New York City Marathon will be the sixth marathon in six weeks for Shalane Flanagan

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Shalane Flanagan called it "a total running eclipse."

When the dates for the world's major marathons were finalized earlier this year, she realized that, for the first time, all six of the top races would occur in a six-week span, due to scheduling changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What an opportunity, Flanagan thought. Someone should try to run all six.

Then, she wondered: Why not me?

Now, the 40-year-old mom with two surgically-reconstructed knees is just 26.2 miles away from achieving her goal. After running marathons in Berlin, London, Chicago, Boston and Portland, Oregon, over the past 41 days – including, in one instance, races on consecutive days – Flanagan will look to cap her six-marathon quest at the New York City Marathon on Sunday. Like the first five, she'll aim to finish in under three hours.

Flanagan, who retired from professional running in 2019, said the past six weeks have brought some unexpected challenges. But they've also "drastically changed" her relationship with the sport, in a positive way.

"I just describe my relationship (with running) as a lot lighter," Flanagan said Friday morning. "Before, it just felt like a heavy weight I was carrying around, of expectations. Now it's just exactly whatever I want it to be that day. I do it more for me."

Shalane Flanagan crosses the finish line during the 2021 Boston Marathon.
Shalane Flanagan crosses the finish line during the 2021 Boston Marathon.

Flanagan turned pro out of the University of North Carolina in 2004 and quickly blossomed into one of America's elite distance runners, competing in four editions of the Summer Olympics and winning a silver medal in the women's 10,000 meters at the Beijing Games in 2008.

After shifting her focus to the marathon, she then went on to win the New York City Marathon in 2017 – becoming the first U.S. woman in four decades to do so.

Professional marathoners usually go several months between races, so Flanagan knew the prospect of running six in six weeks would be crazy. But the way in which it's been challenging has surprised her.

Because the race schedule was more or less front-loaded, Flanagan had six days of rest or fewer between each of the first five marathons, then a nearly three-week gap before No. 6. She thought the time off would be great. Instead, it's been tricky.

"I think having them more back-to-back allowed me to just really hone in on the recovery and get ready for the next one and get amped up," Flanagan said. "This dead space actually has been more challenging, just because my life responsibilities have seeped in more."

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In retirement, Flanagan has transitioned to coaching elite athletes in her former training group, Nike's Bowerman Track Club. She's written a third cookbook with co-author Elyse Kopecky. And she's become a mother to an adopted son, Jack.

Flanagan has also had a pair of reconstructive knee surgeries, the type of procedures that might have given others pause about running more than 157 miles of races in the span of a little more than a month. But she said her knees feel fine.

"It's been more like my feet and ankles that have taken a little bit more of a toll, just because I haven't done this much running in a long time," Flanagan said. "But no, knees are fine. They're like the least of my concern."

In a way, it was actually the knee surgeries that helped nudge Flanagan toward her six-marathon quest in the first place.

As a pro, Flanagan said she was focused only on where she finished and "a lot of self-worth and confidence was derived out of producing results." But after undergoing surgery, and wondering if she'd ever be able to return to her old form, that pressure was replaced by a different kind of motivation – an appreciation, more than anything else.

"It's more like a deep sense of appreciation that I can do this, instead of I have to do this," she said.

"I don't have this internal pressure to produce results. I enjoy it for what it is and how it just enhances my life."

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NYC Marathon 2021 caps crazy six-week stretch for Shalane Flanagan