320: The Hardest Moments are the Most Rewarding

This week’s conversation is with Shalane Flanagan, an American endurance legend, being one of the few distance runners to earn first-name recognition rights.

Shalane’s remarkable career spans nearly 20 years… she’s a 4x Olympian (Athens, Beijing, London and Rio), becoming an Olympic medalist in Beijing.

She’s a New York City Marathon champion, where she was the first American woman to win it since 1977.

After retiring from professional running in 2019, Shalane underwent two knee reconstruction surgeries, started a new coaching career and became a mom, all while navigating the realities of a global pandemic.

In 2021, she undertook a personal mission: Project Eclipse – to run six major marathons in a span of six weeks – as a way to reclaim her love for the sport of running and to bolster her mental and physical health.

Shalane also took on the challenge as a way to inspire others to rise up in the face of their own struggles. She completed all six, including the major races Berlin, London, Chicago, Boston and New York City, in a time of under 2:50, with the fastest and final New York City marathon in only 2:33.

Shalane’s career has been extraordinary so far, and is still far from over. After hearing this conversation, I think you’ll be inspired to go and “do the hard things” as well.

“The disappointment of giving into the pain is usually greater than the actual pain… and I hate, more than anything, disappointing myself.”

In This Episode:

Why did she choose to pursue running?

I grew up in the back shoe room of Frank Shorter’s running store. And I just thought it was normal that everyone ran and exercised. But I found out later in life that that was maybe not so normal. They never pushed me into running. They threw a million sports in my way, but I always gravitated, as a little girl, towards running. Because I felt this just innate calling that I was really good at it. I could just feel it. I felt the best about myself, I felt the most confident, the most beautiful, just every positive feeling when I was running, I felt just it came out while I was actually running. And I could just sense that this was something I was going to be really good at.

What she learned from her parents, and other sports

They did not want anything of what they had done to influence my decision. They wanted it to be genuinely my decision. So, they definitely took a step back and they let me explore a variety of sports. And in fact, constantly were trying to derail me from running, like saying, “Nah, let’s do something else.” In fact, I didn’t run all year round until I got to college. And that is very rare. Nowadays, I feel like children are so singularly focused and want to hone their skills and get into a good college and a scholarship. And my parents were constantly saying, “No, let’s try something else.” And I think they really wanted to reinforce, being very well-rounded and also appreciative of the skillsets that I wasn’t good at, because that actually made me a better athlete and a better person, they felt like. If I could learn how to lose and lose well and take those emotions and drive and apply that to when I actually am good at something, there’ll be more value in pursuing that other goal.

The pursuit should be fun

I felt like growing up was, “Let’s find out how good you can be,” but that should be a fun pursuit, there shouldn’t be a weight and a heaviness of expectations. It should be, “Let’s just see what you can do. This is so fun. Push yourself, push your mind, push your body and find out where the limitations are.” And if you can, in that pursuit of it, is a lot of joy and a lot of connection with community and with other people. In that regard, it enhances your life and you feel really alive when you’re pursuing something at a high level.

Finding her own path

In high school, I just wasn’t falling in line with what my peers were into. They would go out on a Friday, Saturday night and they’d call me and they’d say, “Oh, we’re going out and we’re going to meet up and we’re going to go to the beach and we’re going to drink and we’re going to do this and that.” And I would be like, “Nah, I’m cool. I’m hanging out with my dad tonight. I’ve got a race on Saturday.” I was invested and I liked being with my family. I liked being with my parents. I was in this weird world of just trying to be in with the cool kids. But my natural being was not to meet what they thought was fun, actually, wasn’t what I genuinely thought was fun. So, I was still struggling with trying to fit in. But as well honoring the fact that I know I have something special within me and I want to find out if I do and where it’s going to lead me and take me.

Pushing the limit

I genuinely loved, really genuinely loved working hard and finding out like, man, I loved finishing a workout and making myself sick. I loved pushing my physical limits, which also goes hand in hand with the mental. So, I’d get to a point in a session and in a workout where I’m like, my body is literally telling me, “You cannot go further, you have to slow down.” And I’d keep holding my hand on that hot pad and finding out, “How long can I hold it?” To me, there must be some masochist reason why, but that too was also just always like, I wanted to annihilate and attack everything running-wise.

Rethinking body image and food intake

As a pro, I was like, “Ooh, I should probably try to look the part.” And I feel like the first year as a pro, trying to look the part, I definitely didn’t have a good relationship with food. But then, I realized like, “This isn’t sustainable. I cannot have 20 years of running and live in this weird world of analyzing food.” So, therefore I immediately was like, “I have to recalibrate my thinking.” I never saw anyone for it, but I remember voicing the concern to my husband like, “Man, this isn’t sustainable the way I’m thinking about food. I have to rework that wiring in my brain.”

Surround yourself with people that make you happy

My happiness is largely influenced by the people I work with. So, I’m very calculated and careful with who I work with, because I know that they have an infiltration into my subconsciousness that I’m not even aware of. So, I’m very careful, I feel like, and maybe I learned that at a younger age, because I did see how it was influencing me positively or negatively.

High performance takes sacrifice

While I loved being a professional athlete, I think what also scratched at me is what else I was probably missing in life, with the full-on dedication and lifestyle towards this singular focus that at times made my job of running feel heavy. I lost, I think at times, the joyfulness and the playfulness that I talk about because it was my job then. I, at times… Just my relationship with and the dynamic with running changed because it was a job and so sometimes, I would look at things that I couldn’t go do because I had to make sacrifices to go towards the goal and honor the gift and the goal that I had set for myself. As a result, there were a lot of things that, yeah, I did miss out on and wasn’t a part of. I don’t think in 20 years I went to a wedding or a funeral. I think that level of selfishness just didn’t sit well a lot of the time, and so that made it really difficult because I felt very torn. I wanted to be all in, committed to the objective and goals that I’d set for myself, and by doing that, honoring the people that were helping me achieve those goals.

How has her mindset changed after retiring from competing?

I feel like since I retired, extremely, I don’t know, I’ve just become way more aware of time and how I’m spending it because I did feel like I was in this time warp of this weird chapter where it was so singularly focused, so selfish. And while it was great, it was an amazing chapter, I don’t want to be like that at all. And it’s made me feel like the antithesis of that chapter and I feel like I notice a lot more in life. I feel way more present and just way more purposeful. And when I do have good days, I really acknowledge it and I’ll say it a lot like, “Man, today was a great day.”…  I’m just a lot more aware of the fact that we have limited time and to be just really grateful for the good days. And I just realized that sometimes normal is really great and it takes usually traumatic bad things to happen, to appreciate normal. But I genuinely do just appreciate a normal day more now.

How does motherhood fit into the picture?

During my career, and this is maybe more of an old school way of thinking, I definitely had it from a lot of sources ingrained in me that if I were to take myself seriously and do a very good job as an athlete, motherhood really wasn’t part of that picture, that it was not really realistic to try to have a child and also come back to a high level of elite running. So it was ingrained in me that that’s a separate chapter and you wait till you’re done running to do that, and I’ve really struggled with it. It made me, at times, very unhappy feeling like I was delaying that part of my life when I wanted it to be integrated into my profession. But I was a good athlete and I did that. I gave everything I had to my running and I didn’t integrate children into my life. We, my husband and I, did do foster care, which did kind of fill that void that I was feeling. And so we had two identical teenage twin girls live with us for a year in 2016 to 2017. And ironically, the highlight of my career was in 2017. So I learned a valuable lesson that children don’t take away. Yes, you don’t get as much sleep, but overall for me, it completely enhanced my life for sure.

Supporting her athletes’ family aspirations

Moving forward with my athletes, if they come to me and they say, “Shalane, I’m really struggling with family, life and athletic,” I am going to completely say, “If it’s in your heart that you want to become a mom now, I think you should.” I don’t think people should have the mentality of waiting if that’s what they want, their partner. If that’s what they really want, I don’t think they should wait like I did, to be honest. So even though I feel like it’s worked out wonderfully for me, I just feel like life is short and I just feel like if there’s a dream that you have of fulfilling, there’s this great country song I was listening to lately where it’s something along the lines of like, “the dream doesn’t chase you back.” I was like, oh God, I feel that. So if you have a dream, I just feel like there’s a sense of urgency to what I feel like we need in our life. Not saying delayed gratification is great, but if that’s what they really want, I would totally support and help them in any way possible.

Choosing to do the hard thing

When these elite athletes are doing something hard, one, they’ve chosen to do it. They’re not forced to do it. They choose that hard. They get to choose hard. Life, there’s a lot of things that come at us. We don’t choose that hard. It’s coming at us and we have to manage it, but we didn’t choose it. We get to choose to do the hard thing. So to me, that says a lot. But I think back pedaling to your training. In training, I have always used, and I try to teach to my athletes, this is the opportunity to practice every single day, dipping that toe into the hard, and your level of resiliency to the hard expands with the more times you dip your toe into the hard and it becomes part of normal life. It becomes like breathing. It becomes a state of flow.

Dealing with pain

The disappointment of giving into the pain is usually greater than that actual pain in that moment. I hate, more than anything, disappointing myself. I can handle being disappointed in someone else actually better than knowing because only I know actually how I’m managing it. I know whether I’m going to be disappointed in myself or not, and it has nothing to do with anyone else. I know exactly what I’m capable of to a degree and if I can just get myself to wrap my head around the fact that it will go away, it’s not a forever pain and knowing that it’s not forever and that the repercussions are possibly reaching another level or just finding out just how good I can be against everyone else, that was enough for me to do it.

Her mindset while racing

In a marathon at the beginning of the race, I tell myself to disassociate, I tune out. I visualize falling asleep. You don’t pay attention. You’re not wasting any energy. You are literally going to go to sleep for 13 miles. And then when 13 miles hits, you’re going to wake up, you’re going to start to pay attention to yourself, to your competitors. There’s a lot more just taking in all of the senses, the smells, the sights, everything becomes way more high-def and fine tuned. But the first half, if I’m not careful, my mental energy will be just exhausted by the time I get to halfway, so to preserve and really get a great race, it’s usually in the second half that I really become fine tuned with everything.

Her partnership with InsideTracker

I would consider them as part of my team. I’ve done blood testing throughout my entire career. It’s been integral part of my program to make sure that I stay healthy and monitor specifically a few biomarkers that are central to endurance athletes like ferritin and hemoglobin, hematocrit, B12, vitamin D as well as some other markers. But as soon as InsideTracker came out and then I started working with them, unfortunately I was just upon with retirement when I discovered them and started working with them. They do such an incredible job of customizing everything and doing a super thorough panel. And this past fall, specifically using them with a crazy goal that I had of running six marathons in 42 days, they were instrumental in keeping me healthy and optimizing my energy and making sure that I could finish this crazy goal and come out of it feeling really good. And now I’m having all my athletes use them, but yeah, it’s been huge I think assessing inside out, is the way to go, and to just have the control over knowing exactly what’s going on.

What does she hope to pass along to her son, Jack?

Love is love. I know that for sure, and especially through adoption, I realize that you’re capable of loving in a way that I think people are afraid to love, and just worried that they can’t love. And I realized love is love, and genetics don’t… with children, have any boundaries to love. So that’s been beautiful knowing that and living it. So hopefully, he feels that and sees that. And just knowing that we only have one precious life and to try to use it daily as best we can.

Make time for people you care about

You can still honor a gift and pursue it, but also always make time, regardless of how important that moment is or that gift, for the people that you care about and should always do that. I think I learned that by not honoring that throughout my career.

Being a female coach

I would for sure say that I had imposter syndrome, probably because I didn’t have a lot of women to model after. I definitely feel like you can’t be what you can’t see. So I’m one of the first and only female coaches in this arena, in this sport at this level.  So I think I’m finding my way and observing, and I’ve only had male coaches, but I think the level of communication that I can offer women is different because I am a female and there is a level of communication that is just different and their ability to express things that allow them to be more vulnerable and more themselves. I notice a lot with women who are coached by men, that they are very people-pleasing and they want to always say the right thing and do the right thing. And don’t exactly say exactly what they want to say.  So I think from male coaches out there, it’s always maybe asking more questions, to get down to really what is wanting to be expressed. You really maybe have to dig more because they’re not going to be as open and willing to share just because there’s just not the same level of openness and comfortable capacity is what I’m noticing.

The difference of coaching men and women athletes

My head coach that I work with who coached me, who’s male, he and I both say, people want to say, “Oh, it’s like coaching them is so, so different or the training is so, so different.” I can tell you, we give them the same workouts, men and women. The same program. People think, “Oh, well you have to change things for the women.” No, they get the same program. Women and men are doing the same exact program. They’re just as capable. They can do, given the paces that are appropriate to their training, the same program. The women don’t need less. Don’t need more. They are doing exactly the same thing. And we don’t… There’s not a lot of differentiation. There’s not a lot of different treatment. The only aspect that I’m noticing is just the ability to communicate at times with me and how they communicate with me is different than the male coach.

What makes up a master?

A true master would be someone who has done something so much and developed a skill set and put in so much time that what they do, it’s almost that they don’t even think about the actual act of what they do… You don’t even conscientiously know that you’re a master because it’s so innately and it’s so part of who you are.

The importance of psychology

In high school I developed some anxiousness and didn’t know how to manage it. And it would kind of come out in certain races and circumstances, and I never addressed it in high school. And when I got to college, I had one particular race that kind of snapped me and was like, “I need to get some help. I can’t do this on my own. And I need to reframe and retrain my brain to think of racing and manage the stress and allow myself to get the most of myself. And I’m not going to be able to do that alone.” And my coach didn’t seem to have the words or the ability to help me. And I sought out on my own a sports psychologist, because I just felt like I needed that, to be able to find out if I could get better and be better than what I was showing and manage the weight and the expectations that I was carrying…  I was a little bit more old school and you got to tough it out and do it on your own. And so I realized that, that was a mistake throughout my career and I think could have helped me get even more out of myself.

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