Reigning Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist Shalane Flanagan has been putting in some longer runs for her half-marathon debut next month in Houston, and she's not happy about what it's done to her feet, at least aesthetically.
"I used to have really nice looking feet," Flanagan told reporters yesterday during a teleconference hosted by USA Track & Field and the Aramco Services Houston Half-Marathon. "But I can say that my work is definitely reflected in my toenails."
Flanagan, 28, the USA 5000m and 10,000m record holder, has entered the USA Half-Marathon Championships on Jan. 17, after a four month layoff from racing. Her last race was the IAAF World Championships 10,000m on Aug. 15, where she finished 14th, a long way down the results list from her third place, American record run in the Beijing Olympics.
"Berlin wasn't all that I had hoped for," Flanagan explained. "I trained really hard, and really well throughout last year, but had some medical stuff that held me back." She added of her season: "It kind of ended a little sour that it wasn't what I was capable of."
Flanagan had a magnificent season in 2008. She won three USA titles (cross country, 5-K on the road, and 10,000m), and lowered the American 10,000m record, twice. Running with New Zealand's Kim Smith and behind pacemaker Rose Kosgei of Kenya, she ran 30:34.49 at the Cardinal Invitational meeting at Stanford University, then ran a sizzling 30:22.22 in the Olympic final to break her own record and clinch her first Olympic medal.
Her 2009 season started out on a high note, setting an American indoor 5000m record of 14:47.62 at the Reebok Boston Indoor Games. But after moving to Portland, Ore., to train under Jerry Schumacher, Flanagan's legs seemed to lack their usual snap as she adapted to Schumacher's program. She didn't win a single race in six more appearances after Boston last year, and finished as low as 11th at the Prefontaine Classic 1500m.
"Those low moments I find to propel me to work a little bit harder," Flanagan said.
But watching both the Boston and ING New York City Marathons from lead vehicles this year, Flanagan has become charged up about the prospect of running farther. She sees her upcoming run at Houston as a first step towards the marathon, although she isn't sure yet when that might take place. She's just feeling her way along.
"I would love to," she said of running a marathon, "but I have no idea until I actually go out there and run a half. I'm just going to take it one race at a time. I'm definitely flirting with the idea. I'm trying to prove to myself and my coach that I can handle the training. Ultimately, my coach has the best idea of what I'm capable of."
Flanagan only recently returned to Portland with her husband and manager, Steve Edwards, who has also been her training partner during the fall while the couple was home in North Carolina. Flanagan has found her longer tempo runs to be very challenging.
"What I call gut wrenching workouts," she said. "When my stomach is just turning and I can't tell the sky from the ground. It's learning my body in a whole different way."
Part of what she said Schumacher is trying to teach her is patience. On the track, Flanagan would tend to run flat-out. But in the half-marathon, the pace will feel slow and she'll have to show patience to be competitive at the finish line. Schumacher called the longer distance "a mental test."
"I think in my training I've had a hard time just relaxing and not just attacking," she admitted. "In the half I've found I have to calm myself down, almost waste time and let it come to me a little bit more."
In Houston, race director Brant Kotch and his elite athlete coordinator David Chester have put together a solid field, including defending champion Magdalena Lewy Boulet and runner-up Kelly Jaske. But neither of those women have Flanagan's track credentials, and her 30:22 on the track is equivalent to a 67:30 half-marathon by one reliable conversion formula. Interestingly, that's four seconds faster than Deena Kastor's USA half-marathon record.
But Flanagan isn't focused on time yet, because she's still racing against the distance. "I want to test myself and push myself in the last couple of miles to see where I'm at," she concluded. "I could run 1:12 that day and be really pushing myself, or I could run 1:08. I'm going to focus on winning and let the time take care of itself. I love running fast and running fast usually means that I can win."