Back before the pandemic tore up the racing calendar, her plan had been to double up last year, running the US Olympic trials in Atlanta and the Boston Marathon within seven weeks. So for Desiree Linden the notion of doing Boston and New York less than four weeks apart this fall is nothing more than a similar quest deferred.
“It is unknown,” Linden mused, “and I don’t know if I’ll get it right.”
But the uncertainty is the lure. At this stage of her career with 16 years of road running, two Olympics, a world championships, and appearances in 15 other major marathons on her resume, the 38-year-old Michigan resident is looking for intriguing challenges.
That’s why she took on her first ultramarathon in April and broke the world record for 50 kilometers (31 miles) by more than seven minutes.
“I enjoyed it,” said Linden, who ran 2 hours 59 minutes and 54 seconds with a small group on a deserted bike trail in Oregon. “I liked going into the unknown and testing myself. One of the big takeaways was that I like putting that big goal out there and chasing it down. Whether you get it or not the commitment to try to achieve something big is fun for me.”
Linden rarely has been the fastest woman on the starting line — her personal best of 2:22:38 ranks 10th among the professional contenders in Monday’s 125th Hopkinton-to-Boston ramble. But nobody is more dogged. “I’m not fast any more,” she conceded. “But I’m tough.”
That’s why Linden loves Boston, whose lumpy course she’ll be running for the eighth time.
“It’s so gritty,” she said. “26.2 is supposed to be difficult and that’s what Boston is. It mimics the original marathon course where legend has it the guy dies at the end. You get on the Boston course and it still has that. It requires something a little bit extra. It’s refreshing to have that moment where you feel like you actually accomplished something difficult and that something was simplified so you could feel special.”
Most of Linden’s career highlights have come in Boston. She made her marathon debut here in 2007 and ran her first Olympic trials here a year later. She became the fastest-ever American woman here in 2011 when she finished second to Caroline Kilel by two seconds. And she achieved a breakthrough victory here in 2018, sloshing through wind and cold rain to win by more than four minutes and become the first US female winner in 33 years.
Linden loved that the weather that day was brutal, that so many competitors simply walked off rather than deal with the meteorological misery.
“It’s an element that can really rattle people,” she said. “You have to figure out how to factor it into your training. No one should ever be surprised that there’s goofy weather in Boston. It’s the spring and you can get either side of it. It can be ridiculously hot for that time of year or you can get some nasty spring weather. It makes it a bit more chess versus checkers. It’s one more thing you have to think about out there.”
So Linden was gutted when last year’s race first was postponed until September and then scrubbed.
“Fetal position and lots of crying — I’m kidding,” she said. But after having missed making the Tokyo team by one place Linden had hoped to make a rebound in Boston. “You want to get that next race going as soon as possible,” she said. “To have that double lined up, at least there was a silver lining. So it was difficult to have those things kicked down the road.”
Linden could have signed on for London, which had been deferred until last fall.
“I wasn’t exactly jumping at the opportunity to fly internationally and manage all the COVID stuff and go through the wringer of a marathon grind,” she said. “I’m on the upper end of the age of this sort of game so to have a little bit of a break was nice.”
Instead, Linden began preparing for the ultramarathon. She conceived of ‘Destober’, running workout miles that corresponded to the day of the month, 496 in all, 196 of them during the final week. Then she took the line for the 50k determined to take down the world record of 3:07:20 held by Great Britain’s Aly Dixon.
It was odd, Linden said, not to have spectators lining the course.
“I had to be the person who was super-self motivated,” she said.
Odd, too, was the feeling of continuing to run past 26 miles.
“When you’ve never been there before, that’s difficult,” she said. “You did a turnaround at the marathon point so you were running away from the finish line. That was a mentally grinding moment for me.”
The exhaustion quickly was replaced by exuberance at shattering the record and eagerness for a reprise.
“I think there’ll be more,” Linden said. “I would love to get to Two Oceans or Comrades (both in South Africa). There are a couple of trail races that sound interesting to me. It depends on when the marathon legs fall off.”
And that will depend on how long Linden feels that she can be up with the leaders at the top level.
“I don’t want to just go through the motions,” she said. “It’s finding that balance. I don’t know when that will be but I hope I don’t pull the plug too soon.”
She’d like to run in the trials for the Paris Games in 2024. Next year’s world championships in Oregon are a possibility. Boston is customarily on her calendar and New York now is in her rotation. Until this year those two races have been seven months apart. This time the gap is just one.
After Monday’s race, only her second marathon in two years, Linden heads to the Apple to take on Peres Jepchirchir and Molly Seidel, the Olympic gold and bronze medalists.
“Do Boston and see what you’ve got left for the second one,” she said. “Everything doesn’t always go quite to plan.”
That’s why Linden relishes what the double offers. It’s another voyage into the unknown.
More Boston Marathon coverage
- Your guide to the 2021 Boston Marathon
- After going a long stretch without marathons, some runners are doubling up this fall
- ‘Spotlight’ star Brian d’Arcy James is back in the city, this time to take on the Boston Marathon
- Three fast marathons in three days? Jordan Tropf will try to pull off what he calls an ‘American trifecta’