She’s already a two-time Olympian, but now Des Linden is seeing double as she chases a three-peat.
The 2018 Boston Marathon champion from Michigan has a race to run Saturday in Atlanta, toeing the line as one of the favorites on the women’s side at U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
But in the back of her mind, Linden knows there’s another grueling challenge just ahead, as she plans to return to Boston for another 26.2-mile test just seven weeks after the Trials.
Most of the world's top marathoners race two times a year — once in the spring, and again in the fall — and yet the 36-year-old Linden is hoping to run three marathons in a span of just over five months if all goes well.
The top three finishers at the U.S. Trials will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics later this summer, with the women’s marathon scheduled for Aug. 8, though the worldwide coronavirus outbreak has put the entire event in jeopardy.
“It’s a really privileged position to be in, I’m very aware of that,” said Linden, a California native who moved to Michigan in 2006 to live and train and now splits her time between homes in Rochester and Charlevoix. “But I’ve been on two (Olympic) teams and I love going to Boston, and whether you make the team or not you usually give that up to chase the Trials. And I just wasn’t really willing to give that up this time around.”
Not at this stage of her career, in perhaps her last Olympic bid and as one most marketable names in the sport, drawing hefty appearance fees and performance bonuses, as well as the prize money that ranges from $15,000 to $150,000 for the top five finishers at Boston. (The top three at the Olympic Trials earn from $30,000 to $80,000.)
Linden and her coach, Walt Drenth, who is director of Michigan State’s track and cross-country programs, have adjusted her training in preparation for the audacious 2020 schedule. That includes increasing the volume in this build-up — peaking at 120-130 miles in this segment — as a way of pre-loading for the seven-week timeframe she’ll have on the backside before Boston. It also entails playing things by ear, tweaking the plan as they go, with Drenth focusing on the bigger picture while Linden, who spent part of the winter training in Tempe, Ariz., focuses on the task at hand.
“We’re on a lot of phone calls,” laughed Linden, who parted ways with longtime coaches Keith and Kevin Hanson in 2018 and resumed working with Drenth, who’d coached her in college at Arizona State. “But I think we’re in a good spot right now. I’ve had all eyes on Trials for the six weeks or so, and Walt is really doing the juggling of balancing the two. He’s kind of managing all the really tough stuff, to be honest.”
Of course, everyone in the game knows Linden’s tough enough. That’s been her calling card for more than a decade now, posting nine top-five finishes in world marathon majors while establishing herself as a gritty competitor. Her 2018 win in Boston, ending a 33-year drought for American women in miserable race-day weather conditions, only cemented that reputation.
But in Atlanta she’ll be part of the largest and deepest field in Trials history, with more than 700 entries in all — Rockford native Dathan Ritzenhein and Shadrack Biwott of the Rochester Hills-based Hansons-Brooks team are among the top men’s contenders — and no clear-cut favorites among the elite women.
Linden’s 2016 Olympic teammates — Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg — aren’t entered this time around, but a talented group that includes sub-2:24 marathoners Jordan Hasay, Sara Hall, Emily Sisson and two-time track Olympian Molly Huddle figure to be in the mix.
Linden, the runner-up at both the 2012 and 2016 Trials, may be the most consistent performer among them, “but there’s just so much depth on the women’s side, I think it’s gonna be really fascinating racing,” she said, “and that’s gonna be a ton of fun.”
Her qualifying time — a 2:26:46 finish at the New York Marathon last November — only ranks eighth-fastest in the field, but that’s a bit deceiving. Most of the faster qualifying results were posted on less challenging courses in Chicago, London and Berlin. And the Trials course that USA Track and Field mapped out in Atlanta — with three hilly eight-mile loops before a finish in Centennial Park — is much more like the ones where Linden has excelled in Boston and New York.
“I don’t struggle with grinding out miles, so I think it will play in my favor,” Linden said.
There’s also an experience factor that counts for something at a race like this.
“A lot of it’s just in the preparation, knowing I have what it takes to get the job done,” said Linden, whose seventh-place finish at the 2016 Rio Olympics improved to a fifth-place result after the top two medal winners both failed doping tests. “I think some people get really excited about the Trials because it is different and a lot of people can overkick it.
“You don’t have to win, you just gotta get in the top three, and sometimes people lose sight of that. They just don’t have the experience in managing the late miles and not trying to knock it out of the park. Just get yourself on base. I think there’s a lot of value in knowing what it takes. and I’ve done that twice now, so that’ll be helpful.”
It helps knowing she’s on an even playing field when it comes to the equipment, too. Four years ago, half the U.S. Olympic team qualified wearing prototype Nike Vaporfly shoes that have since sparked a heated debate about fair play in the sport.
Competitors were oblivious at the time, but the shoe technology included extra cushioning and carbon fiber plates — providing increased energy return and improved running economy over longer distances — and has produced record-setting results. Other shoe companies have scrambled to keep pace, and Linden’s sponsor, Brooks, came out with a competitive prototype that she first wore in that 2018 Boston triumph.
Nike has an even newer Alphafly model that’ll be in used in Atlanta, and despite new guidelines imposed by World Athletics, it remains a topic of conversation.
“I feel like in ‘16 we didn’t really know what was going on and it ended up influencing the results,” Linden said. “But I think now we’re all very aware of it, so it’s a little more even. And I feel like I’m in a great spot being with Brooks, so I’m comfortable with that.”