Last fall, four-time Olympian and marathon great Shalane Flanagan came out of retirement to pursue the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of running all six of the Abbott World Marathon Majors in one season. Due to COVID, spring races were rescheduled, so Berlin, London, Chicago, Boston, Tokyo, and New York were held in a seven-week span. Flanagan ran them all in what she called Project Eclipse.
Tracing the arc of Flanagan’s finishes, it’s apparent her project was work of precision engineering. She started strong, rolled through the middle marathons, and ran an impressive best-of-six 2:33:32 in the capstone New York City Marathon. She initially hoped to complete the six marathons with an average time of under three hours—and she did handily, with a final average of 2:38:30.
From the outside, it seems obvious that she had a perfect plan and followed it to a T. But ask Flanagan how it went, and she’ll tell you quite the opposite. She didn’t train well, she felt the endeavor was “in serious jeopardy” midway, she had to hone her fueling and recovery skills, and she needed help from family, friends—and even regular blood testing.
Flanagan succeeded, she believes, not because she was super fit, but because she anticipated the stumbling blocks and knew how to hurdle them. “I was nervous at the beginning, because I wasn’t sure I was ready,” she says. “I made it to the end because I was as proactive and preemptive as I could be.”
Flanagan doesn’t pretend she’s just like everyone else. No, she’s still an Olympic silver medalist (for the 10,000 meters in 2008), a New York City Marathon winner (2017), and a hardened veteran with two decades of world-class competitive efforts. That said, life has a different tint now: she’s 40, with a year-old son, a coaching job, and plenty of promotional work to do for Nike and her three cookbooks. “My days are very full, and they are no longer focused on my own training,” she says. “My athletes are my priority, and I’m pulled in a lot of directions.”
In a recent interview via Zoom, Flanagan talked about the obstacles, the scares, and her eventual success in her quest. (The event was hosted by InsideTracker, an athlete-centered blood-testing company that has partnered with Flanagan and provided her with regular biometric checks throughout Project Eclipse.)
Here’s how she did it, and how you can follow in her footsteps.
Find Your Purpose
Sure, Shalane Flanagan is a famous global athlete with books, endorsements, and more, but that doesn’t mean she lives in Camelot. She had surgery on both knees in 2019, hoping mostly for a return to pain-free running in 2020. The surgeries went well enough, but 2020 wasn’t a smooth year for anyone. While she and her husband were thrilled to adopt an infant boy, Jack, that April, child-rearing brings plenty of new stress and strain.
This summer was intense, with the Olympic Trials for track and field in late June and the Olympic Games in Tokyo a month later. As a coach to Nike’s Bowerman Track Club runners, Flanagan had a hectic and anxious time of it. She began looking for a personally energizing effort, and was intrigued when she discovered that the six World Marathon Majors were returning to in-person races in a short, seven-week period.
She felt a strong pull to return to the running arena as a participant. “I needed a crazy adventure to reset my mental health and to reconnect with running—my best friend for so long,” she says.
Set a Slightly Audacious Goal
A goal is different from a purpose. The first is an introspective, high-level mission; the second, more nitty-gritty. What are you going to do, and when?
Goals should be a bit grandiose but also achievable. Flanagan had spent years running 20-milers almost every weekend. There had been few since retirement, but her long-run bank account was full. She decided to travel to and race all six majors, on three continents, and aim to complete each in under three hours.
Plus, she had a secret motivation. Flanagan knew she had a shot at an unbeatable world record. “I realized the majors would never again come so close to each other,” she says. “I love geeking out over stuff like that and thinking about what I’d have to do to handle it all.” Not that the personally-contrived record would ever be recognized. But that’s the beauty of goal setting. You can invent and chase whatever mark you want
Build a 360-Degree Support System
“I knew I couldn’t finish Project Eclipse without a big support team,” Flanagan says. So she assembled one. It included babysitting assistance, training and racing partners, plenty of sleep and recovery time, cooking and nutrition assistance in her own kitchen, and blood-level monitoring from InsideTracker.
She credits running partner Carrie Dimoff, who ran a 2:29:33 at the California International Marathon on December 5, with helping her through much of the training. She also had pacing partners in all but one of her marathons. At Boston she ran with former Bowerman elite athlete Andy Bumbalough, who has a marathon PR of 2:10:56. She submitted blood work in mid-August to establish a baseline and then had three more blood tests between her second marathon (London) and her last one (New York), offering insights on her muscle, bone and brain-health, recovery, and oxygen-transport systems, all of which informed her training and nutrition.
“It was maybe the highlight of my running career to share Project Eclipse with so many friends and supporters,” Flanagan says. “It was the adventure of a lifetime.”
Accept Altered Plans
Flanagan never had a long-range plan to run the six marathon majors. In fact, she didn’t even announce her goal until mid-September. By then she had already missed several months of what should have been her training-buildup period—June, July, and August.
She spent most of that time attending to her Bowerman Track Club runners at the Olympic Trials and the Tokyo Olympics. “At the Trials, I got in occasional 30-minute runs some days and nothing at all on other days,” she says. “It wasn’t much, but I told myself that at least I had been spending a lot of time on my feet.”
Tokyo was worse, with its infamous midsummer humidity and strict COVID protocols. While Flanagan managed one ten-mile run during the Games, she spent hours each day walking between various Olympic venues. Not the best preparation for six marathons, but “I called it my ‘poor man’s altitude training,’” she says.
Manage the Red Flags
The first InsideTracker blood result, in mid-August, revealed that Flanagan’s vitamin B12 level was “suboptimal,” in the words of nutrition consultant Stevie Lyn Smith. She advised Flanagan to start on a B12 supplement while also eating more B12 foods like organ meats, fish, dairy, and eggs. Smith also suggested a vitamin D supplement and an iron supplement. She believes in food first, then treating known deficiencies with specific supplements, not scattershot multivitamins.
After a solid first marathon in Berlin, Flanagan ran into trouble in London. She didn’t like the unfamiliar food options, which bothered her stomach and probably led to underfueling. Jack, who was traveling with her, came down with a cold and passed it along. Flanagan started too fast (a rookie mistake) and had to stop and walk for the first time in her racing career. As a result, she ran the second half five minutes slower than the first, feeling terrible all the way.
Her post-London blood test revealed dramatically higher liver- and muscle-breakdown markers, along with increased inflammation and an increase in white blood cells. “I thought the whole project was in jeopardy,” she says. “I felt really fatigued, and the blood results told me it wasn’t just in my head. I knew I had to make a big reassessment.”
When in Doubt, Go Back to Basics
Flanagan had hit a slippery slope. With four marathons to go, she realized she might spiral even farther downward. But she didn’t want to stop; instead, she chose to refocus. “I wasn’t going to give up,” she says. “I decided to plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
She made significant changes to her training, traveling, and fueling. She left Jack at home for the back-to-back, Sunday-Monday Chicago-Boston double, took an ice bath between the two races, and recruited a friend, Natalie Bickford, to her kitchen to help prepare and freeze some favorite high-nutrition foods from her cookbooks. These included Bolognese sauce, turkey meatballs, beef and lentil minestrone, turmeric-coconut curry sauce, dark chocolate and banana muffins, and buckwheat-chocolate-molasses cookies. She consumed these at home and also carried several travel-ready freezer bags with her on the road.
As a veteran runner and cookbook author, Flanagan didn’t need to stretch for new tricks. She simply had to concentrate on what she already knew.
Just This Once, Don’t Listen to Your Body
Flanagan did change one key practice. She had long known about the “glycogen replacement window’’—that 30-to-60-minute period after a hard run when leg muscles are primed to absorb and store carbohydrates. But a runner might also feel sweaty, tired, and perhaps queasy during that time. “You’re not necessarily hungry,” Flanagan says. “It’s easy to tell yourself it can’t make a very big difference.”
Her nutrition consultant encouraged her to think otherwise. “I tell runners this is a time to make a ‘business meeting’ with their fuel,” Smith says. “You might not have any appetite, but you need to put the fueling session into your calendar like any other meeting.”
Flanagan tried this and felt stronger for the effort. “I think I might have been underfueled for much of my career,” she says. “This is definitely something I’m going to emphasize with my athletes going forward.”
Aim to Thrive, Not Just Survive
After Boston, Flanagan’s blood work looked much better—all the muscle-breakdown and inflammation markers had dropped down nicely, and she felt better, too. It didn’t hurt that she only had Tokyo and New York to go, with nearly three weeks between them. After racing Tokyo virtually with friends around her Oregon neighborhood—given that the race was canceled due to a COVID-19 surge—she started planning for a strong finish.
“I wanted New York to be the exclamation point at the end of Project Eclipse,” she says. “I wanted to show that I could not just survive, that I could actually thrive.”
She did. She ran the first half of New York in 1:17:08, and the second half in 1:16:24, for a total time of 2:33:32. That placed her second overall in the 40-to-44 age group and a decisive first among those who had run the five previous majors this year (so far no other is known).
Dare to Have Fun
Flanagan considers herself a realist. She knows every day can’t be a peak experience, and she’d be happy not to relive the London Marathon again. But she says she had more fun with Project Eclipse, particularly its 360-degree support system, than she did while competing in her earlier days. “As an elite runner, you carry around such high expectations and concerns about your self-worth that it can be hard to enjoy the joy of the process,” she says.
Project Eclipse proved far different. For one thing, she learned that many runners actually talk to each other during their marathons. Different runners introduced themselves to Flanagan en route, commenting that her son was really cute, that they were “teammates” who were also wearing Bowerman Track Club singlets, that they were carrying “energy bites” from her cookbook (and offering to share), and inviting her on a ski vacation in Sweden.
“I’m a social runner, but elites don’t have conversations like this during marathons,” Flanagan noted. “It was a very different and fun experience.”
In fact, she misses it now. “Project Eclipse gave me an appreciation for being healthy and joining other runners at large races. It was a cool 42 days, and I’m sad that it’s over. I hope everyone else attempts something that makes them feel so fully alive.”