It was so rewarding to invest myself in someone and see their success. It was the greatest feeling. It was addicting. This was as good as if I had accomplished it and I didn’t have to do it. I got to be a part of it and feel a direct affect on someone in that way that was a memory she will have forever. I will have forever. I want memories like this a lot more often. This was a pivotal moment. I was like yes, I definitely want to coach.
In coaching everyone always saying you can have the best X’s and O’s and workouts and fancy things, yet it is all about the relationship you build with the athlete to help them execute, getting into their head and in-between the ears is way more important than anything else.
As you make your transition to being on the other side of training as a coach, what do you hope to bring to coaching elite athletes?
There are two things I think about a lot specifically at this level.
The first one transcends to all levels. Showing up and caring to me is the number one factor. If the athlete feels that you really care about them as an individual and you show up during the workouts that no one wants to be at (it’s cold, it’s rainy and it’s gross), you show the commitment level.
We had foster girls that went to Lincoln High School. What made me realize this theme was that it applies to every athlete, to kids especially. They were track runners and we would go to their track meets and they would not even acknowledge that we were there. It didn’t even matter if we said or did anything, yet if they saw us in the stands, it meant the world to them. They would notice when we went to go get a snack and come back, and say ‘you left for 15 minutes’. They are very perceptive!
Elite athletes are the same. They notice how much effort you put into it. The more effort you put into their running and the commitment to them, they will then run through brick walls for you as they feel the commitment that you care about what they are doing. Like I said, you can have all of these fancy workouts and that’s great. To me, the foundation of coaching is showing up and caring.
Secondly, with elite athletes you don’t often need to be this big rah rah motivator. If anything you always have to be holding them back. They are so extremely motivated, they are their own worst enemy. They will train, train, train all day long. It is like these thoroughbreds that just want to go out and run all of the time. You never have to motivate them to work harder. The best coaches are always dialing it back, holding them back. So when you put them on the start line, they are just chomping at the bit to race and run well.
How do you think your coaches throughout your career have molded your coaching philosophy?
In high school, there was not a strong running culture and I’d actually just make up my own workouts. I would read books, Joanie (Samuelson) had a training book and I’d be like, Joanie did this workout. I loved that.
Then, I had my college coach and two professional coaches where each contributed to my vision of what I’d do as a coach. With each person, there are nuggets of gold that I pull from.
In college, Coach Whittlesey taught me a lot about teamwork and how to operate as a unit of lot of people, using peoples’ skills and how to integrate everyone. And just the general basics of working hard.
Then after college, Coach Cook really taught me how to take care of myself in terms of health and injury prevention. He was so into the details and he always emphasized being a great athlete. He was really big into the weight room and injury prevention and staying on top of niggles. I learned a lot from him.
Then Coach Schumacher is like the mix of everything. He has all of those qualities and that’s probably why he is one of the best coaches in the world. He’s got it all. And if he doesn’t have the answer, he outsources. When you are healthy and ready to go, Jerry is the best to bring you along and see the big picture. He is always thinking about the big picture, the end goals and the slow incremental investment over years. For distance runners it is not instantaneous success. It’s delayed gratification. He teaches athletes patience. A lot of key mental skills are learned through training as there are long arduous workouts. This was quite an adjustment when I came to him. Patience is a big thing.
There is such a great mix that I have learned from all of my coaches. I feel like having had that variety prepares me well for seeing things a little differently as I’ve seen through the eyes of different coaches.
In general, it’s about caring about the athlete as a whole person.
We are such a competitive group yet at the end of the day. I care about the individual first and foremost, their wellbeing and happiness always. That is the priority.
I love that they run fast yet are they a good person? Are they contributing to the community? Are they a good family member? Values in running transcend to everything. They are going to be great if they have those foundational things dialed in. As a coach, that is the first and foremost.
What excites you about coaching and what, if anything, scares you about it?
It excites me because it’s new territory. Technically I’ve never really coached. I’ve been more of a mentor and leader.
This is taking on the responsibility of people’s careers. I take that as pretty good weight. When they are coming to me for advice, I have their career in my hands and that’s really important. These athletes only have a window of maybe six years of running. We need to maximize and keep them healthy, happy and supported. I think that’s exciting and scary at the same time.
Being in an environment where I am the only female coach is a little intimidating.
It was my first experience this summer going to the US and World Championships. I never thought of it as a gender specific area. I never picked my head up as an athlete, looked around at the coaches and the people that were in these warm-up areas.
At US Championships, I was literally one of three women coaches (and maybe one or two agents representing the athletes). It was wild. That was eye opening.
Then at World Championships it was an even smaller ratio. I think I was the only female there. This was pretty crazy. There was one agent from Tennessee and then there was me.
I think if you want to be in a position like this, you have to advocate for yourself. If it’s not a role that people may see as viable, you may have to create it for yourself and not wait for it to come to you.
I hope that companies start to invest in it. I advocated for myself and I am really happy I was supported.
It was exciting in New York when I did the TV broadcast. There were three women on the broadcast. There was a 3 to 2 ratio and it didn’t matter. I was a new addition and they were excited about it.
Early in your career you had what might be called setbacks or negative results. What steps did you take to get back out there and succeed? And how do you think you can bring that amazing mindset to your athletes?
There were definitely a few points within my career that were probably pivotal moments. I was a really good high school runner. I had chosen my parents very well; genetics of our parents take us only so far, and then you have to work.
Many of the men and women that I went up against in high school, went to Foot Locker
(which was a big deal). I hadn’t made it yet, and I had a couple of really bad races trying to qualify. I was sick and collapsed one time, one time it was almost psycho-symptomatic. The desire to make it so badly would give me anxiety and that was devastating to me.
I think, for some reason, I've always been able to turn these moments of bad races or bad injuries into a strength instead of falling under pressure and disappointment.
It happened again in college, a setback in my sophomore year. I was leading and winning in an NCAA cross-country race, and I ended up stopping and walking (finished 16th …really embarrassing). I was feeling the pressure as they had announced the night before that I was the NCAA runner of the year. I crumpled under pressure again.
So, I went and saw a sports psychologist to get help and evalute. Then, I ended up with two national titles in cross. Again, I used that weakness that was exposed to build strength from.
Setbacks are instigators to re-evaluation: How do I get better or what resources do I need to get help from? I think it’s just how I react instinctually.
I’ve also had various injuries in my career and, in those low moments, was able come back to have some of the greatest moments of my career. Right out of college I had foot surgery and it could have gone really badly; I came back and set 3 American records. In Beijing I had food poisoning 4 days before the race. I had a serious back injury and came back and won New York City Marathon.
I don’t have the recipe on how this happens… I just use it as a greater motivation. The re-evaluation and realization of why I’m doing this makes me little a tougher. Or, maybe the rest is really good for you. Runners don’t like to rest but the body needs it. If something holds you back, then you are forced to rest.
One thing I’m probably more compassionate about is that I understand and have personally experienced the fatigue levels. I can feel the fatigue in my bones and how hard it can be sometimes. So, I can tell the athletes to back off and rest a little bit more and still have confidence that they can come back stronger.
This personal understanding, shared experience, and empathy can resonate well with the athletes.
As a female coach do you think you will have a unique perspective and what advantages, if any, will that give you?
There are aspects about training that can apply to both men and women equally; you can give them the same type of stressors. But then there are certain aspects about training that you have to respect about the physiology of a male and a female. There are significant differences, one major difference is the fact that we (women) menstruate every month or should be if you’re a healthy female. I think there's this old school mentality that if you're training really hard you can expect to not have periods, but the reality is that actually at no point is that good for you to have that happen.
I can attest on a personal level (maybe TMI) that at no point I lost my cycle and I run a hundred and thirty miles a week. Not many women in this country can say that.
So, to me that’s no excuse. If you do have that problem, it's usually some stressors in life, under fueling and being undernourished can cause that.
This (fuel/nutrition) is a huge passion of mine and that's why I wrote the cookbooks. I witnessed it firsthand at the NCAA level--the under-fueling, undernourishment, eating disorders, really bad relationship with food; not looking at it in a positive light and something that is supposed to enhance your life.
There is a lot of misinformation and fad diets (low fat, low calorie). I didn't know any better and it was a blessing in my life to have had a college teammate role model, Elyse Kopecsky. Elyse had suffered athletic amenorrhea and was told she would never have children and had to get on birth control to regulate. It was when she moved to Switzerland that things changed. The food there was more natural, not fat free and so processed. She adopted a new way of eating in that environment and amazingly she got her cycle back. (She has two children now).
The revolutionary moment came to Elyse that there is nothing wrong with her, she’s just been eating wrong. Our food culture is really warped and misinformed.
Elyse decided to change careers and went to culinary school in New York to pursue this new path of learning about food and nutrition.
It was a couple of years later when we sat together here. I was training for my 4th Olympics, but I was feeling tired and hungry, feeling like I’m going to burnout before even getting there. It was then that Elyse suggested to try an experiment. She would tell me what foods to eat, created recipes based on her knowledge. I was eating better and I started to honestly feel so much better. I had way more energy and life, and I was older.
That is a big factor in women's running that needs to be considered. You can't just coach men and women the same without respecting the fact that women have monthly physiological changes, you can't expect the same body percent fat and composition, and nutritional needs. It is completely negligent and naive to ignore this fact and reality.
There is no magic number on a scale for an athlete to hit. I always tell the athletes that they need to have a general idea of what fitness is, but it doesn’t always match the scale.
We need to recognize that weight matters in distance running. It is part of it unfortunately, but not to the point of obsessing about it and making it a focal point. There are far more important factors in a training process that matter more. The culture emphasizes this way too much. Instead we should focus on long term health and longevity. We want these women to walk away from the sport and just feel good, not to be worried about if they can have children or other health issues.
That is refreshing to hear from an elite athlete at Shalane’s level. Everyday runners and aspiring young runners look at the elites and can get the wrong perception.
I worry sometimes when the kids and parents look at our athletes and we are all healthy, but some of us are thin.
For example, I‘m thin, but if you were to look at the evolution of me from high school to where I am now, it's a long slow process of refinement of mileage and adjusting my diet to where I’m at nice healthy weight that also coincides with some good running. But, it’s a progression not an overnight thing.
I also want to be pound-for-pound the strongest out there. I don't think of the word “thin” but strong. The mentality that I always bring with women is, "How strong can we get today?"--in the weight room, on these hills, in speed workouts?
She has taken the opportunity to talk to kids and youths about this topic, when it’s appropriate with the right audience.
For example, in a Bowerman training camp this summer, we specifically pulled the women out to talk about what is natural, what's not natural, what are fallacies and truths, a very honest and open discussion.”
Her cookbooks have been very successful and impactful too.
I’m regularly approached by people in grocery stores who look into my cart and talk about what’s their favorite recipe from the cookbook. My running has allowed these books to have a platform and make an impact. People seem to trust what we are saying.
And lastly, as a new coach, what advice would you give yourself as you start this chapter of your life?
I think it gets back to what I said earlier about caring and showing up and being present. We have a big team, and some of them are previous training partners. There’s a connection and a bond. Even though they come to me for advice and we talk, I find it important and helpful to check up on them regularly. Whether it's at practice or a text message or a phone call to see how they’re doing. Lots of athletes will try to just power through and don’t ask for help. You almost have to investigate and draw it out of. They may look fine and seem fine, but it’s good to be proactive and make sure.
Shalane’s presence in the elite coaching scene can signal new opportunities and have a ripple effect in showing that coaching is a viable option financially for women. There are a lot of women out there that want to get into this but are not sure how to go about it. Having mentors and role models to teach and support them can pave the way.
I’m hoping that someday I can mentor and help someone else come along.
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