On Feb. 13 in Los Angeles, Desiree Linden will try to make her second straight U.S. Olympic team in the marathon. She placed second at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Houston, but was forced to drop out of the Olympic marathon later that year in London because of an injury. With more than two strong years of running under her belt—including solid efforts in Boston in 2014 (10th, 2:23:54) and 2015 (4th, 2:25:39) and a sixth-place showing in the 10,000m at the U.S. outdoor track championships in June (32:53.50)—she’s ready for 2016. We caught up with her recently to talk about her pre-Olympic Trials training buildup and her expectations for the race.
When did you start preparing for this Olympic Trials?
To be honest, I think we sat down in 2012 when I was still injured and thought, “OK, how do I get back on the team in 2016?” So we’ve been thinking about Rio 2016 as far back as 2012. The last three years have been geared for heading back to the Trials, so it’s certainly something I’ve thought about a lot.
I think the biggest thing about Boston was that I felt like I was moving like myself again. I had a glimpse of that in New York [at the NYC Half in mid-March] after having some bumps along the way.
How did your effort in the 2015 Boston Marathon play into the grand scheme of things?
The training went right and I was able to perform at a very high level. I think that’s a great thing to use as a stepping stone for the next one. Being able to make the team and start focusing on the next one would be a really nice progression.
What will your pre-Olympic Trials buildup look like?
We’re starting in mid-November and a 10- to 12-week buildup is pretty normal. The first two weeks is just about building mileage. I’ll start in the 85-90-mile range and then slowly work up to about 115 over a few weeks and then top out at 120 to 125 miles. We’ll start getting into marathon-paced workouts not too far into the buildup. A few weeks after that, we’ll switch up to faster-than-marathon pace with the same types of workouts—like 5 x 2 miles and 3 x 3 miles at 10 to 15 seconds faster than marathon pace—and we’ll start hitting peak mileage about then—maybe 120 to 125 miles per week.
You’re obviously running twice a day most days, right?
Yeah, I run double sessions on most days. If it’s not a day in which I’m doing something of substance—a long run or a workout—I’m probably running twice. We’ll start small—8 miles in the morning, 4 miles in the afternoon, then to 10 and 4 and build up from there.
How long is your weekly long run during a marathon buildup?
I’ll only go up to 20 miles. In fact, I’ve only gone over that twice. Once during my Olympic buildup in 2012, I went up to 22 and apparently that’s a little too much. I’ll probably run 20 miles five times during my buildup to the Olympic Trials between early December and mid- to late January. Those are run a lot on feel, so once you start getting into it and you’re building your mileage, sometimes you just want to go out and cover the distance or get ‘time on feet’ but we do a lot of progression runs where the final 3 or 4 miles you’re running at marathon pace at the end of a 20-mile long run. And some days you just don’t have it, so you just cover the distance.
Which workouts do you do that start to give you an indication of your marathon fitness?
Our last big workouts are almost a month out from the race. About 4-5 weeks out, we’ll do the Hanson’s Marathon Simulator 26.2K at marathon pace and 2 x 6 miles about 5 seconds faster than marathon pace and an 8-mile tempo run. Those workouts are all smashed together in close proximity to each other over a week or so. From there, we mostly do lighter workouts where you’re touching on marathon pace after that.
The 2 x 6-mile workout is always a very big indicator. It’s the first time you step back from going 10 minutes faster than marathon pace and you feel pretty relaxed on that first one and then if you can hit that second one at the right pace and sense that it’s comfortably hard, it’s always a good indicator that you’re ready because it really comes on top of a lot of mileage. You’re tired and you’re beat up and if you can hit that, it’s a good sign. But really, there’s no one workout that if you hit or don’t hit you melt down.
For Boston this year, I was shooting for 5:20 pace for those 2 x 6 workouts. But when there are days where it’s super windy, you just go by effort and just roll with it.
Do you do most of your workouts on the roads or do you ever get on the track?
We do a couple of things on the track, usually any workout that’s shorter than mile repeats we’ll do on the track. So we might do 10 x 800 at 15 seconds per mile faster than marathon pace. Later on, we’ll do 6 or 8 x mile repeats at 5:10 or so. We’ll just do two of those workouts, just to feel fast, even though you’re not really going that fast. It’s all about cadence and rhythm and changing it up and turning your legs over a little bit.
What can you tell us about the Hansons-Brooks team training camp in Florida?
We’ll go down to Florida on about Dec. 28 and basically be training down there all the way through the time we travel to Los Angeles about four or five days before the Olympic Trials. It’s really a good way to get footing. Running in the cold doesn’t really bother anyone in our group in Michigan—it’s about finding good footing and not having to worry about slipping on ice or getting dinged up from something like that. It’s a good way to remove that elements and go down to Florida to get good quality work and know where your fitness is at.
I’ve been going to Kenya the last several years and it’s sort of the same mentality to that. You’re going down there to train and you have a block of time just to do the task at hand. You’re not distracted by things at home—whatever mundane, stupid things that get in the way at home that get in the way of getting rest or not eating right. That might mean going out with your friends for a beer instead of taking a nap or whatever. It will be good to go down to Florida and be with the team—runners who are like-minded individuals who have the same goals and some schedules.
At what point will you start looking forward to the race with some real excitement?
I think anytime I really hit a workout that’s comfortably hard and feel good coming out of it—you finish and you think you could have done two or three more reps—that’s when you start to get excited and you start looking forward to the next workout. As you get more fit, that happens more frequently, but then you also have to balance that with the days you feel flat and awful. But that’s OK, that’s part of the process. By the time you do those big indicator workouts four to five weeks out, you’re usually pretty excited about the race.
You’re hunkering down for 10 to 12 weeks and nobody knows what you’re doing, logging a lot of miles and workouts. It’s fun to think about that race because that’s your opportunity to say, “OK, this is what I’ve been up to.” That’s kind of how I look at it.
How long will your taper be?
Our taper is only about two weeks, maybe a week and a half. We keep running super late into the buildup. I’ll run a 12-miler the week of the race. It’s just trying to maintain that normal balance and routine of what you’re doing and not changing things too drastically so you wind up feeling lethargic and flat on race day. But it’s also about freshening up too. You slowly dial the mileage down and do some short bouts of quicker running.
The biggest thing is that I try to stay super relaxed about it and not overthink anything. We’ll have the travel to L.A. and the press conference once we get there, and those things sort of distract you. That’s a good thing at that point because you have way more time on your hands than you have had in previous weeks. I just try to stay as normal as possible. I think you have to focus on getting more rest during that time. When you dial back the mileage, you have more energy, you’re more excited and you’re feeling fresher.
What’s your outlook for the U.S. Olympic Trials race?
It’s awesome going into the Olympic Trials with so much experience. In 2008, that was my second marathon and I was super fit and ready to go and felt like I had a shot to be on the team. But a lack of experience really did me in. That was the moment where I really felt like I wanted to figure out the marathon and find out how I could do well at it. So it’s kind of fun to go back for a third time and know how I’ve progressed since then. It’s a super high-pressure situation but I feel confident going in based on my experience.
I would love to win the race. I’ve never won a marathon and I’ve never won a U.S. championship race of any kind, so that would be fantastic if it unfolds that way. But it is a unique race in which if you’re third, it’s just like winning. You don’t get a first-class ticket to Rio if you win the trials, you get the same thing as the second- and third-place finishers.
Do you pay attention to the chatter about what other athletes have been doing this fall?
I pay attention to it. I’m a fan of the sport and I want to know how everyone else is doing. I’m going to cheer for runners and am excited for them when they do well. When it comes to racing and preparation, the No. 1 goal is to focus on me and get myself prepared as possible. I think I’m capable of making the team, regardless of who does what in the meantime. I know that my main focus is to work on myself and get fit and if I do that, I know I have a great shot.