It was inevitable for Amy Cragg and Shalane Flanagan to pair up as running partners in the lead-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Flanagan is currently the country’s fastest marathoner with a personal best record of 2:21:14, and Cragg is closely behind at 2:27:04. But for a sport that focuses on the individual, both runners knew that they needed each other to be pushed. And so last fall, Cragg and her husband moved to Portland, Oregon to train with Flanagan and the Bowerman Track Club.
“Amy and I are each other’s best assets. It’s great to have someone to run with who understands what you’re going through,” says Flanagan, who will be entering her third Olympics, and Cragg her second. (Both competed in the 2012 London Olympics, where Flanagan placed 10th and Cragg 11th.)
As a pair, they’re also banking on the accountability factor necessary to succeed at the 26.2 distance. “Running is a competitive sport, but our relationship is more of a friendship. Amy helps keep me in check. When she’s ready to run, I need to be ready, too,” Flanagan says.
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The Road to Rio
“There’s a mutual respect, and we’re better with each other because of it.”
And the intensity has already ramped up. “Right now, we’re running about 16 to 20 miles every day [with the Bowerman Track Club],” Flanagan says. That means 11 to 12 miles together in the morning, then 5 to 8 miles in the evening. In between, they tackle strength and conditioning workouts to help with injury prevention and recovery.
Because the months leading up to the Olympics are paved with long training days, it leaves little time for anything else. “Our social lives are put on the back burner right now, but we’re so lucky to have each other and family and friends who are very understanding,” Cragg says.
Fortunately for both Cragg and Flanagan, pounding pavement for a living happens to run in the family. Flanagan’s mother, Cheryl Bridges, is a former long-distance runner and world record holder of the marathon. Cragg is married to Alistair Cragg, who is a former Olympic runner. “I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without my husband. He’s not just there for emotional support; he also runs with us and paces us,” Cragg says.
Shalane and Amy: Fast Friends
At the U.S. Olympic women’s marathon trials in February, Flanagan and Cragg coaxed each other along the challenging race course. When Flanagan started to struggle at mile 23 from being overheated, Cragg didn’t leave her teammate behind — as many competitors are taught to do. Instead, she handed her a water bottle and stuck right at her side.
“We have a great friendship and working relationship. Our coach does a good job of making us succeed individually and as a team. There’s a mutual respect, and we’re better with each other because of it,” Flanagan says.
Sure enough, even record-shattering runners have bad days, too. “I would say the big thing you have to realize is there’s a chance things aren’t going to be good. Running is kind of like tasting coffee for the first time. It can be harsh at first, but you start liking it more and more. It becomes something you can tolerate to something you can enjoy. It’s an important part of your day,” Cragg explains.
For Cragg, running also provides a release. “You can definitely sort your thoughts and let your mind wander during long runs,” she says.
“For dinner, I have this amazing recipe for bison meatballs. It’s important for runners to keep their iron levels high.”
Marathon Body Maintenance
As they prepare for the Rio Games, recovery is a key part of their routine. Mobility, ice baths, stretching, foam rolling and sleep all become more important than ever to maintain Flanagan and Cragg’s high volume of mileage.
“In addition to stretching, Amy and I use HOTSHOT, a sports beverage that helps prevent and treat muscle cramps by stopping them where they start — the nerves,” Flanagan says. “Many people don’t realize that cramping starts at the nerve, not the muscle. When you treat cramps, you need to treat the nerves.”
Cragg says she’s been lucky with injuries and hasn’t experienced anything debilitating, but there’s always a risk to every workout or race. “HOTSHOT takes cramping out of the equation, so that’s one major thing I don’t have to worry about.”
And then there’s the meal planning. For Flanagan, food isn’t just fuel. She also happens to be a big-time foodie. She recently co-authored a new cookbook, Run Fast Eat Slow: Nourishing Recipes for Athletes, with whole-foods chef Elyse Kopecky. The cookbook is set to release in August, just in time for Rio.
“On race day, I like to eat oatmeal, which is transportable when you’re traveling. I also have a recipe called ‘Super Hero Muffin.’ It has super hearty, nutrient-dense ingredients, like oats, maple syrup and walnuts,” Flanagan says. “For dinner, I have this amazing recipe for bison meatballs. It’s important for runners to keep their iron levels high.” Flanagan plans to carbo load a day or two before the big race. In addition to having oatmeal or one of her Super Hero Muffins for breakfast, she’ll snack on some pretzels and sip on a sports drink to make sure she’s hydrated.
But unlike Flanagan, Cragg is not a traditional carb loader. “I’m not a huge pasta person, so I prefer sweet potatoes and rice with chicken. In the morning, I’ll have eggs and some toast,” Cragg says.
The Road Ahead
As the Rio Games fast approach, both athletes must rein in their emotions as well. For Flanagan, the last few days before a race are what she calls “the taper tantrum,” when pent-up energy just needs to come out. “I try to stay even-keeled. Relaxing, spending a little time with family and keeping your feet up are all things that help with your nerves.”
But once the finish line is crossed, it’s not the gold medal or the best personal record that counts. Cragg says her prize will be spending time with family and recovering. “We don’t get a lot of down time right now. I’m lucky I get to spend time with my husband while doing my job, but I intend to go home to Kansas to visit my family after the Rio Olympics.”
To track the duo’s road to Rio, check out Flanagan and Cragg on Facebook and follow them on Twitter and Instagram @ShalaneFlanagan and @HastyHastings. And for updates on all things Team USA, visit teamusa.org. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio begin on August 5.