As Desiree Davila turned left onto Boylston Street during the 2011 Boston Marathon then briefly surged into the lead, broadcasters stumbled over her name. Like the rest of the crowd, they were shocked by what they saw. No one expected such a dramatic finish in the women’s race, not from Davila, not from a runner whose relatively thin résumé didn’t include an Olympic medal, a World Championship medal, or an American record.
But there she was, sprinting down the final, flag-lined stretch as spectators caught on and chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A.” Davila crossed the line in 2 hours 22 minutes 38 seconds, two seconds shy of victory, but still assured a place in Boston Marathon history with the fastest time by an American woman. She bettered the mark Joan Benoit Samuelson set in her then-world-record win in 1983.
For the first time since that breakthrough performance, Davila (now Desiree Linden after her marriage to triathlete and 2:26 marathoner Ryan Linden) will be back racing on Patriots Day. And workouts indicate she is as fit and fast as she was in 2011.
“She’s in similar shape,” said Keith Hanson, who along with his brother Kevin coaches Desiree Linden. “Her workouts have been very similar to what she did then [building up to the 2011 race]. Everything we’ve been doing has been gearing to a slightly faster pace than we had been doing at that time, which was 2:24 pace. This time everything has been more geared to 2:23 pace. She’s been hitting those workouts geared at that pace.”
That is an impressive statement by itself. But given Linden’s disappointment at the 2012 London Olympics and the injury-related career detour that followed, it is also somewhat surprising.
A femoral stress fracture kept Linden from marathon competition for almost 20 months. It wasn’t until mid-September 2013, a couple of weeks before she raced in the Berlin Marathon, that Linden felt completely comfortable running again. Before that, it had been a struggle to recover and return to form. Now, she is cautiously optimistic about Boston.
“The field is incredible this year,” said Linden. “To be competitive, it’s going to take a really great day. If you’re in the mix late, anybody’s got a shot to win it. So, I’m not counting myself out, but I’m not that 2011 confident.”
Asked if there was a point after the stress fracture when she worried if she would ever return to form, Linden said, “Honestly, I’m still not sure I’ll make it back to the level I was at prior to my injury. My 2:29 in Berlin was pretty far off the mark but it was a step in the right direction.
“I’ve had a much better training segment this time around and have seen signs that I’m at, or close to, where I was before. But there’s no guarantee. We’ll find out on Monday if I can execute on race day and be competitive at that high level.”
Regardless of her finish time or place, Linden has come a long way from where she was a year ago, watching the Boston Marathon from the sideline with an uncertain road ahead. Linden originally thought she would be competing in the 2013 race, but her injury was slow to heal. Instead, she was giving interviews at the Boylston Street finish before the masses of runners came through.
Around the time the bombs went off, Linden had planned to head to the finish and watch her high school coach cross the line. But that day’s training run lasted a little longer than expected and she decided to meet up with everyone back at her hotel lobby.
“It was a really surreal feeling,” said Linden of the bombings. “I couldn’t believe it was happening at a marathon. It was overwhelming and confusing. It was a lot of different emotions.”
Linden also experienced a mix of emotions in the final weeks before the 2012 Summer Games. Going into London, Linden thought her right hip pain was tendinitis. She tried to train through the injury and hoped for a miracle the morning of the women’s marathon. But there wasn’t one, and she stopped shortly after the 2-mile mark and recorded the first DNF of her marathon career.
Before the injury, Davila had risen consistently up the ranks of elite female distance runners and believed she could contend for an Olympic medal. Her second-place finish in Boston had proven she could compete with the world’s best marathoners. In the 15 months that followed, all of her training and racing with the Rochester Hills, Mich.-based Hansons-Brooks Distance Project had been designed with an Olympic podium finish in mind. Her second-place finish at the US Olympic trials, in 2:25:55, was a measured effort to insure peak performance at the Summer Games.
For all those reasons, Keith Hanson described Linden’s Olympic experience as “heartbreaking.”
The disappointment continued when what was originally believed to be a hip flexor injury was diagnosed as a stress fracture in her femur. The healing process started with 12 weeks without running, but the injury took longer to heal than expected and it was a slow path forward.
“It was the first significant injury of my career,” said Linden. “It was the first time where I had to take an extended amount of time off and I really struggled with the comeback.”
Of the lessons learned throughout the process, she added: “You can’t force progress. While coming back from injury, it’s incredibly easy to look back to where my fitness was, compare, and get frustrated; it’s far more effective to stay present and celebrate and appreciate the small strides I had made. The same patience required for getting through the injury is needed in the marathon; you can’t force fast running, you relax and let it happen.”
As she worked her way back into elite racing form, Linden looked ahead to her Boston return, knowing that the course suits her running style. She also understood that training for Boston would require a good six weeks of base training, high mileage to build back the strength lost during her long layoff.
When Linden asked 2012 Boston Marathon champion Wesley Korir about why Kenyan marathoners are successful and what type of training they do back home, Korir convinced her to see for herself. So, in January, she headed to Iten, a running mecca in the Rift Valley that sits at an elevation of 8,000 feet. Linden embraced Kenyan culture on and off the red dirt roads, where she logged 100-plus miles per week.
“A big part of the trip was about reminding myself of my love for running, which was something I struggled with after the injury,” said Linden. “Being in a totally new place and surrounded by such a rich running culture was a good reminder that I enjoy the process of simply getting out the door, putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward.”
Since it was her first extended trip to altitude, Linden focused more on mental gains than physiological ones. Still, she pushed both her mental and physical limits during her stay at Lornah Kiplagat’s high-altitude training center.
During training runs, she put herself into situations where she would be “forced to make a choice between backing off or pushing forward into unknown territory.” And as a result, Linden regained confidence in what her body could do.
“Nearly every time I took that leap into the unknown, I was surprised that my thresholds were a little higher than I thought,” said Linden. “I always had a little more in me than I expected. On the rare occasion I did cross my threshold, the worst that happened was a few tough miles, and then I’d regroup and carry on as normal.”
She hopes it’s perfect preparation for what lies ahead on Marathon Monday.