Brutal and bone-chilling as they were, the conditions Monday may have created a perfect storm for Desiree Linden to capture her first major marathon win and become the first American woman in 33 years to win the Boston Marathon.
Because Linden wanted to bring the pain.
“The biggest thing for her is that she always wants to make the race longer,” said Kevin Hanson, one of Linden’s coaches. “Make people hurt for a longer period of time.”
Linden, 34, won with a time of 2 hours 39 minutes 54 seconds, more than four minutes ahead of second-place finisher Sarah Sellers. She built that open space over the final 5 miles, though, and before that, she slogged her way from back to front on a day that was miserable but played to her strengths as a savvy runner in her sixth Boston Marathon.
“I definitely used experience to my advantage,” Linden said. “This is my sixth time here and I’ve picked up something every time.”
Linden’s strength is her endurance, so she prefers an evenly paced race where stamina becomes important toward the end. Ideally, this happens organically, but when a race gets out to a slow start, Linden is often forced to get out front and push the pace. She doesn’t want to get into a 5-kilometer sprint at the end, so she has to get others to start working harder earlier. The later she feels the need to do this, the better.
Last year, when the Washington, Mich., product finished fourth in Boston, she went out fast, trying to tire out a field that included many talented half-marathoners and 10-kilometer racers she knew would be speedy finishers. She wound up disappointed with the result because she entered feeling as though she could win.
Not this time. Linden didn’t have to worry about pushing the slow start. No one was going to be setting a personal best this year.
“I felt like the conditions today took that speed away from people and I could kind of just settle in and didn’t need to do as much work until it was right, the right time to do the work,” Linden said.
The right time wound up, fittingly, being the time many would consider the toughest. After hanging near the back during the early miles — when she felt so horrible she thought she’d have to drop out — Linden recovered and began her push to the front on Heartbreak Hill.
She started up the hill 25 seconds back, trailing both Mamitu Daska of Ethiopia and then Gladys Chesir of Kenya. Daska had been in the lead since the 12-mile mark, and it was actually Chesir who overtook her first.
As they crested the hill, cheered on by Boston College students huddled together for warmth, Linden passed Chesir and took the lead during Mile 21.
The plan going into the race was to make that break as late as possible, somewhere at or after 18 miles. Watching from Cleveland Circle, Hanson felt that Linden would win as soon as she started pushing up the hill, even while she was still in third, because he knew she wouldn’t have gone for it then if she didn’t feel like she could sustain the push through the finish.
“I said, she just made up 30 seconds on the people that are going backwards right now,” Hanson said. “And I’m sitting there, and fourth is way back, so there’s nobody coming from behind. And she’s pulling away.”
Hanson’s confidence was justified, but Linden, as it turns out, didn’t share it during those moments. She’d felt so horrible at the start of the race that she told fellow American Shalane Flanagan to let her know if she could block the wind or help her tactically in any way, since she was probably going to drop out.
Then, after guiding Flanagan back to the pack following a bathroom break, Hanson noticed another American, Molly Huddle, fighting to keep up with Daska, who had made her move early.
So she’d help Huddle “reconnect” to the leader, she figured, and then call it a day. Somehow, though, during the miles Linden spent distracted from her own plans, she started to feel better.
“And then I turned back and I was in third or fourth,” Linden said. “And I was like, ‘Well, I probably shouldn’t drop out.’ ”
So she kept going, even though she knew she’d neglected to take in enough fluids since she hadn’t been planning on finishing. Somehow her legs didn’t cramp. Had she known how much distance she put between herself and the rest of the runners, she’d have slowed up, but she wouldn’t let herself look back and ran scared all the way to the turn off of Hereford onto Boylston Street.
If she had looked, she’d have known that she had Boylston — the street on which she was runner-up by two seconds in a sprint to the finish in 2011 — all to herself. For 4 miles, her black jacket with a yellow stripe (which she never took off) was the only thing in sight.
“This is a really incredibly tactical course,” Hanson said. “You don’t train for a marathon and then show up and run Boston. You train for the Boston Marathon because the course is different, things are different, so on and so forth.
“And I think that plays to Desi’s strength because — I know I’m biased when I say this but — I always feel like she’s the smartest racer, tactician, whatever you want to call her, whatever label you want to put on that, I think she’s always the smartest in the field.
“Well, what happened today was Mother Nature threw the big dilemma at everybody, which means that there was a whole additional amount of thinking that had to take place.”
It didn’t make for fast finishes, as Linden’s time was the slowest for a women’s open winner in 40 years and far off her 2011 time of 2:22:38, but it took grit in spades.
With her early decisions to help Flanagan and Huddle, too, Linden contributed to an excellent day for American racers in multiple ways. Linden and Sellers led the way for seven Americans who finished in the top 10, including Flanagan, who finished seventh.
In that way, it was a run defined by sportsmanship as much as it was by Linden’s smarts. But while Linden brought the altruism, Mother Nature brought the pain on her behalf.
“She wasn’t saying, ‘Oh shoot, one more mile like that and I’m going to have to go to the front,’ ” Hanson said. “Today she’s saying, ‘Let’s just relax here. Everybody’s suffering right now.’ And that’s a good thing.”