For elite runners and weekend warriors alike, the race distance can be a terrible barometer. Twenty-six point two might be a nice sticker to put on the back of a Subaru, but it doesn’t come close to illustrating the training miles, the years of preparations, the injuries and setbacks and all the times that the starting line felt as far away as the finish.
In Boston on Monday, Desiree Linden’s feet splashed and her arms pumped as she neared the finish line. When she crossed it, becoming the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon in 33 years, she covered her face, seemingly in disbelief.
“It hurts right now, but it’s a perfect day for me,” she told CBS Boston. “This is a grinder’s day.”
She served as the pacesetter for a memorable day for American runners, who claimed seven of the top-10 spots in the women’s race and six of the top 10 in the men’s. Linden, 34, finished in 2:39.54, more than four minutes ahead of fellow American Sarah Sellers, a virtual unknown entering the race whose second-place finish was more surprising to running enthusiasts than Linden’s emotional win.
Japan’s Yuki Kawauchi was the surprise men’s winner in 2:15:58, running down defending champion Geoffrey Kirui of Kenya in the final two miles; Americans Shadrack Biwott (2:18:35) and Tyler Pennel (2:18:57) were third and fourth, respectively.
At the finish line, Linden was exhausted and exhilarated and there was no way the number 26.2 conveyed just what type of marathon her running career has really been. From a second-place heartbreaker at the same race in 2011 to a pair of Olympic appearances to a soul-searching 2017, she’d always felt pointed in this direction but the route was filled with twists and turns.
Last year’s Boston Marathon was actually the one she felt confident about winning. She was coming off a seventh-place finish at the Rio Olympics in 2016, had been a runner-up in Boston six years earlier and was certain it was finally her time — even though no American had won the women’s race since Lisa Rainsberger (then Lisa Larsen Weidenbach) in 1985.
“I know it’s a big thing to say out loud, but I think I’d be selling myself short if I was like, ‘Oh, I hope I podium,’ or, ‘I would like a PR,’” Linden told Runner’s World. “[Winning] is the thing that I’m really chasing after.”
Instead, Linden finished in fourth, more than three minutes behind the winner, Kenya’s Edna Kiplagat. There’s certainly no shame in a top-5 finish at the one of the world’s toughest distance races, but Linden’s disappointment was tinged with fatigue. One year before the biggest win of her career, Linden felt she needed a break.
“I hated everything about running,” she’d later tell Runner’s World.
It was uncharacteristic of Linden, an obsessive student of the sport. Her coach always thought she was the model student, always eager to take on more.
“For [Linden] if I say one thing, she’ll add three … She’s already done her homework,” Kevin Hanson told Excelle Sports before last year’s Boston Marathon.
Linden wasn’t always looking for a second-wind; she wanted to maximize performance while she was tired. For her, fatigue was a mile-marker and pushing it through was a performance goal.
“She gets it more than some,” Hanson said. “Track athletes always want to feel that zip or pop, if she’s feeling that she’s not training hard enough.”
It all caught up to her last year. She’d been a serious runner since high school in California, later competing for Arizona State before embarking on a pro career. In 2017, she wasn’t ready to retire, but the summer months slipped by and she still wasn’t running. She instead went fishing and kayaking and lost herself in books.
Finally last September, after what amounted to a five-month break, Linden slowly started training again, taking a day off whenever she felt like it. Her workload steadily increased, and as Linden explained to Runner’s World, by October she was running daily and logging at least 90 miles per week.
She started mixing in shorter distances, and in October signed up for her first cross-country race in seven years. In November, other elite runners lined up for New York City Marathon. Linden was there, too, but entered the USA Track & Field 5K championships one day earlier and not the weekend’s marquee event.
Five months later, she found herself back in Boston, a course she loves and with conditions she preferred. But even she couldn’t foresee what the 26th mile might look like. Early in the race, fellow American Shalane Flanagan made a restroom stop and Linden waited for her, explaining later to NBC that she figured she’d eventually fall back and wanted to support her friend.
“To be honest, at miles 2-3-4, I didn’t think I’d make it to the finish line,” Linden said.
Instead, she kept gaining on Ethiopia’s Mamitu Daska, finally pulling into first place at the 22-mile mark. Not only were the day’s wet conditions not a hindrance, but Linden remained steady when others seemed to fade.
“I think that’s one thing that plays into her advantage,” Hanson explained last year. “Honestly, with Des, I hardly ever want perfect conditions.”
Linden’s time Monday was the slowest of any female winner since 1978 and 17 minutes slower than her personal-best — 2:22:38 — from the 2011 Boston Marathon. But at race’s end, times and numbers were the last things on her mind.
“I don’t have the right words,” Linden told reporters when it was finished. “I’m thrilled.”