Niyo: Marathon champ Des Linden weighs next steps
Washington Township — Des Linden chased down an elusive dream a couple of weeks ago, becoming the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon since Michigan’s Lisa Larsen Rainsberger in 1985. But almost immediately after Linden beat an elite field and brutal race-day conditions — near-freezing temperatures, heavy rain and gusting winds — she was off and running again, caught up in a whirlwind media tour with promotional appearances in Boston, New York and Chicago.
Linden’s historic victory in Boston, the oldest annual marathon, was a long time coming, more than a decade after her 26.2-mile debut in another nor’easter in Boston. She’d come close before, losing a heartbreaker there in a sprint to the finish in 2011, among a half-dozen other top-five finishes at major world marathons. But this win also came with Linden, who moved to Michigan to train with the Rochester Hills-based Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, at a competitive crossroads, and on a day she least expected to claim the title and $150,000 winner’s check.
The Detroit News caught up with the 34-year-old Washington Township resident to talk about her epic triumph and what it means both for her career — Linden plans to continue racing through the 2020 Olympics, at least — and the sport she loves. (Questions were edited for space and clarity.)
Q: This was a victory you’d been chasing for a long time. What’s it feel like to finally get it done?
A: For a long time it’s been disbelief. I’m not sure if I should settle into it and be, like, “That really happened.” I’m waiting for the camera crew to be like, “Gotcha!” It’s not you guys, is it? (Laughing.) So, yeah, I’m kind of settling into it and like, “Wow, that was real,” and sort of soaking it in.
Q: I talked to Lisa right after you won, and she talked about how this could change your life. You’re a Boston Marathon champion now.
A: Yeah, it’s cool, because it’s a title that’s always with you. So that part I grasp. And it’s something I thought about every time I’ve gone to the race. You’re packing your bags and you’re like, “This is a huge opportunity. It can change your life. You can come back and be a champion.” But I never really thought past that.
Q: So you pack every year thinking, “I might have to stay here past Monday?”
A: (Laughing) Yeah, I did not pack enough this year. This is probably the one year I was like, “Eh, we’ll see what happens.”
Q: You talked about that even before you started training for this marathon, that maybe it won’t ever happen.
A: I think once I was in position and I was competing for it, it was like “You’ve gotta give everything.” It doesn’t matter how bad it hurts. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I was given twice. And if you screw it up twice, you’re like, “Oh, you’re an idiot.” And I know how bad that feels afterward.
Q: You didn’t run a marathon last fall? Why?
A: After last year’s Boston, I was pretty crushed. I’d done three really big races in a row that I just completely invested myself in. And I didn’t get the big win or even the sign that “This was better than what you’ve done before... .”
So it was pretty frustrating, and it felt like I was at a plateau. Like, “how do I get better from here?” So I just needed to hit reset and decide if I wanted to keep doing it and at what level — if it was worth it to keep chasing these big marathons, or maybe just step back and do something smaller. So skipping the fall was where I wrestled with those questions, but also allowed my body to recover. Ran some shorter distances and just tried to compete and have fun. “Why am I running professionally? What is this about?” Just kind of regrouping.
Q: Were there days where you said, ‘You know what, maybe I have given this all I care to give at that level?’
A: Yeah, there were a lot of those days. And I didn’t want to force it and just do it because I felt obligated. I wanted to do it because I love the sport and I felt like there was more left to give. And it took longer than I would like to admit to get to that point.
Q: So race day dawns and it’s really ugly. Did you feel like that’d be to your advantage? You’ve had plenty of snow days training here in Michigan.
A: I didn’t even really look at the weather. I knew it was gonna be bad. I walked out of the Fairmont (Copley Plaza hotel) and the wind just blasted us. And it was actually kind of funny, because it was like, “We’re gonna run directly into this for 26.2 miles. That’s ridiculous.” … I sat next to my chiropractor, John Ball, on the bus (to the start line) and we just kept looking at each other and laughing. And I feel like we both, without saying it, were thinking, “This is pretty perfect for me.” I’m gonna hold up well, and you could tell everyone on the bus was getting uncomfortable as we kept driving We just looked at each other and laughed as it got worse, like, “This is great.”
Funny thing is, though, Linden felt anything but great in the early stages of the race. And she spent the middle stages of the race helping pace for fellow Americans Shalane Flanagan and Molly Huddle, two of the pre-race favorites.
It wasn’t until she started pulling away from a chase pack and reeling in the leader, Ethiopia’s Mamitu Daska, entering the grueling Newton Hills section of the course that Linden realized, “I feel bad, but they must feel worse.”
And by the time she made the final left turn onto Boylston Street with the finish line in sight, the roaring crowd told her the race was hers to win. She pumped her fist and blew a kiss just before breaking the tape, then was greeted with hugs, first from marathon legend Joan Benoit Samuelson and then from her husband, Ryan, and longtime agent, Josh Cox.
Q: Can you explain what that feeling is like when you cross the finish line?
A: It was like all the feels in one second. Because I was freezing cold and miserable. We got blasted with one last big gust and downpour on Boylston. But, man, it was good to see those guys. And it’s not just them in Boston. I know all the organizers. So it’s like being amongst a bunch of really great friends and celebrating this huge moment.
Q: Was it a bit of shock?
A: Yeah, absolutely, 100 percent. Just from how it felt early in the race, and coming off last year, and just thinking, “This is never going to happen.” … It was almost disbelief. I said that to those guys: “I can’t believe that just happened!"
Q: The response to your win — standing ovation at the Celtics’ playoff game the next night and all that — anything surprise you about it?
A: It’s been amazing the places it has reached. I walked in (at Boston Garden) and Robert Kraft is like, “Way to go!” And there’s people from the Patriots saying, “We watched. That’s so cool!” So it’s a neat thing that running got to be center stage on that day. Whoever it would’ve been (to end the U.S. drought), it’s great for the sport. But I like that it’s me.
Q: So what does this victory mean for you and for your career?
A: I mean, I think it’d be a lie to say, “Oh, yeah, it’s gonna continue as normal.” Because this was the thing that gets you out the door, this was the thing you pictured. It’s a huge moment, and for me it’s a complete career. You know, if I never get on the line again, I would be OK. But I’m going to look into it and figure out how I can be motivated.
Q: You’ve sort of been this “blue-collar” folk hero for a while. What does it mean for you to be the one now that’s put out there as a standard-bearer for the U.S.
A: I think it opens it up to a whole new audience. Because there’s been people who were superstars from high school or blowing away (the field) at the NCAAs and so on, and these moments have always been reserved for those people. Not for the grinder who never won a state championship in high school. So I think it opens it up to people to say, “Keep trying.” You don’t have to be great now. … I think my story might be a little more approachable to the everyday person, which is great.
Q: You and the Hansons (coaches Kevin and Keith) have been chasing this together for more than a decade now. Any thoughts on what this does for the local running scene?
A: (Former Boston men’s champ) Greg Meyer’s from here. Lisa, too. It’s a great place to train. Sometimes it’s an excuse: “Well, our conditions are tough.” Or, “we can’t do it here, because we don’t have what the West Coast has.” But it’s a reminder to the up-and comers, you have all the resources you need. You can get it done here. There’s a benefit, to a degree, of what we have to go through and learning how to handle adversity.
Q: How much is it the validation for yourself, though?
A: I mean, there’s so many ups and downs in the sport, and so many reasons to quit. There’s plenty of times where I could’ve stepped away. Even in the race, there’s all these reasons why I could’ve just stopped or said, “It’s not my day.” I’ve been using the mantra, “Just keep showing up” — that’s kind of been my thing the last 10 months or so. And yeah, it’s nice to have it validated in the end, to keep showing up and have it mean something. There’s no guarantee, there’s no “justice” in sports, unfortunately. But I felt like there was on that day, and it felt good.