Shalene Flanagan Made Me Cry (or, why high school cross country was the best)


Before the JV girls race, 1998

Last weekend I teared up reading this article in the New York Times about Shalene Flanagan’s NYC Marathon victory…and it brought me back to high school (and the glorious mid-to-late nineties–please cue Under the Table and Dreaming, Throwing Copper, When I Woke, Jagged Little Pill).

The background information sounded like a metaphor for so many female relationships:

Here’s how it worked until Flanagan burst onto the scene. After college, promising female distance athletes would generally embark on aggressive training until they broke down. Few of them developed the staying power required to dominate the global stage. And they didn’t have much of a community to support them; domestic women’s distance running was fractious and atrophied.

The author goes on to share Flanagan’s countercultural approach:

Flanagan’s leadership style doesn’t fit the “girl boss” leadership archetypes that are flourishing in pop culture, the Ivanka Trump feminism, with its shallow claims of support for women, that yields no results. (Ms. Trump’s kind of feminism may attract cheers at races, but it does not win them.) Flanagan does not just talk about elevating women; she elevates them. And they win.

Where I live in New York City, most people I talk to do not have fond memories of high school. I’m an 8th grade teacher, so it is easy for me to understand why: the exclusive tribes, the never ending social striving, trying to figure out life while also trying to figure out Trigonometry. It’s a lot. But. I loved it–and my time spent on the cross country team is a major reason why: I was a part of a community where people lifted each other up–and it wasn’t a small group of girls–my freshman class essentially tripled the size of both the boys and girls Cross Country team, with about 80 runners total.

Y’all, I was so slow. SO SLOW. And yet, I remember countless races, trying to power through the last mile and seeing varsity runners from the boys’ and girls’ teams on the sidelines cheering me and the other slowest runners in the race on with enthusiasm. I remember being encouraged to set goals for myself and train to beat them, even though I would never be a varsity runner. When I was a freshman in 1995, the senior girls modeled what it meant to be a team–they were making every runner photocopied inspirational posters to get ready for race day. They made us feel like we belonged and included us 15 year olds on their inside jokes.Their example paved the way for how we would want to lead not just as runners (because Lord knows I’ve never led a race), but as teenage girls who lifted one another up.

Senior girls, 1998

I was a part of a community that elevated me as an athlete (I’ve never really stopped running…slowly), but moreover as a human, and this is one of the reasons why I can look back and say I loved high school and one of the reasons why I begged my brother to get me a Yeti mug with our high school logo on it that he got all of his groomsmen at his wedding this summer (all friends from high school, interestingly).

Community and lifting one another up seem so novel now, as a look at a social media landscape that can be so brutal. (Though I am hopeful as I follow my high school’s “student section” on twitter (@TheHerdCHS) where its student leaders try to get everyone to to every game: not just boys football and basketball, but every event. Go elks, #EPND, etc.)

So looking forward, I’m wondering how can women elevate women? And in light of all the gross news lately, how can men? The boys Cross Country coach was also my teacher for 3 years in middle school. I walked into his class at the end of 8th grade and declared that I finally ran a mile without stopping and he was just as excited as I was–meanwhile his team was running over ten miles at practice easily.

Running cross country gave me so many metaphors to guide my life (come on, I’m an English teacher, I had to go there) and while I was reading the article, so many new ones came to mind:

“We had run thousands of miles together; we had worked so hard for this. She had been there every step of the way, struggling with me,” Cragg told me a few months after the race.

Instead of being threatened by her teammates’ growing accomplishments, Flanagan embraced them, and brought in more women, elevating them to her level until they become the most formidable group of distance athletes in the nation. National championships, world championships, Olympics: They became some of the best runners in the world.

Together we accomplish more.

“I thoroughly enjoy working with other women,” Flanagan told me. “I think it makes me a better athlete and person. It allows me to have more passion toward my training and racing. When we achieve great things on our own, it doesn’t feel nearly as special.”

As a teacher, and for my fellow educators and anyone who works with young people: how do we help foster this lifting up of one another? How can we help make adolescence a time where there are people to look up to and cheer one another on, even when it feels uphill?

As women, and as humans, how can we look for the best and elevate one another, rather than judging?


3 thoughts on “Shalene Flanagan Made Me Cry (or, why high school cross country was the best)

  1. Tricia Lord

    Fellow Elk here… Class of ’88 – Tricia Yates (now Tricia Lord) I competed in Track 4 years but also soccer, basketball, tennis sprinkled in there. Sadly no XC but I was a sprinter/hurdler for Rita Somerlot. Coach Bowman posted your link to his FB site. I coach HS track now at a small private school in Bay Area. Our girls XC team is going to State and I just sent the coaches your post. There really is no other sport like XC/Track and if you don’t mind I am going to use your quote “Together we accomplish more” as our team motto this year! I will give you all the props 🙂 I don’t have an answer to your thoughtful questions at the end of your post – I just try to highlight those who embody the true TEAM first attitude over those that don’t.

    Happy Thanksgiving and Go Elks! 🙂

  2. Alyson

    Kristen, I’ve been visiting your blog for years now – thoroughly enjoying your writing style, fantasizing about possibly actually reading some of the recommended books, and reminiscing along with you about the Midwest – so first, thank you for all that! This post brought me to tears. Then I saw I can leave a comment, so I feel compelled to leave one. I just wanted to say how wonderful it is that you could so articulately describe an experience from so long ago that meant so much to so many of us, in the hope that it could help others. Congratulations on your beautiful baby girl!!

  3. krobb08 Post author

    I have no idea if you can see this, but somehow I just saw this comment! Thank you so much. So so wonderful to hear from you. Xo.


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