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Berlin Preview: Shalane’s “Daunting Task” Familiar to Us All

Flanagan NYC Marathon

Shalane Flanagan en route to 2nd place finish in 2:28:40 at the 2010 NYC Marathon, her debut at the distance.

Shalane Flanagan’s mindset as she readies for the BMW Berlin Marathon this Sunday is familiar to far less accomplished runners. Instead of focusing on the win per se, Shalane’s focus will be on a specific time.

Of course in Shalane’s case, the time happens to be 2:19:35 or better, which would make her the fastest U.S. women’s marathoner ever, breaking Deena Kastor‘s record set in London in 2006.

What this means is Flanagan has no doubt been obsessed with a certain number, namely 5:19, the pace she needs to crank out every mile on the fast, flat course in Berlin.  Just like those of us trying to break 3 hours, for example, have 6:52 etched in our brains.

And for all runners, stretching our limit from the get-go can be nerve-racking.

“I may epically fail, but at least I’ll find out whether I have what it takes. It’s a daunting task,” she told Runner’s World recently.

Shalane’s willingness to openly discuss her record ambition is atypical, as most runners tend to be coy about specific time goals (an exception would be our recent guest Christo Landry who is looking for a 2:10:51 or better in Chicago to become the second fastest American this year). But Shalane seems to enjoy laying it all on the line, leaving little mystery. Typically, her strategy has been to attempt to break her competitors’ will with relentless front-running, such as at this year’s Boston Marathon. Her competitors at Berlin know they will have to run fast to win.

This Sunday, she’ll be tuning out the other women and, for the majority of the race, staring at the shoulder blades of personal pacers Ryan Vail of the U.S. and Rob Watson of Canada, who are both training for fall marathons.

Some may say that even splits with pacers and no surges makes for a boring race to watch. But like any marathon, the drama will build. Will she be able to hold on in the latter stages of the race? If she is in the hunt for a win (which she should be if she is running 2:19 pace), how will that affect her race? It’s hard to believe that she won’t also try to bag a World Marathon Major win, the first by an American female since Kastor won Chicago in 2005.

Flanagan chose Berlin over Chicago, another pancake-flat course, mainly because of the greater predictability of the weather. She has some company in Dennis Kimetto, one of the favorites on the men’s side along with Tsegaye Kebede and Emmanuel Mutai. Kimetto ran a sparkling 2:03:45 course record in the Windy City last year but has said that he believes Berlin is faster. The weather appears favorable though not ideal, with high-50s to low-60s temps, little wind, but also little cloud cover forecast.

Our guess for Flanagan? We think she has the ability to break the record, and she said she’s fitter than ever for the marathon, so we’re giving her at least a 50-50 shot. Her 2:22:02 at this year’s Boston was under perfect conditions, with a slight tailwind, but the flatter course of Berlin should yield an additional couple of minutes. She was on sub-2:19 pace halfway at Boston. With a slightly slower first half and even splits, she could still set the record.

We also think there’s at least as good a chance she wins the race outright. Of the other main contenders,  notably Ethiopia’s Feyse Tadese and Tirfi Tsegaye, none have a personal best better than 2:21, and the absolute best in the world are elsewhere, with Rita Jeptoo and Florence Kiplagat running Chicago and Priscah Jeptoo and Mary Keitany running New York.

On the other hand, being in great shape gives a runner a chance at a breakthrough performance, but it doesn’t guarantee one. Further, both Tadese and Tsegaye know Flanagan’s hand. Their response may be to hop on board the Flanagan-Vail-Watson train and wait to strike with a hard surge with a few miles left. Will Shalane have the strength and speed to respond? Either way it will be fun to watch.

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