“This is storybook stuff!” Desiree Linden marveled a year ago after she’d snapped the soggy tape on Boylston Street. Even now she half-expects some Boston Athletic Association official to tell her that her Boston Marathon victory was as imaginary as a unicorn.
“I’m still kind of unsure,” said Linden, who’s bidding to become the first women’s champion to repeat in Boston since Catherine Ndereba in 2005 and the first from the US to do so since the official era began in 1972. “When I’m standing on the line in Hopkinton this year with the 1 bib on . . .”
Since Linden ran through cold, gale-swept rain to become the first female American champion here in 33 years, her life has been a whirlwind.
“Life-changing is correct, for sure,” she said. “A lot busier, there’s a lot more to do, and it gets tough to balance being an athlete and being a Boston champion and having to maximize the opportunities. There’s a ton of them, and it’s a great problem to have, but I’m still competing.”
Besides the endorsements and red-carpet appearances, her breakthrough triumph on her sixth try in Boston set Linden free to pursue whatever road she will at 35.
“It’s just this huge weight off,” she said.
“I felt like I always had this in me and it was becoming a monkey-on-the-back type thing, even though it was really difficult and not a guarantee by any means. Once that was checked off and done, I’m free to take bigger chances and be picky with races. If it’s not exciting me, if it isn’t something I’m passionate about running, I’m not going to do it.”
Her Boston victory also was the catalyst for a coaching change. After more than a dozen years with Michigan brothers Keith and Kevin Hanson, Linden reconnected last summer with Walt Drenth, who coached her at Arizona State and now directs Michigan State’s men’s and women’s track-and-field and cross-country teams.
“I obviously had a lot of success with the Hansons and really appreciate the program and what they did for me, but I did feel like I was at a plateau,” Linden said. “It was not as fun as it could have been because it wasn’t fresh. This frees me up to go and try something totally different.”
With Boston checked off the list, the next big target is February’s Olympic trials in Atlanta, where Linden will attempt to become the first woman to make three US marathon teams. This time, though, she’s planning on a more prudent approach than she took in 2016 when she put enormous pressure on herself to qualify for Rio de Janeiro after dropping out in London in 2012.
“I was all-in to almost an unhealthy degree,” she recalled. “ ‘I have to make this team’ — and did it. Then at the Games, ‘I have to get to the finish line. This has to go better than last time.’
“Just this weird pressure on myself to get there and make it a positive experience eventually had diminishing returns to my motivation post-Olympics.”
So Linden took a break during the fall of 2017 to ask herself whether she still loved the sport enough to lace up and get herself out the door every day. She decided that the answer was training for Boston, where she fell in love with marathoning during her 2007 debut in a howling nor’easter despite finishing 18th.
“I wasn’t a person who grew up thinking: ‘I’m going to be a marathoner one day,’ ” Linden said. “I thought, ‘Those people are crazy.’ Even when I was training for my first Boston, I was, ‘I don’t know if this is for me.’
“But I came out here and ran it and it was just so special. I was one probably of the few people who felt, that was the best thing I’ve ever done, I’m going to do this forever. I loved it.”
Linden was second in her next appearance in 2011, when she was outkicked by Kenya’s Caroline Kilel along the final stretch and lost by two seconds, then eighth (2014) and fourth twice (2015 and 2017).
Six miles into last year’s race, she’d given up on the idea of a laurel wreath.
“I will not win today,” she told herself. “That’s gone. I just want to be done.”
But Linden, who has the doggedness of a terrier, kept grinding, and on the Brookline flats found herself all by herself.
“I can’t be winning,” she thought.
Linden prevailed by more than four minutes, collected $150,000 and a silver trophy for her exertions, and immediately became a star-spangled heroine with an armful of offers. There was “celebratory stuff,” too, such as presenting the Best Female Artist award to Taylor Swift at the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas.
“I’ve never felt more out of place, but I also had a lot of fun,” Linden said. “Superstars everywhere. It was fun watching them connect. Being in the Green Room before with some of the singers saying, ‘Where are you going on tour? Maybe I’ll see you at the Grammys.’ It was like being in the waiting room at a track meet.”
Linden got to hang with the stars because of what she does on the roads, and she understands that.
“I don’t want to come back here and run poorly because I got so caught up in last year,” she said. “This year is this year.”
The challenge is to keep her outside commitments from sabotaging her training.
“That’s been my concern,” said Drenth. “The travel and expectations. I’ll remind her regularly that they’ll erode you if you’re not careful. I don’t say it like that. It’s, ‘How is this helping? Will this have an influence?’ ”
Drenth sees his role as more of a consultant than coach.
“I didn’t think we needed to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “I told her, ‘You’re a veteran at this. You know what you need to feel like. You know what you need to do.’ ”
Linden already has compiled a world-class résumé with her Boston victory plus top-five finishes at New York, Chicago, and Berlin, a 10th place at the world championships, and a seventh in the Olympics. That gives her the luxury of doing whatever intrigues her.
“Usually you circle the Olympics and work backwards from there,” she said. “Now it’s, ‘What’s the next race, what’s going to get me excited?’ ”
After Boston, Linden will ease off and figure out the rest of her year. Perhaps a fall marathon such as New York. Or maybe a half marathon and some 10Ks to prep for the Olympic trials. If Linden makes the team for Tokyo, she won’t be here next time. But she will be back.
“There’s a lot of 26.2-mile road races, and the idea right now is, how can we make it faster, flatter, taking all of the challenges out of it so we can feel like we’ve conquered the beast?” she said.
“Boston’s not doing that. The course is going to be the same. It’s still going to be tough and you’re still going to combat the conditions that the spring throws at you here. I love the purity of that. So winning here meant the world.”