Interview With Shalane Flanagan
By Alison Wade

Shalane Flanagan anchors UNC's winning Distance Medley Relay at the 2002 Penn Relays.
Flanagan anchors UNC's winning 4x1,500m relay at the 2002 Penn Relays.
Flanagan leads UCLA's Lena Nilsson in the 1,500m final at the 2002 NCAA Outdoor T&F Championships.
All Photos: New York Road Runners

With all that she's accomplished already in her collegiate career, it's hard to believe that Shalane Flanagan is just heading into her junior year at the University of North Carolina. Since her freshman cross country season in 2000, Flanagan has been a major factor in nearly every NCAA Championship race she has contested. She has collected nine All-American certificates and eight ACC individual titles in track and cross country. As a high school runner in Marblehead, Massachusetts, she won three state cross country titles and two outdoor track titles and one national title in the indoor mile. We spoke to Flanagan as she traveled home from a weekend visit to Washington, D.C. The last time we heard from you was at NCAAs in track. What have you been up to since then?
Shalane Flanagan: Right after NCAAs I took about a month off and went out to Montana and Wyoming with my boyfriend. We went camping and hiking, we just went all over the place... I wasn't really running, I was maybe running once in a while but not really. So I came back home and decided I should probably start training. I started running again probably in July. I worked at a Nike camp I used to go to in high school; I worked the one in Asheville (North Carolina) and the one in Vermont. So I just gave speeches and was one of the counselors there, that's pretty much my summer.

FW: What kind of mileage did you do?
SF: This summer I have gotten up to 70 miles. And the difference between this year and last year is that I hit 70 one week last year and that was it. This year I'll hit 70 for three or four weeks. I think I'm going to run 70 this week, but I don't know if I will the following week, I'll just see how my body feels. But that's been the biggest difference, being consistent at 70, whereas last year I hit 70 and then I dropped back down to 50. I'm working on trying to keep my mileage up, I can handle it pretty well, I've never had any problems. But I guess it's just boring to me, running that much mileage, I just don't have the patience to do it, that's why I never have done it. But Coach [Whittlesey] and I have decided I probably should do a little more mileage because I can handle it [now that] I'm older and stronger.

FW: Do you do any speedwork over the summer?
SF: No. This year I'm trying to be better about doing strides after my daily runs. I've always wanted to because at the end of the track season I was like, 'Man, I wish I had this kind of speed in cross,' then I could just sit on people and outkick them. That's what I'm actually going to try to work on a little bit more this year, just sitting back and letting other people do the work, really using my speed to my advantage. So I'm going to try to keep on maintaining some of my speed. I already feel that my legs are even that much stronger, and when I do want to change speeds, I've still got it a little bit. When I got back to school -- I've been in school for about three weeks now -- I've just decided to do some striders after some runs, just to help me maintain some of that speed.

FW: Did you have a team training camp this summer?
SF: No, school starts so early for us, I feel like if we did a team training camp, it would just be too early in the season. But every year we do go on a team retreat weekend and get to know all the freshmen, new people, transfers, whoever. Ever year we pick someone on the team who has relatives with a lake house or something, we usually go to Virginia or South Carolina and just hang out for a weekend. We talk about team goals, individual goals, and just all get to know each other a lot better. It's nice for the freshmen to know everyone, it helps them to be less homesick, being in a group atmosphere.

FW: How does the team look this year?
SF: We look okay. I think last year we all came in so fit, it was almost intimidating because we were all so fit in the beginning and we had really high expectations. This year we're coming in, I think, at the right fitness level. We're just not going to put too much pressure on ourselves and burn out by the end of the season. I feel like last year, half of our team was just like, I don't know, we had so much anticipation of Nationals, it all kind of hurt us. This year we're taking it a little bit easier, I think we're going to see how the season goes in general.

FW: What will be your first race of the season?
SF: I think our top four are not opening up until Great American, which is at the end of September. We have a home meet coming up this weekend and we're not racing, but most of our team is. I think our full squad will open up at the Great American race.

FW: How many times do you think you'll race this season?
SF: That will probably be my only open race. I'll run Pre-Nats and then ACCs, Regionals and Nationals. I'm itching to run, I watched our team the weekend before this one, it's just so much fun to watch them race, I'm getting pumped up every time I go and watch a race. We're all really excited to run Great American. I never ran it and last year I went and watched the team and it looked like a really fun time.

FW: What are your individual goals for cross country this year?
SF: I guess I just want to see how the season goes. I feel like if I just focus on the team more, my individual goals will come. Every time I go out there and race, I always want to do my best for the team, therefore my individual success will come. But I'll be disappointed if I'm not top five (at NCAAs), but you never know. I just want to be All-American again and win ACCs again.

FW: Going back to last year's NCAA Cross Country meet, how did that race unfold for you?
SF: Basically I think I was pretty much in shock the night before when... I guess I didn't think as many people thought I could win, but when I got that [2001 NCAA Athlete of the Year award], I think that kind of shocked me. I guess I wish I hadn't gotten that award the night before, maybe the day after. All of the sudden I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I think I just poorly executed my race plan. I just went too soon and too hard, and I was just too anxious, I just didn't trust myself in the race. But I was working at some of the camps (over the summer) and the kids were asking me about it... I was like, 'Well I didn't have a great race, it was probably one of my worst performances in college, but on the other hand, I was still All-American, I walked for part of the race, I was still first on my team and I was 22nd.' Not many people can say they walked part of a race and still were 22nd. I mean, you just have to put it in perspective.

FW: Do you feel like it was more of a mental or physical error?
SF: I think it was both, I think I just had a lot of mental and physical stress leading up to the race. I was just too anxious and I just wanted to relax. I wasn't looking forward to racing, I'll be honest. I was way too nervous and I think I just wasn't having fun. Normally if I'm having fun and I'm excited to race, I race well. Going into that, I wasn't really excited to race. So I think that was part of it. But mainly, I just didn't execute my race plan the way my coach and I had talked about. I just went too early and as a result, I ended up really dying.

FW: Well, you learn your lessons.
SF: Yeah, exactly. My coach and I were saying I'd rather learn these valuable lessons now, instead of at some huge meet over in Europe or something that's even more important. So yeah, I'd rather learn my physical limits and stuff like that now. I'm learning how to race better each year. I think that's the biggest thing I need to overcome, just learning how to trust myself. And, in general, learning how to race different strategies. I tend to just like to race one way and I need to learn how to race multiple ways.

FW: It's hard coming out of high school when you're used to dominating all your races.
SF: Exactly. I think a lot of people go through it but I especially seem to struggle with it (laughs).

FW: On your team, is there a lot of variation in terms of how one runner trains compared to the next?
SF: I'd say we're all very different. Someone like me, I can handle [three workouts per week] and I can usually run them pretty intensely. Some people can't handle the intensity, so some days, some people will run half the workout, or some people won't even run the workout, Coach will sit them out, they might run every other interval, or something like that. We all tend to run the same workouts, but whether you run the full thing, that always changes... Mileage-wise we're just all over the place, we're all over the board. We're all there, running together, but at the same time we may not actually all physically be running next to each other. Sometimes I'll start behind the team, sometimes I'll run with one person, sometimes I'll run alone, sometimes I'll run with the men... We vary every day.

FW: What are some of the staple workouts that your team does?
SF: You know, I don't really remember (laughs)... This past week we did 3 x Mile, that's one of our longest workouts. Saturday, I guess we did 2 x 3,000m. Let's see, what else? We did a mile and a half, 1,200, a mile and an 800, that was one workout. And then we always do like five mile tempos...

FW: Your coach has done a good job with bringing in really high-profile high school stars like you, Erin Donohue and Carol Henry, and helping them transition well from high school to college. Why is that?
SF: I'd say if anything he holds us back. He knows that we're pretty ambitious girls, I think the best thing is that he doesn't let us go overboard. He really, really, really holds us back a lot of the time. Like this week, I felt like I could have worked a lot harder, I could have run the intervals a lot quicker and recovered a lot quicker, but he really holds us back a lot in general. I think, as a result, we're able to run three quality seasons and we just have a lot more fun, I think... Because he holds us back, we're itching to race and we're craving it... Almost every workout, at least half of us feel like 'Man, I want to do more, he's holding us back.'But when we go to race, we all feel great. He definitely works us hard some days. Sometimes we're like, 'Man, coach is really tough on us,' but for the most part it's always, 'Geez, we could have done more.'

FW: It seems like you have a pretty close-knit team. Do you spend a lot of time together outside of practice?
SF: Yeah, and that might be our downfall (laughs). We spend a lot of time together. I'd say just in general that at Carolina, the athletes are pretty close. I have more friends who are athletes than [non-athletes], which is probably typical. Our team is pretty close-knit. A lot of us live with each other, like I live with Alice Schmidt and I live with two other athletes, but they're not on the track team. I think just in general that athletes at Carolina tend to stick together.

FW: I heard at some point that you had a rule that when you go out, outside of practice, you guys had a rule that you didn't talk about track.
SF: Yeah, I guess a lot of us like to only talk about track while we're at practice. A lot of the time if we start talking about track at dinner, someone will usually speak up and say, "Hey, let's not talk about track." Yeah, I'd say we try to talk about different stuff most of the time, but sometimes it's hard to not get back to what we spend most of our time doing. Half the time we're always yelling at each other not to talk about track.

FW: You've mentioned redshirting the Olympic year, are you still planning on doing that?
SF: Yeah. I'll run cross, I'm going to try to run cross all four years. My main goal is just to not get injured within these five years, I think that's my ultimate goal. If I'm still healthy, I want to run cross all through the four years and then next winter (2004) redshirt indoor and outdoor and hopefully try out for the U.S. [World Cross Country] team and train all through the spring until the Olympic Trials.

FW: Do you know what event you're going to concentrate on?
SF: It was going to be the 5k, I think it still will be, I just don't have any experience running a 5k on the track. I think that's one thing that my coach and I are going to work on this year. I'll go -- hopefully -- to USA Nationals, I think I could have qualified these past couple years, except I've never really wanted to prolong my season past NCAAs, it's just such a long year. Probably this year I'll run USA Nationals and try to run one fast 5k at some point this spring, and try to get some experience...

FW: Do you think you'd run the 5,000 at the NCAA Championships?
SF: I would like to. I think I could give some of the people that dominate the 5k a challenge, and I'd like to try it. But at the same time, my coach and I had always talked about never running a 5k until my senior year. We really were trying to focus on gaining some speed, just working on my 1,500, and then when I get out of college really [focus in on] running some fast 5ks. I definitely want to try to run one fast 5k this year, whether it's at Nationals or just some point in the year. I'd like to do a 1,500/5,000 double, but with the whole new [regional qualifying system], I don't know if that would be conducive to doing a double. But I think it would be fun, I enjoy doing doubles just because I feel like it alleviates some of the pressure and I just have fun doing it.

FW: That really does seem like one of your strengths, no matter how many races you're doing, you just keep coming back strong.
SF: Yeah, I guess I just have fun doing it. I'm one of those people who can handle a lot...

FW: We're heard stories that suggest you have a very healthy attitude towards food. How have you avoided getting sucked in to the eating disorder culture that can be so prevalent in distance running?
SF: To be honest, I've had a roommate for two years who did have an eating disorder. I was actually pretty unaware of eating disorders throughout high school and so when I came to college, I was pretty much in... I guess you could almost say culture shock in the fact that I had never eating heard of people not wanting to eat. To me that was just kind of weird... There are people in third-world countries that don't even have food and here there were girls like starving themselves, that was kind of a strange concept to me. But I did have to deal with it. It was an issue present even within my own room at school, so I did have to learn to deal with it and I did learn a lot about it. It did make me look at how I ate differently, and I didn't necessarily like that, but I dealt with it and I think it's made me a stronger person.

FW: Do you think eating disorders are a really big problem in the sport?
SF: I've noticed it more and more in high school. I guess I never realized it in high school because I was naive, but I feel like I've noticed more and more high schoolers coming in to the college level having eating disorders. I think it is becoming more of a problem.

FW: Changing the subject entirely, what's your major?
SF: History.

FW: And are you going to take the five years to do your undergrad degree?
SF: I could speed up the schedule I'm on (laughs) but I enjoy the 12-13 credit schedule that I'm on. If I had thought ahead, I maybe would have looked in to going to grad. school the fifth year... I guess I just thought I'd take the five years, because college is fun and right now I'm even scared by the fact that I only have three years left (laughs). I just figured I'd enjoy the five years while I'm here, just take it one step at a time. Carolina's not an easy school to go through, it's not a joke, so when I do take 12 credits, it's not overwhelming but I'm still dedicating a lot of time to my schoolwork...

FW: Is it hard, when you start traveling to meets, to get everything done?
SF: Yeah. Cross isn't so bad because we travel more around here. Track's probably the worst, like ACCs, Penn Relays... There's just a whole bunch of meets in the spring where we're not even in school... We're in school for two days out of like three weeks, it seems (laughs). It's hard missing school, the teachers don't take too kindly to it either.

(Interview conducted September 8, 2002, posted September 16, 2002)

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