Niyo: Michigan's Linden takes 'gritty' path, is top American

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Desiree Linden is in front of the lead pack at the Boston Marathon on Monday.

This was the race she wanted to run. This also is the race she desperately wants to win.

And for much of a cold, rain-soaked Patriots Day in Boston, Desiree Linden was exactly where she wanted to be, and where she needed to be, taking charge of an elite field at the Boston Marathon.

"If you don't believe it," she said, "it's not gonna happen."

It nearly did again Monday for Linden, 31, of Rochester Hills. But a late push by a trio of East African runners was too much in the end, and Linden, who'd set the pace just as she'd planned, settled for a strong – and promising – fourth-place finish as the top American in the women's field.

She wasn't the only Michigander in the spotlight, either, as 32-year-old Rockford native Dathan Ritzenhein finished seventh overall to lead the American men Monday.

Kenya's Caroline Rotich won the women's title in a time of 2 hours, 24 minutes, 55 seconds, outdueling Ethiopians Mare Dibaba and Buzunesh Deba down Boylston Street. Linden was all alone in fourth in a time of 2:25:39. Ethiopia's Lelisa Desisa won the men's race in 2:09:17.

Barely two years removed from a serious injury that put her career on hold, Linden, who has trained with the Hansons-Brooks team in suburban Detroit for nearly a decade, said for months she felt like a serious contender heading into Boston.

And this being the site of her marathon debut back in 2007, and her breakthrough moment in 2011 – when she was runner-up Kenyan Caroline Kilel in a dramatic finish – as well as an emotional comeback last April, that only made sense.

"It's a place that brings out the best in me," said Linden, making her fourth start in the world's oldest annual marathon. "To me, when I think about the marathon, it's always Boston."

Dathan Ritzenhein of Grand Rapids crosses the finish line Monday.

For a time Monday, it was all about Michigan in Boston, with Linden leading a pack of 8-10 of the world's top-ranked marathoners in the women's race, and Ritzenhein, who recently moved back to the Grand Rapids area with his wife and two kids, surging into the lead halfway through the men's race.

Maybe that was fitting, too. Only a year ago, Meb Keflezighi became the first American man to win the Boston Marathon since Michigan's Greg Meyer did it in 1983. (Meyer, who lives in Ritzenhein's hometown of Rockford, now serves as the race announcer in Boston.) And the last American woman to win in Boston was another Michigan runner -- Lisa Larsen Rainsberger -- in 1985.

Linden lost nearly a year of training due to a stress fracture in her hip that developed just prior to the 2012 Olympics. But she'd returned to Boston last April and posted another top-10 finish, then followed that up with a fifth-place effort in New York in November. And having logged more than 1,800 miles in training over the last four months, she said last week she was ready to "push my personal threshold" on race day.

Race day felt more like winter, at times, with temperatures in the low 40s and intermittent rain and a bitter headwind, at times. But Linden didn't shy away from her pre-race plan.

"With the conditions and the course, I knew today was going to be a war of attrition," said Linden, who'd talked at length about the strategy with her longtime coaches Kevin and Keith Hanson. "My goal was to just go out there and make it a full marathon, grind it out and hopefully there wouldn't be a huge pack the last 5-6 miles.

"I kept taking peeks back and saw, 'The group is still there.' But I knew I couldn't settle and let that (pace) get slow and keep everyone in there longer. I just had to trust that it would take the legs out of people late."

Eventually it did, and as the lead pack left the grueling Newton Hills and headed into central Boston, the other top Americans – Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg, Linden's former college teammate – were among those falling off the pace. Cragg, formerly Amy Hastings, had to bow out of the race with about four miles left. Flanagan labored to the finish.

Soon after, Dibaba, the 2014 runner-up, made her first attempt to break away, but Linden quickly reeled her back in and regained the lead. The Ethiopian's second try was successful, though, joined by Deba – the reigning Chicago Marathon champ -- and Rotich, with a blazing 5:07 clocking for the 24th mile. And it was Rotich who had enough left on the famed finishing stretch down Boylston to win her first title.

"I know a lot of people will question it, 'Why did you run in the front and put yourself in the wind?'" said Linden, who beat out recent Boston winners Sharon Cherop. "But I think that's how you have to run here. You have to be gritty and aggressive."

Ritzenhein was both in his Boston debut, though his bold race strategy met a similar fate as he finished seventh, a full 2 minutes behind Ethiopia's Lelisa Desisa, the 2013 champ who two years donated his winner's medal to the city after the terrorist bombings.

"This medal," he told reporters Monday, smiling, "I think it is for me."

For Ritzenhein, Monday's showing was a huge step in the right direction. This was his first marathon since October 2013 due to injuries.

"It's good to see Dathan back," said Keflezighi, who stayed with the lead pack until the final few miles.

And for both Michigan runners, Monday's result sets them up well, with the U.S. Olympic marathon trials next February in Los Angeles and the 2016 Rio Games on the horizon, if not the calendar. Linden has been eyeing that ever since her injury in 2012, while Ritzenhein ran the 10,000 meters at the 2012 London Games after just missing in his Olympic marathon bid. If he makes the team next year, it'd be his fourth Olympics, "and there's very few people who have done that."

"And so to be back and to be healthy and running well, it's really a blessing for me," he said. "2015 has started out great, and I hope I can just keep it going."