A week and two days after her historic win at the New York City Marathon, Shalane Flanagan is enjoying “soaking up the moment.”
After years of training and racing, the elite runner finally achieved her dream of winning a World Marathon Major, while also becoming the first American woman to take first in the event in 40 years.
“Living out your dream in reality is very surreal,” Flanagan tells PEOPLE. “I felt like it was this huge, ground-breaking moment for our sport and American distance running because I was the first woman to win in 40 years. I felt that magnitude and that importance.”
Right now she’s on top of the world, but just a few months before Flanagan was devastated when a back fracture kept her out of the Boston Marathon, her hometown race.
“I kept telling myself, instead of getting negative, that there was going to be some sort of delayed gratification, that something bigger was in store down the road,” she says. “I’m just happy that I stayed the course because I was definitely in a dark place when I got injured.”
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After Flanagan recovered, she set her sights on New York, and put in one of the best training cycles of her life. As she toed the line on Nov. 5, she knew she was ready.
“I felt like there was nothing I could’ve done any better, so I had this peaceful sense in my soul,” she says. “I had no excuse not to do well, and that’s a great feeling at the starting line. I felt like I was on the verge of a really big breakthrough.”
During the race, Flanagan made sure to keep pace with Mary Keitany, the current world record holder. Though Flanagan finished a full minute ahead of Keitany, she had no idea until the very end.
“It ain’t over until you hit that tape,” Flanagan says. “I ran pretty scared the last three miles. I had no idea that I opened up a minute lead, so I just assumed she was only 100 meters back. And I never looked back because I didn’t want to show that I was scared. I wanted to show strength.”
As she approached the finish line, Flanagan finally celebrated with a very visible “f— yeah!” One Twitter user set it to the “America, F— Yeah!” from Team America, which Flanagan loved.
“I saw that. I sent it to my parents and they said they were rolling around laughing and crying,” she says. “I feel like that moment was made for that song.”
As the dust starts to settle, Flanagan is beginning to look ahead to her next steps. New York was her tenth marathon, and she wasn’t sure about doing another, but Boston seems inevitable.
“If I’m being honest with myself, when I envision not participating this spring that makes me want to cry, so that’s a sign that maybe I need to try another time,” she says. “That I would feel really sad sitting on the sidelines shows to me that there’s a desire to be there.”
Flanagan will weigh her options with her coach, family and sponsors before she makes a decision, but for now she has her happy ending.
“It’s amazing how things work out,” she says. “I don’t think I could’ve written a better story.”