Shalane Flanagan was safe when the two bombs went off, having long finished her marathon, but safe was a relative term. The 2013 Boston Marathon was forever marred by tragedy and death, terrorism and unspeakable fear. And Flanagan? She was sequestered in a room with other professional runners — sad, shocked, and very angry.
The year after, she watched an American, Meb Keflezighi, win that race; to Flanagan, who was raised in Massachusetts, Boston was her hometown and Keflezighi was lovingly placing it on his shoulders. On Sunday, days after New York City was struck by its deadliest terrorist attack since 9/11, she did the same.
After becoming the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon in 40 years, she recalled Keflezighi — who retired from professional marathon running after Sunday’s race — and stayed true to the refrain that has dominated this marathon week: The running community, and New York at large, would not be cowed by fear.
“It’s been a tough week for New Yorkers and a tough week for our nation,” said Flanagan, 36, just minutes after crossing the finish line. “What bigger [motivation] than to make other people smile. Today, I thought of other people when it started to hurt.”
Marathon security was heightened in light of Tuesday’s attacks, when Uzbek national Sayfullo Saipov drove a Home Depot truck into a West Side bicycle path, killing eight and injuring 11. But though there were mentions of the terror attack — Mayor Bill de Blasio kicked off the telecast talking about the city’s resilience — much of that melted into the background as the athletes hit their stride. Aptly, the men and women running 26.2 miles over five boroughs boasted a strong spirit of stubborn defiance.
This was “a day that brings together people from all walks of life, from all backgrounds and beliefs, ages and abilities,” race director Peter Ciaccia said before the professional men and first wave were set to take off from Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island. “Today, the spirit of humanity takes center stage and the spirit of humanity has no borders, only start lines.”
And so, it seemed fitting that Flanagan cross that line first. The first U.S. women’s winner since 1977, she draped herself in a flag, and cried and screamed her way to the podium. She was thinking about the attacks, she said, she was thinking about Boston and thinking about New York, but not fearfully
“I thought of that as I finished, thinking how important it is,” she said. Sports are “a great way to make people feel good, smile, kind of forget about some of the negative things in the world. I absolutely, before this race, was thinking about how this is a really tough week for New York and I could relate to it because I was in the Boston bombings of 2013. I was thinking as I finished how it was amazing that Meb was able to be that clutch person in 2014 and how now I’ve been presented the opportunity to be that person for New York.”
Keflezighi, finishing his 26th and final marathon, recalled Boston well. He wanted to be able to repeat, to make it a U.S. sweep, but his body is 42 years old, he said, and didn’t have it in the end. He finished 11th. A difficult childhood in war-torn Eritrea means he’s seen his fair share of horrors, but he also recognized the need to keep moving — in his case, until 26 miles disappear in the rearview.
“Life is a journey, the marathon is a journey, but sports is a celebration,” he said. Horrible things have a way of making “us appreciate more our life. When you’re injured, and you come back to run, you have that much more appreciation, and New York [had] the resilience, and Boston Strong. New York came out with an electrifying energy to cheer us on . . . and we have to move on, somehow, some way.”
One grueling step at a time.