Hometown favorite wants to win Boston, for Boston
Shalane Flanagan grew up in nearby Marblehead with a reverence for the Boston Marathon and dreamed, like many locals and foreign runners alike, that she would win the race someday.
Her goal has changed now.
But only a little.
"If I could have one wish, it would be to win this specific race on this specific day," she said this week. "It basically would be the highlight of my career, for sure. If I could win this specific Boston: It has the most power, the most meaning behind it, of all the Boston Marathons that would be run."
A year after two bombs at the finish line killed three and wounded 264 others, the 118th edition of the Boston Marathon has become a symbol of resilience for the running community, the city and a nation shocked by an attack on one of its beloved traditions. And Flanagan, a three-time Olympian who finished fourth in her Boston debut last year, is hoping an American victory in her hometown race will help heal the wounds caused by last year's bombings.
"I think something magical can happen for us," she said. "It means so much to me, so much to my community and my family. I almost have to pretend that it's just another race, when deep down I know it isn't."
No American runner has won the Boston Marathon since Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach took the women's title in 1985, two years after Greg Meyer's victory that is the last American win in the men's division. Since then, the top U.S. contender has trekked to Hopkinton each year hoping that an end to the slump will trigger a resurgence in American distance running.
But a year after the bombing on Boylston Street provoked a national outpouring of sympathy for Boston and its signature sporting event, Americans are staking even more on a victory in 2014.
"There are so many more eyes on the race this year," said Desiree Linden, who finished second by 2 seconds in 2011 and was the last American runner to reach the Boston podium. "I think it would be really special to the people of Boston."
Linden, of Chula Vista, Calif., finished second when Flanagan won the 2012 Olympic trials on a different course here, but she dropped out of the race at the London Games with a stress fracture in her right leg that also prevented her from running Boston in 2013.
Now she is back as part of one of the best U.S. women's fields in decades. The men's contenders include Ryan Hall, who finished fourth in 2011 in 2 hours, 4 minutes, 58 seconds — the fastest time ever run by an American marathoner — along with three-time Olympian and 2009 New York winner Meb Keflezighi.
Although a victory would be great, of course, Hall thinks the added attention itself will give the sport a boost.
"I'm happy to be a part of all the runners coming together — however that looks," he said. "I don't want to say it has to mean winning Boston or having a super-fast time. I want to be a part of such a historic race. I'm going to milk the excitement, the atmosphere. It's going to come out of me on the race course. I know I'm going to get to the finish line faster than I otherwise would have."
East Africans have won the men's race at the Boston Marathon every year since 1991, with Kenyans taking 14 straight titles and 20 of the last 23. On the women's side, a pair of Russian wins is the only thing that interrupts a 17-year streak of Kenyan and Ethiopian dominance.
But after a string of years in which no Americans even cracked the top 10, the hometown runners have had a resurgence. Last year, Flanagan and Colorado's Jason Hartmann each finished fourth, Kara Goucher took sixth in the women's race and there were as many U.S. men in the top 10 as Kenyans or Ethiopians.
To break through to the top step on the podium this year, the U.S. runners will have to keep their emotions under control. Hundreds of thousands of fans are expected to line the 26.2-mile course from Hopkinton to Boston, a course that is littered with stories of runners who outran their pace and faltered.
"If the emotion gets me too soon, it could absolutely ruin the race for me," Flanagan said. "I sure we can use it to our advantage."
But Meyer, a Michigan native who moved to Massachusetts to get more familiar with the course, thinks having a passion for the race will give Flanagan an edge.
"I don't think it's the energy of the crowd. I think it's the energy in their own soul," he said. "You have to believe that this is the most important thing you're going to do in your racing career. I've seen that from Shalane."
And, if it's Linden or Hall who gets the laurel wreath while listening to the "Star-Spangled Banner" play over Boylston Street, Flanagan will be OK with that, too.
"It gives me chills just thinking about that," she said. "If it's not me, I pray that it is one of us: Meb, Desi, Ryan, Jason. I truly believe that we can pull it off. It would be so inspiring for all of us. I would just be so happy to a part of it."