Shalane Flanagan Came Out of Retirement to Run 6 Marathons In 42 Days, NBD

The 40-year-old mom of one came out of retirement with one big goal: to conquer the six World Majors in 42 days. And not only did she do it, but she fell in love with running again along the way.

Photo: Courtesy of Nike

It was just over two years ago that four-time Olympian Shalane Flanagan retired from professional running on October 21, 2019. That was six months after she had undergone surgery to repair a badly torn patella tendon in her right knee. But now, after two reconstructive knee surgeries (she had the exact same procedure done on her left knee just eight months after the first one), Flanagan is back.

"It took me retiring and not running for a year due to two reconstructive knee surgeries to realize you are my best friend," the 40-year-old wrote on her Instagram page, in a public post that began "Dear Running."

"I need you to feel like myself. My best self," she wrote. It was in the same post that Flanagan let the running world know she was indeed back — while simultaneously announcing her biggest challenge yet, and an opportunity that will only happen once in a lifetime: running the six Abbott World Marathon Majors in seven weeks. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual major marathons schedule, which generally starts early March with the first race in Tokyo and concludes early November with the last marathon in New York City, was condensed into just seven weeks. Not only did Flanagan want to complete all six races in 42 days, but she also planned to do each in under three hours.

"The short end of the 'why' is because I can," Flanagan said in phone conversation with The Washington Post. "It's not a given for everyone. I retired in 2019, and I had two knee surgeries that I thought were going to take me out from running forever, so I'm just, like, in a way, celebrating my health, the fact that I can run again. I know it sounds a little crazy to do this, but I have 20 years of running behind me and all this training, and I feel fit. I feel healthy. I just appreciate the ability to run again."

The pandemic also shed a bit of light on Flanagan's feelings towards running. "After my retirement and a year of no running, I realized that I needed running more for my mental health than actually the physical aspect," she told The Washington Post. "I need it to just feel like myself, and I realized how much it played a role in my happiness, my mental clarity and my mood." (See: 13 of the Physical and Mental Benefits of Running)

Shalane Flanagan in an interview with the Washington Post

"After my retirement and a year of no running, I realized that I needed running more for my mental health than actually the physical aspect."

— Shalane Flanagan in an interview with the Washington Post

The first up in this ginormous feat she's calling "Project Eclipse" was Berlin on September 26, which Flanagan completed in 2:38:32. London followed on October 3, where the mom to one-and-a-half-year-old Jack admitted in an Instagram post that, after going out hard at the start, she had to walk for the first time ever in a marathon. Still, she managed to complete the race in 2:35:04. Next up was another hurdle: The Chicago and Boston marathons on back-to-back days. On October 10, just seven days after London, Flanagan conquered Chicago, crossing the finish in 2:46:39. And the following day, on October 11, Flanagan completed the Boston marathon in the city where she was raised in 2:40:34. Then came marathon number five, a virtual one in honor of the Tokyo marathon which would have taken place on October 16. Jack's Mom, as her bib read, completed the virtual race near her hometown in Oregon (where she's also a Nike coach) in 2:35:14, with some close friends and family by her sides throughout. (For context, the average marathon time is about 2 hours longer than that.)

On October 28, Flanagan ended an Instagram post with this:

Belin 2:38.32 ✅
London 2:35.04 ✅
Chicago 2:46.39 ✅
Boston 2:40.34 ✅
Portland 2:35.14 ✅
NYC 🗽🍎💋
5 down 1 to go.
...and I am saving the best for last.

Sunday, November 7 was the sixth and final race of Project Eclipse: the New York City marathon. And Flanagan toed the finish line in 2:33:32, conquering not only the race, but her monstrous goal of six marathons in 42 days — after two major knee surgeriesand coming out of retirement, no less.

"For the past seven weeks, I have fallen back in love with running, with racing, and with the marathon…but nothing could have prepared me for what I felt today," Flanagan wrote on her Instagram page, following her New York finish. "It was my fastest. It was my funnest. It was my favorite. Which is exactly what I wanted. Delivering on all of your goals in a marathon is never guaranteed…but today, I made myself proud."

Shalene-Flanagan-Big-6-Marathons-Berlin Marathon 2021-Embed
Shalene Flanagan during the 47th Berlin Marathon 2021 on September 26, 2021. Getty Images

"I want to do something that makes others feel they can do anything," Flanagan wrote in another Instagram post. "I want to help young women in sport realize the purity of the connection between physical and emotional health. I want to inspire people to find the thing that makes them feel most alive – for me it just happens to be running towards my goals, 26.2 miles at a time."

And for those who may want to join the marathon club but feel intimidated to start... or at least who need to take it one mile at a time, instead of 26? Remember that even Flanagan, one of the best female runners out there, has had to walk — and she's totally ok with it. "Walking is totally appropriate,"Flanagan said at a press event for Nike on November 5, just before the New York marathon. "I had to walk for the first time in London and I realized, yeah, as an elite athlete you're not supposed to do that, obviously, but when you're really hurting and things are just going south you can really regroup mentally and physically with just a 30 second walk. And it actually, I think, helps you get back on pace and you may end up running better just with a little bit of a walk. And especially if you're having trouble fueling on the run, walking through some of the aid stations and taking in appropriate fueling is just completely underrated. And having had that experience I now — now, if anyone asks me for advice, I'm like, 'don't be afraid to walk.'"

And if that perspective can get her through this massive challenge, it has to work.

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