If nothing else, last summer’s perverse bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor proved that a compelling storyline is what sells sporting events. It didn’t matter that anyone who knew even the slightest bit about boxing knew that the whole conceit was a total scam; in the United States alone, an estimated 50 million people tuned in to watch a non-boxer go ten rounds with the best boxer of his generation. The “Money Fight” lived up to its name.
We can choose to view Mayweather vs. McGregor as a depressing symptom of an age in which the right combination of hype and crassness will always carry the day. But perhaps it’s more useful to acknowledge that what made so many people care about the fight was that it dished up a juicy rivalry—albeit one devoid of any real competitive merit. Against all odds, this might be a teachable moment for professional distance running. While the sport will never be able to provide the spectacle of two obnoxious blowhards bashing each other in the face, running now has a perfect opportunity to offer an epic battle on its own terms: if the marathon gods are merciful, we’ll get to see newly crowned New York City champion Shalane Flanagan vs. the once-in-a-generation prodigy Jordan Hasay square off at the 2018 Boston Marathon.
We were almost treated to it this year. Having grown up in coastal Massachusetts, for Flanagan the Boston Marathon is essentially her hometown race. She was slated to run her fourth Boston last April, but a back injury forced her to withdraw. Instead, it was Hasay who made headlines by running the fastest-ever debut marathon by an American woman, her time of 2:23:00 good enough for third place. (To put this in perspective, the previous debut record was Kara Goucher’s 2:25:53 at the 2008 New York City Marathon.) Remarkable as this achievement was, Hasay managed to top herself last month in Chicago, when she ran 2:20:57, coming in third once again. In her first year contesting the distance, the 26-year-old Californian suddenly found herself in second place on the all-time list among U.S. marathoners. She trails only the illustrious Deena Kastor, who remains the only American woman to have gone below 2:20.
“I just love the marathon,” Hasay told LetsRun.com after Chicago. “It’s definitely my event. Some people are just gifted at certain things.”
However, since Hasay trains with the Nike Oregon Project, Alberto Salazar’s Eugene-based group that has repeatedly been suspected of employing dubious methods of performance enhancement, there are those who are leery of her meteoric rise.
Count Shalane Flanagan among the skeptics.
“That program, the NOP has been under investigation for the last two years,” Flanagan said after Hasay’s marathon in Chicago, where, in the men’s race, Galen Rupp, another NOP-er, became the first American to win in 15 years.
Flanagan added: “As a fan of my own sport, it’s hard to have full excitement and faith when you don’t know all the facts yet. There’s still an investigation going on so it’s hard to truly and genuinely get excited about the performances that I’m watching.”
It’s impossible to gauge the extent to which this reaction might have been influenced by a touch of professional jealousy. After all, Flanagan, who is 36, has been the top U.S. marathoner in recent years; she was the first American finisher in the women’s marathon in both of the last two Olympic Games and her PR of 2:21:14 (Berlin, 2014) had her in the #2 spot on the U.S. all-time list before she was usurped by Hasay last month. A recent op-ed in the Times argued that Flanagan’s benevolent approach to training has had a “rising tide” effect on American women runners. Fair enough. But it’s hard to imagine that an athlete as competitive as Shalane Flanagan would not have been at least a little bit irritated at seeing her time bested by an upstart. (The title of Bruce Barcott’s 2011 Runner’s World profile of Flanagan says it all: “The Killer Inside Her: Don’t let the innocent look fool you. Shalane Flanagan is an assassin in compression socks.”)
Last week, marathoning legend Joan Benoit Samuelson told me that she felt Hasay’s great race in Chicago provided extra motivation for Flanagan heading into New York. Flanagan is doubtless never short on motivation, but perhaps with Hasay breathing down her neck there was an additional sense of urgency. “The athlete’s mind in me told me that she’d have something to prove now,” Samuelson said. Flanagan certainly ran like it on November 5, dropping three-time defending NYC champ Mary Keitany on 5th Avenue and powering home to become the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon in 40 years. (In response, Hasay offered her brief congratulations on social media.)
Now it might be Hasay who has something to prove. Granted, at 26 she’s just getting her feet wet in the marathon, but Hasay has a history of incredible races that brought her tantalizingly close to pulling off the big win. It’s an ambivalent honor, which, until very recently, looked like it would be Flanagan’s legacy. Despite being the most decorated runner in the University of Oregon’s history with a combined 18 collegiate All-America awards, Hasay never won an outdoor national title. Her resume at NCAA DI cross-country championships includes three podium finishes—3rd (2010), 2nd (2011), 3rd (2012)—but no outright victories. Given her tremendous potential over 26.2 miles, the onus is on Hasay to prove that she can not only run obscenely fast in major road races, but that she can also win them.
So far, neither Flanagan nor Hasay has committed to running the Boston Marathon in 2018. But the unofficial rivalry between these two women is a thousand times more intriguing than what is currently happening on the men’s side of American marathoning where, for better or worse (probably for worse), Galen Rupp stands alone. Having previously intimated that she might retire after New York, Flanagan says she wants the decision about whether to run Boston to “come naturally” over the next few weeks. If the Boston Athletic Association knows what’s good for them, they will do everything in their power to woo her and Hasay to Hopkinton next April. While they’re at it, they should extend invitations to Molly Huddle (the U.S. 10,000-meter record holder who made her marathon debut last year in New York) and Amy Cragg (Flanagan’s training partner who won a bronze medal in the marathon at last summer’s IAAF world championships), so we can have a battle royale between the titans of American distance running.
Now that would be a fight worth watching.