The usual medley of world citizens, from all 50 states and 125 countries, took on Sunday’s New York City Marathon. But, in a way, they all were reduced to backup singers — 50,000 supernumeraries — to Shalane Flanagan’s headline solo performance.
Flanagan, a 36-year-old Oregon-based distance-running veteran, became the first American woman in 40 years — and the first American, male or female, since 2009 — to win this annual Running of the Humans through Big Town’s five boroughs.
Flanagan finished in 2 hours, 26 minutes and 53 seconds, her blonde ponytail flying behind her like a rocket trail as she jettisoned her last challenger, three-time champion Mary Keitany, with a searing 5:08 split in the 23rd mile.
For half the race, there had been a pack of a dozen women in the lead. At 17 miles, the group dwindled to nine and, at 21 miles, to three: Flanagan, Keitany and Ethiopia’s Mamitu Daska. It was Daska’s sudden lurch toward a water station at the 14th mile that almost knocked Keitany off her feet, but with no lingering consequences.
Nothing was settled in the 26-mile, 285-yard task until the leaders reached the northeast corner of Central Park, rolling south on Fifth Avenue. “It’s not just in the legs,” Flanagan said of the uncertainty of success. “It’s between the ears. There’s a lot of self-doubt during the race. There’s always doubts that I would have enough to beat the best in the world.”
In the event’s 47-year history, Flanagan is only the sixth U.S. women’s champion, after the other five traded the title over the first seven years, the last being 42-year-old Miki Gorman’s second consecutive New York victory in 1977.
Around Flanagan Sunday was the usual overabundance of energy, security, humanity — besides the hordes of runners, there were roughly 2 million spectators — and personal triumph.
Kenyan Geoffrey Kamworor, the 24-year-old reigning world cross country champion, won the men’s division in 2:10:53; Swiss Manuela Schar defeated six-time champion Tatyana McFadden for the women’s wheelchair title in 1:48:09, and her countryman Marcel Hug won his third New York men’s wheelchair championship in 1:37:21.
Also, there was the appealing narrative of American Meb Kef lezighi’s final competitive marathon, his 26th, at age 42. The 2004 Olympic silver medalist, 2009 New York men’s champ and winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon a year after the bombing at that race, Keflezighi came home 11th — blowing kisses and flashing a thumbs-up to the cheering crowds as he approached the Central Park finish line — in 2:15:29.
“Life is a journey,” Keflezighi said. “The marathon’s a journey, but of course it’s a celebration. It makes you appreciate that much more for life. And New York’s resilient, with electrifying energy.”
Energy to a point, anyway. As he crossed the line, exhausted, Keflezighi lay flat on his stomach — waiting, he said, to do his traditional post-marathon push-up. “But there was no push-up at 42 years old,” he said. He had to be helped to his feet.
Flanagan, 16 times a national champ at varying distances, first had attempted the marathon here in 2010 “because I wanted to be a marathoner, desperately. I wanted to say, ‘I ran a marathon.’ To say, ‘I am a marathoner.’ ” She finished fifth that year, describing it as “a brutal distance,” and hadn’t run New York again until Sunday, in what she admitted may be her last competitive 26.2-mile race.
“This means a lot to me, my family,” she said, “and hopefully inspired the next generation of American women. Just be patient. It took me seven years to do this.”
Born in Boulder, Colorado, a running mecca, and raised in Massachusetts, home to the world’s oldest annual marathon (Boston, founded in 1897), Flanagan hails from a running family. As some in the running community have noted about the possible genetic factors in elite distance racing, Flanagan had “picked her parents carefully.” Her father was a national-class cross country runner. Her mother, then Cheryl Bridges, in 1971 set the world marathon record, running the first sub-2-hour, 50-minute marathon by a woman.
On Sunday, their daughter inherited the spotlight. “I had no physical limitations today,” she said. “I felt really good.”