Who Is the GOAT of US Women’s Distance Running: Shalane Flanagan or Deena Kastor? Or Someone Else?

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By Robert Johnson
October 23, 2019

On Monday, after Shalane Flanagan retired as a professional runner and announced she’s moving into the coaching ranks, I wrote an article where I recapped five of her career highlights and wondered if she is the US women’s GOAT (greatest of all time): LRC Shalane Flanagan Retires: Is She The US GOAT? + Top 5 Moments in Her Career.

At the end of the article, I said while others clearly had better cross country (Lynn Jennings) or track careers (Jenny Simpson), one could make the argument that Flanagan had the greatest overall career — although I’d personally prefer to have Joan Benoit Samuelson‘s career over Flanagan’s (others have argued for Lynn Jennings given her three World XC wins and an Olympic medal). In the middle of the night, I woke up and realized there is another US woman whom I didn’t even mention in the article who may have had a better career than Flanagan: Deena Kastor (née Drossin).

Take a look at how the resumes of Kastor and Flanagan compare to each other. They are very similar as both women won a World Marathon Major, an Olympic medal, and a World XC medal.

Achievement Flanagan Kastor Edge
Olympic medals 1 1 Even
World Marathon Major wins 1 2 Kastor
World XC medals 1 2 Kastor
NCAA titles 3 0 Flanagan
USA Outdoor Titles 5 5 Even
US XC Crowns 6 (2 short) 8 (1 short) Kastor
3k PR 8:33.25 8:42.59 Flanagan
5k PR 14:44.80 14:51.62 Flanagan
10k PR 30:22.22 30:50.32 Flanagan
Half PR 67:51 67:34 Kastor
Marathon PR 2:21:14 2:19:36 Kastor

Overall, I think it’s fair say to say Flanagan was a slightly better track runner, but Kastor was the better road runner and marathoner. Both were exceptional XC runners, with Flanagan having the edge collegiately due to her two NCAA titles. But Kastor, who four times was top-12 at the NCAA ranks, gets the edge as a pro thanks to her eight US titles (as compared to six for Flanagan; note that total includes the short course wins) and two World xC medals (both silver, compared to Flanagan’s bronze). At the Olympics, both crossed the finish line in third (Flanagan in the 10,000, later upgraded to silver, Kastor in the marathon).

In terms of American records, Flanagan broke the US 5,000 record once and the 10,0000 record twice, whereas Kastor broke the US 10,000 record once, and the half marathon and the marathon records twice each. Flanagan no longer holds any outdoor records (though she still has the indoor 3000 and 5000 records), while Kastor’s 2:19:36 marathon, which she ran to win London in 2006 — the lone sub-2:20 in US history — still stands the test of time 13+ years later.

Both had long careers. Flanagan made four Olympic teams and retired at 38. Kastor, made three Olympic teams, and still hasn’t technically retired as she ran Tokyo this year at age 46 (Kastor ran 2:27 in Chicago at age 42 in 2015). Yes, making four Olympic teams is better than three, but winning two major marathons (Kastor also won Chicago in 2005) is signficantly better than winning one.

Head to head, Flanagan beat Kastor in five of the six races they both finished, but that’s not a fair comparison given the fact that Flanagan is eight years younger. The final three of those wins came when Kastor was older than Flanagan is now. They only raced three times before Kastor was 39 and all three of those races were in 2007.

In their most famous matchup at the epic 2007 USA Cross Country Championships in front of 10,000+ fans in Boulder — Kastor put on a performance for the ages and scored a knockout win. Kastor and Flanagan pulled clear of the field before 2k, but when all was said and done Kastor was the victor by 61 seconds (Race recap, LRC homepage for that day). Later that year, Flanagan beat Kastor in the Rome 5000 (15:04 vs 15:13) and Monaco 3000 (8:35 vs 8:44).

So who was the GOAT?

Kastor (l) ended up destroying Flanagan (r) at the 2007 USA XC Champs

I’m not sure whose career I’d rather have. Heck, you could make a convincing argument that neither of these women is the US GOAT and that it should be Benoit or Jennings instead.

Mainly, I’m writing this because recency bias is real. Whenever a transcedent athlete retires, it’s tempting to crown them the GOAT. Their achievements are fresh in our minds and in the case of Flanagan, her entire professional career played out during the modern internet era, when it was much easier to watch/follow races compared to an athlete like Benoit or Jennings.

Flanagan is an all-time US legend, and should be celebrated as such. Was she the GOAT? I don’t think so. As I wrote yesterday, I’d rather have Benoit’s career over Flanagan’s. And if forced to choose between Kastor or Flanagan, I think the proper call for most would be to pick Kastor given her sub-2:20 marathon, two major marathon wins and two world XC medals unless you really value NCAA achievements (as I do as a former college coach).

And if you think she is, that’s fine but please remember she’s not the only phenomenal runner the US has produced.

Kastor winning the 2007 USA XC crown

Who do you think had the better career? Deena Kastor or Shalane Flanagan? Talk about it on the messageboard: Who had the better career – Deena Kastor or Shalane Flanagan? 

Listen to this debate on our podcast: We debated Shalane’s legacy at the start of this week’s podcast. You can listen in the player below, at this link, or at your favorite podcast host “LetsRun.com Track Talk”


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