Niyo: Rochester Hills marathoner races toward top

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Rochester Hills — Desiree Linden is eager for a second chance, as well as a chance to finish what she started. Those are the most important things right now, with the U.S. Olympic marathon trials looming this weekend and her career, in some respects, on the line.

But yes, she admits, it’d be nice to finish first while she’s at it.

The top three runners Saturday in Los Angeles will qualify for the U.S. team headed for the Rio Olympics in August.

“And when I’m feeling really good, I picture myself winning,” said Linden, 32, of Rochester Hills, the fourth-fastest American marathoner in history (2:22.38) and one of the favorites on the women’s side. “I would love to win a marathon. I want to break the tape at some point. That would be fantastic.”

That would be a first for Linden, the runner-up at the 2012 U.S. trials and the top American finisher in her last two marathons: New York in 2014 and Boston last spring.

But a podium finish remains “priority No. 1” on what figures to be a hot day on the streets near downtown L.A., where a spectator-friendly course promises to be fast and fitful, with some 180-degree turns and temperatures pushing 80 degrees by the finish.

“As the race plays out, we’ll see what we can do late and hopefully grab a win, too,” said Linden, one of more than two dozen local runners — men and women — expected to be in the field Saturday. “That would be icing.”

That’s because this marathon business certainly is no piece of cake. Linden, a San Diego native who has spent the last 10 years training with the Hansons-Brooks team in Metro Detroit, knows that as well as anyone.

After years of laboring to make the leap from the track to the marathon, Linden had her breakthrough moment in 2011 when she nearly won the Boston Marathon — something no American woman has done since 1985 — getting outkicked to the finish by Kenya’s Caroline Kilel. But after a runner-up finish to Shalane Flanagan at the 2012 Olympic trials, Linden had her dreams derailed by a mysterious injury.

Battling stress fracture

Originally diagnosed with hip tendinitis — an MRI showed no structural damage — she limped through her training for London and knew before she even started that Olympic race she wouldn’t finish. When Linden stepped off the course after only couple of miles, she gave herself an asterisk, telling me that day, “I do feel like you have to cross the line to be an Olympian, to have that title.”

It wasn’t until after she had returned home that the injury was finally pinpointed: She’d been training all that time with a stress fracture in her femur. And though her comeback has brought her all the way back — she was leading the Boston Marathon after 23 miles last April — this has always been the biggest milepost.

“It’s a great opportunity, to try and have a second chance,” said Linden, who spent the last six weeks training in Florida with 12 runners from the Hansons-Brooks team.

“Not a lot of people get to be an Olympian. And to have a second go-around at it and hopefully make the team and have a better experience would be awesome. It’s what has kept me in the sport, probably, the last four years, and kept me plugging away.”

The group training method has, too, of course. Founded by local running enthusiasts Keith and Kevin Hanson in 1999, the Rochester Hills-based program offers housing, employment and other support for select athletes. It also provides them with a daily push out the door for training runs, rain (or snow) or shine.

‘Grumpy old person’

“There are days when you’re beat up and you’re tired and you don’t want to go,” said Linden, who’ll be 33 in July and jokes she’s the “jaded, grumpy old person” of a group that includes recent college grads like Dani Miller, Melanie Brender and Cally Macumber.

“But every day someone has a positive attitude, and we kind of bring each other up.”

That’s a necessity when the three-month training segment hits peak mileage — around 120 miles a week for Linden — and the workouts are a true grind. But Linden, who cut short her summer track schedule to rest a nagging calf problem, heads to Los Angeles today feeling good about where she stands.

She knows it’ll be viewed as an upset if she doesn’t make the team.

“But I don’t think anyone’s a lock,” said Linden, who was Desiree Davila before her 2013 marriage to runner-turned-triathlete Ryan Linden.

Flanagan and fellow 2012 Olympian Kara Goucher are back again, as is the fourth-place trials finisher that year, Amy Cragg, Linden’s former Arizona State teammate.

Deena Kastor, the American record-holder who turns 43 this weekend, is coming off a strong showing in Chicago last fall, as is 33-year-old Serena Burla, the top U.S. finisher at last year’s world championships.

Then there are relative newcomers like Laura Thweatt and Maegan Krifchin and others “sneaking under the radar with a chip on their shoulder,” said Linden, who used to be one of them.

“So that keeps me hungry and keeps me working hard,” she said. “I can also fall back on the fact I do have a lot of experience and I know what it takes to run the type of time needed to win this race. People know that I’ve done this before.

“But,” she adds, finishing that thought, “it’s really not any kind of guarantee.”

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U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Los Angeles. Men’s race begins at 1:06 p.m., women’s at 1:22 p.m.

TV: NBC.

At stake: Top three finishers qualify for U.S. team for 2016 Rio Olympics in August.

Purse: $600,000, top 10 men’s and women’s finishers (1st, $80,000; 2nd, $65,000; 3rd, $55,000).

Desiree Linden

Age: 32

Home: Rochester Hills

Highlights: 2012 Olympian was runner-up at last U.S. trials but forced to drop out during London Olympic race due to injury. Posted a personal best 2:22.38 at Boston in 2011. Top American finisher in her last two marathons: Boston, 2015; New York, 2014.