Retired Elite Runner Shalane Flanagan Announces Her Goal to Run 6 World Marathons in 42 Days, Each in Under 3 Hours

Retired Elite Runner Shalane Flanagan Announces Her Goal to Run 6 World Marathons in 42 Days, Each in Under 3 Hours

by Sue Jones
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It’s been almost three years since Shalane Flanagan competed in her last race as a professional runner. Her third-place finish at the 2018 New York City Marathon was the 16-time national champion’s swan song, a year after she became the first American woman to win the event in 40 years. Now Flanagan, who retired in 2019, is gearing up a revisiting of her marquee event—with a new challenge thrown into the mix. In a journey called Project Eclipse, Flanagan is planning to run five scheduled World Marathon Majors, plus one marathon in place of the postponed 2021 Tokyo Marathon, in just 42 days, with the goal of completing each of the six marathons in under three hours, as she just shared with SELF.

Because of delays caused by COVID-19, five of the marathons known as the majors—Berlin, London, Chicago, Boston, and New York City—were pushed together into just seven weeks, spanning from late September to early November. The sixth major, the 2021 Tokyo Marathon, had also been rescheduled for October, but last week officials postponed it further until March 2022. In any case, Flanagan is taking full advantage of this unprecedented opportunity and will run six marathons as originally planned this fall. Her sub-3:00 goal for each marathon means that Flanagan, a four-time Olympian, Olympic silver medalist, and former athlete on the Nike-sponsored Bowerman Track Club (BTC) who now coaches there, will need to average at least a 6:51 mile pace for 157.2 miles of racing in a seven-week time frame. She’s partnered with Nike to take on the six marathons.

Here’s a full breakdown of the ambitious goal Flanagan has set for herself.

Flanagan will begin with the Berlin Marathon—where she ran her 2:21:14 personal best and became the fourth-fastest American marathoner of all time—in the German capital on September 26. From Berlin, she’ll travel to the U.K., where she’ll run the London Marathon (a race typically held in late April) on October 3. Just a week later, on Sunday, October 10, she’ll race stateside in the Chicago Marathon. Then the Massachusetts native will face a rapid turnaround to compete in the Boston Marathon (which is also typically held in April) on Monday, October 11. From Boston, Flanagan will complete a marathon distance on October 17 in Portland, Oregon, the day the Tokyo Marathon was supposed to have taken place after being postponed from its usual March timing. She’ll finish the series at the New York City Marathon on November 7.

This unprecedented challenge comes on the heels of a whole host of life changes Flanagan has experienced since announcing her retirement two years ago. In the fall of 2019, she started coaching with the BTC, the pro running team she helped build with her coaches Jerry Schumacher and Pascal Dobert. She kicked off an exciting career in broadcast journalism, offering race analysis and commentary for running events. Then in the spring of 2020, she and her husband, Steven Edwards, became parents to their son, Jack Dean Edwards, through adoption. She also finished writing her third cookbook, Rise & Run, which is slated for release on October 26.

“Shalane is a force: a runner, a coach, a mother, and so much more,” Nike spokesperson Erin Byrnes said in a statement. “We’re proud of the impact she is going to make on and off the road over the next several weeks.”

SELF caught up with Flanagan before she left for Berlin (and before Tokyo had officially been postponed to 2022) to learn the motivation behind this challenge, how she manages training as a new mom and coach, and what her running goals are this time around.

SELF: When did you decide to take on all six majors this fall?

Shalane Flanagan: I think I officially decided about February or March that this was my goal, but the closer I got to actually putting in the training and sharing with Nike and my support system, it became more and more real. So the idea was formulated in January/February, but I didn’t really start to get after it in training and really commit to it until this spring, probably May/June.

What was the inspiration that sparked this goal?

There are a lot of layers to the inspiration. I think more than anything it’s reuniting with my best friend—running—post-retirement and post–knee surgery. I felt the need to set some goals again. Realizing this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presenting itself, with six major world marathons in 42 days, I feel like I’m doing it for myself, for my son, and for young women to showcase the connection between mental and physical health and how important of a role athletics can play in your life.

An interesting stat is that by age 17 more than half of girls will have quit playing sports, and that made me really sad. That was a motivator right there. I was a shy young girl, but sports completely transformed my life and gave me confidence and direction. Even just in terms of the people I’ve met through sport, I’ve realized everything has changed for the better because of athletics. I felt this was a great platform to share that message and also connect with each running community within the cities that I’ll be visiting.

Obviously, the amount of time between each marathon is very tight. How are you preparing for that in training?

I just had one of my biggest weeks of training, where I did a simulator of the Chicago and Boston marathons back-to-back. On Sunday [September 5], I ran 21 miles on a flat course, and on Monday I ran 21 miles on a really hilly course. My goal is to break three hours in all six of the marathons, which is going to be really hard, but I think it’s just about practicing mentally and physically and seeing where I may need to fine-tune some things.

The big thing I noticed with that particular simulation was that hydration, fueling, and nutrition is going to be key, as well as getting really good quality sleep as much as possible. I’ve got a great support system. Between my physical therapist, my family, my Nike team, and my other partner InsideTracker, everyone is playing their role, and hopefully, that support system allows me to just take care of myself.

I have been coaching myself, but I have been working with the Nike Sports Research Lab (NSRL), and they have been a great sounding board for me to bounce ideas off. I’ve also been consulting with Carrie Dimoff and Elliott Heath, who are on the Bowerman Track Club and are Nike employees, and I’ve been doing some training with them, so I use them as a sounding board as well for ideas and then I fine-tune based on some of their feedback.

What has been the toughest workout so far? How did you handle it?

The back-to-back simulation of Chicago and Boston was tough. I did the back-to-back simulation, and then I had an easy eight-mile run on Tuesday. Then I met Carrie Dimoff for a really hard grass [workout] session on Wednesday. The grass session was the hardest I’ve worked in a long time. I finished it and said, “That was so fun, but I feel terrible.” But I recovered fine, and was actually able to follow up that same week with another really long hard run with Carrie, another 21-miler. She is looking to break 2:30 [in the marathon], so her race pace is about 5:40 per mile, which is way faster than I’ll ever have to run. But I’m just trying to log a lot of extra fitness in the bank to make sure I can accomplish my goal.

Cortney White

How does training in retirement compare with training as a full-time professional runner?

I’m a mother now, I’m coaching, and I’m coming out with another cookbook this fall, so life is super busy, and the priority has shifted massively. I used to just run, eat, sleep, repeat constantly, and it was my job to take care of myself in that way. I have prioritized my training and my running, but it’s a very small portion of my day now, whereas it used to take up my whole day. So I’ve had to adjust my expectations of what is feasible and possible.

I try to train around my son’s schedule and my coaching schedule, and I don’t want to do too much training because I want to be able to play with my son and have energy for my athletes, so it’s not all poured into the running anymore. Preparing for these marathons, I’m tapping out at about 80 miles per week, which is a lot. That is the most I will run in a week, whereas when I was training to win the New York City Marathon, I was running about 130 miles a week. I was living, eating, and breathing all things running, and everything was about performance. This journey is more for my mental health, and a new challenge and goal.

I’m having more fun with it because I show up, I get it down, and then I don’t necessarily worry whether it was a good or bad workout. I don’t let it linger. I just tell myself this is the best I’ve got today, and I go with the flow a lot more because it’s a different dynamic and a different relationship now that it’s not my job.

You’re now coaching athletes at the Bowerman Track Club. Are you doing any of your training with them? Does coaching add another level of motivation to your process?

Yeah, they are aware of the goal. I haven’t talked about it too much because I always want to keep the focus on them and what they’re doing. But the few I have told are really excited, and I’m excited to make it official, so they know it’s still going forward. We danced around it a little, like maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t, but yeah, I think they’re going to be stoked to follow along.

What challenges are you expecting to face with racing all six majors? How are you preparing for those challenges?

I think one of the biggest challenges I’m going to face is the travel and time zone changes. I think that’s going to be a little tricky. With all the planes, trains, and movement, I think it will be tiring, so trying to get the proper recovery between all of them is probably what I’m most concerned about.

Cortney White

Your last race prior to retirement was the 2018 New York City Marathon. You will finish in New York City on November 7. What does that mean to you?

I love New York, and that’s coming from a Boston girl. We’ll have my parents and my son there, and although it will be in a different capacity from when I was there when I won, I have the great addition of having Jack in my life, and to have him and my parents at the finish will be amazing. They are a major reason why I try to do some good work in my life. They’re a huge factor in my happiness, and seeing them happy makes me happy. So yeah, I’m really looking forward to reuniting with the streets of New York City, also looking forward to helping my best friend, Elyse Kopecky [the coauthor of Rise & Run], run her first marathon there. There are a lot of great memories there, and I’m looking forward to making even more.

What is your ultimate goal in racing all six majors? When you cross that finish line in New York City, what do you hope to achieve?

Leaving the sport a little bit better than it was before, in some capacity. I hope that I have fun, and all the people on this journey with me have fun. I have a huge support team, and I hope they look back on this fondly and we create an awesome memory. To me, this is a huge opportunity to create an incredible memory, and I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. No one has done this before because it’s never happened before, and I may be the only person who will do it, so I think that’s always a cool feeling.

Ultimately, I’m hoping to embrace change and send a positive message to young women and showcase that sport is for life. If you engage in sport, it can transform your life for the better for a very long time.

Do you have any plans for what comes next after this running-wise?

After I hopefully complete all six, I will probably take a month off from running. But really, I’ll plan to relax and soak up the holidays and throw myself back into coaching. My running is usually dictated around how I can help my athletes, so if that means getting fit to help them, that’s really the next goal on the horizon—to stay in shape to be able to run with them and help them. But beyond the six marathons, I don’t really have any personal goals at the moment.

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