There are runners who run smart or bravely or on instinct. Marathoner Desiree Linden prefers a methodical approach.
At the start of the 2015 Boston Marathon, Linden knew that Shalane Flanagan’s aggressive pace the year before—one that winner Rita Jeptoo had described as being “like fire”—had been her downfall.
A woman of strength not speed, Linden would have to run a pace that would stiffen the legs of her competitors and keep them from pulling away from her in the last 4 miles. So the diminutive runner took the lead from the start and locked into her rhythm, battling the cold, rain and wind, her furrowed eyebrows telegraphing a forceful concentration.
She held that lead for just over 23 miles before three other runners found an extra gear and pulled away. Linden took fourth place and ran 2:25:39. She wasn’t disappointed. It was a good fight and a good race. Linden is a runner that uses the phrase “learning experience” about her worst results without the accompanying twinge of bitterness.
“As the distance goes up, a race becomes about far more than talent,” says Kevin Hanson, Linden’s longtime coach and one of the two brothers behind the elite training group Hansons-Brooks Distance Project based in Rochester, Mich. “Training goes into it, race strategy goes into it, even how you think a competitor will compete is factored in. Desi’s a real student of the game. She likes the chess match. She never panics, she plots.”
These are skills Linden will use to her advantage when she competes at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon—the race that will determine who goes on to wear the red, white and blue in Rio—on Feb. 13. She knows the way a race will unfold from the start line, the probability of each racer’s next move, the likelihood of a surge being a tactical move or something spawned from overexcitement. She has the confidence to let the runners who run too fast go and the gumption to lead races when everyone else is hesitant. There is no concise Plan A or Plan B—Linden is too methodical for that.
Maybe it’s the reason she majored in psychology. That stoic determination—planning, plotting, removing emotion from the job that needs to be done—is what makes Linden a “silent-but-deadly pro,” according to her former college teammate Amy Cragg. She goes quiet when she has bad days and she’s never boastful about the good ones. Her focus is on the job—not the limelight.
It seemed like no one knew Linden’s name before her homestretch battle for first with Kenyan Caroline Kilel at the 2011 Boston Marathon.
Even though Linden was one of the country’s top marathon runners at the time—behind still-reigning Deena Kastor and the likely heir apparent Kara Goucher—and had run the fourth fastest time ever by a U.S. woman at the 2010 Chicago Marathon (2:26:20), America wondered a collective “who?” when Linden began to lead the Kenyans in the final blocks of Boston. Even the Universal Sports TV announcers seemed flabbergasted, drawing an arrow toward the 5-foot-2, 100-pound racer on-air at nearly two hours into the race, saying, “That is Desiree Davila, formerly of Arizona State and now running for Hansons-Brooks in Michigan … and that is her pushing the pace a little bit. Wow.”
Although she would finish second to Kilel that day, just two seconds away from winning the Boston Marathon amid near-euphoric cheering along Boylston Street, Linden clocked a 2:22:38 and became a household name—and a fan favorite—in the American running scene.
“Boston was a mentality shift,” says Linden. “For the first time, I knew I could compete to win.”
What seemed like a miraculous result to everyone else was a strategic step in a very long process. Linden’s success had been six years in the making, working under coaches Kevin and Keith Hanson since 2005 after graduating from Arizona State University with All-American honors in cross country and track. She owned no school records or national or Pac-10 championship titles when she left, but she had developed a workhorse ethic sometime between her sophomore and junior year. When she graduated, she reached out to the Hanson brothers hoping to extend her career.
Nowadays, when new runners begin training with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, they tell the coaches they want to be like Linden. She’s quickly become the patron saint of post-collegiate runners who finished school without completely blossoming, those who never won an NCAA title or ran a sub-33 10K but continued to work and develop through the trials of miles and miles of trials.
“We tell our athletes, if you want to be like Des, no one will know your name for the first six years of training—are you OK with that?” Hanson says.
Like Brian Sell before her, Linden joined a team that values patience and dedication, and offers the resources to see it through. Sell was equally unsung coming out of college but, with the support and long-term development ethos of the Hansons-Brooks program, he honed himself into a 2:10 marathoner and earned a 2008 U.S. Olympic team berth.
Linden says she liked seeing those small results come to her the harder she worked.
“You need patience to understand that it’s a process just to step up to the start line and to develop into a better athlete,” Linden says. “I would’ve loved immediate results, but that wasn’t in the cards for me. I had to put in the work and chip away. It was the one controllable. That way, I could be satisfied with results even if I didn’t make the team.”
She began to like the rhythms of long-distance training and the meticulous planning that went into marathons. The long suffering of a 26.2-mile race appealed to her more than the acute, sustained pain of 5Ks and 10Ks. Linden raced the IAAF World Road Running Championships in 2006 and finished 43rd in 1:11:56.
“After the 20K, Des asked, ‘Did I run well enough for you to let me run a marathon?’” Kevin Hanson says, laughing. “I told her I never said I wouldn’t let her. The marathon is a difficult enough event for any athlete to wrap their heads around without me forcing their hand.”
Her times dropped consistently. She finished 18th in 2:44:56 at her marathon debut at the 2007 Boston Marathon. A year later, she started out strong in her second marathon at the U.S. Olympic Trials race in Boston, but she faded badly in the second half and finished a distant 13th in 2:37:50.
“I thought I was pretty good, a young hotshot who was going to make the Olympic team at 22,” Linden says. “I needed to experience that low. I had to learn the event.”
Three years later, she was duking it out with Kilel in Boston and raising the eyebrows of the world running community. But her lowest point was yet to come.
Her strong finish put the world on notice that another 2:22 marathoner would be in the running for the podium at the 2012 London Olympics. Linden qualified at the U.S. Olympic Trials in second place behind Shalane Flanagan with a time of 2:25:55, but during her final training segment leading into London, her hip began to hurt. Everyone assumed tendonitis, but the pain was actually stemming from her femur, where a stress fracture began to crack the bone, growing with each step of Linden’s 120-mile training weeks. Her body was aware enough to compensate, which led to hip pain so severe that Linden was stuck running at 90 percent bodyweight on the AlterG treadmill for weeks. Linden raced just over 2 miles in the Olympic marathon before she called it quits, walked off the course and, the next day, escaped the Olympic Village.
“That was one of the hardest things we’ve gone through in our life together,” says Linden’s husband, Ryan Linden, whom she met while training with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. “They didn’t know what it was at first. Every day she’s sitting there and she can’t do her job. I was still training and I had to figure out how to sneak out and train. She just wanted to run—even if it were 2 miles.”
“I was asking myself, ‘Do I still want to do this? Is it worth it?’” says Linden, who began spending her downtime with Ryan going to live music shows, staying up late, paddle boarding on the lake and taking advantage of their bourbon collection as they played Gran Turismo. “I knew the next couple of years would be hard, but I came to the decision that it was something I wanted to do.”
Linden’s first marathon back was the 2013 Berlin Marathon, where she placed fifth in 2:29:15. That winter, she spent six weeks at Lornah Kiplagat’s high-altitude training camp in Iten, Kenya, to prepare for her return to Boston in 2014. In Boston, Linden ran a 2:23:54 to finish 10th, the second American woman after Shalane Flanagan crossed the line in seventh place and set a new American course record in 2:22:02. Last year, Linden regained the top American spot when she took fourth place, five spots up on Flanagan.
She’s climbed her way back and has regained the form of her Boston 2011 performance. She can feel it. Everyone can. And she’s got Flanagan and Cragg—arguably her biggest competitors going into the Olympic Trials marathon in February—to keep her honest.
In Rochester Hills, Mich., Linden was logging quiet miles until November, when the first training segment and the build for the Trials in Los Angeles began. Nagging tendonitis in her calf from track season has made her base miles fewer and gentler. She and Ryan spent the latter part of summer’s fading heat in their new cottage in Charlevoix, a picturesque city in northern Michigan between Lake Michigan and Lake Charlevoix. There, on a paddleboard skimming Lake Charlevoix’s placid waters, Linden can come down from the season to recenter and heal. But every moment not training, there’s the anticipation to begin again. First Trials. Then Rio.
Hanson says a 2:22 racer will be in a position to medal. To get Linden there by Rio, Hanson will help her build strength. That means additional mileage, greater volume on the quality days and running faster during recovery days to help her get used to running on tired legs.
Hanson knows his most effective coaching strategy with Linden is knowledge. She needs insight into her competitors, a breakdown of the course—each hill, turn and variation. Her training is so specialized that if she trains for Boston, she probably wouldn’t do as well in Chicago or New York or London.
Now she just has to be patient. Before the U.S. Olympic Trials, two workouts about five weeks out will tell her if she’s done her job: a 26.2-kilometer tempo run and 2 x 6-mile repeats. If she can do them both at or under marathon race pace, she’ll be ready.
“There are so many different approaches on race day,” Linden says. “Some people go in with nothing to lose and the favorites go in with everything to lose. It’s all about who shows up and performs that day. I tell myself there’s a reason I have done well in the marathon. I don’t have to do anything I haven’t done before.”
“A lot of athletes will say, ‘I will do everything it takes,’” Hanson says. “Des is one of the few I know who has honestly lived up to that.”