I like Des Linden. I like her to throw it down for the win at this weekend's NYC Marathon. Reason is, in running's top echelon, Linden has only been blessed, and it's sort of a dubious blessing, with the ability to work hard. She has ground and scrapped and relentlessly gutted out every second's improvement for eight years as a pro, and eight years before that. She doesn't expect any favors, doesn't spend much time celebrating success, and plows through failures. She is tenacious. And fit.
Consider that back in 2007, the 23-year-old, then Desiree Davila, placed 19th in her debut at the Boston Marathon in an inauspicious 2:44:56, behind two of her Hansons-Brooks teammates. Flash forward four years and she was in the lead pack at halfway, and still there at 16 miles. The pack was thinned and thinned again, and amazingly, almost too much for U.S. spectators to hope for, Davila was still there until it was just her and Kenyans Sharon Cherop and Caroline Kilel hurtling down Boylston Street. She was not just hanging on but pushing the pace, a step ahead, then a heartbeat behind, carrying U.S. hopes on flying strides. She finished second by two seconds in 2:22:38, then the fastest by an American on Boston's course.
Linden made the 2012 Olympic marathon team, posting a 2:25:55 at the trials, but was forced to drop out in London with an injury. What followed was a year of spirit-testing frustration and glacial recovery. In 2013, she started down the long road with a second-place finish at the USA Half Marathon Championships and a 2:29 fifth-place at the Berlin Marathon. Retooling with a training trip to Iten, Kenya, at the beginning of 2014, she served notice she was back at this year's Boston—2:23:54. If she wins in New York, it will be the first time a US woman has broken the tape since 1977.
I spoke with Linden via phone from her home in Rochester Hills, Mich., as she packed for her first five-borough battle.
It's my dream to phone someone up for one of these pre-marathon chats to have her say, "Oh man, that's this weekend? Dayum …" and hear Donkey Kong in the background. That would just make my day.
(laughs) Yeah, that's not going to happen this time.
Did you decide to run NYC after Boston this year, or was it in the works before that?
New York has been in the works for a really long time. It's a great race, world class, great competition, so it's been on my mind for a long time, but we didn't actually decide to do it until after Boston.
Did you ever ride in the pace car with Mary Wittenberg [CEO of New York Road Runners, who gives potential top runners a foretaste with a ride in the lead vehicle]?
I did in 2009. It was me, Shalane [Flanagan], and Amy Yoder Begley. That was the year Meb won—it was so exciting, just awesome. But at the same time, it put the fear in me. I thought it looked really hard. It was the sort of that thing, you better be ready when you get out there, especially in the women's race. If you're not ready to run with those women, [because of the separate women's start] you're going to be running a lonely race on the wide open streets of New York City.
NYC is not a fast course—why run this marathon? Why now?
I fought through this injury, focusing on strength. When I was first coming off the injury, I didn't have energy, everything was a struggle. I hadn't done that strength work, and now I have. We've really worked on it. The thing I'm not really strong with right now is speed, so a flat, fast course would probably not be my best shot. New York is a strength runner's course. I thought if I'm going to take a competitive crack at the marathon, New York is my best chance right now.
There's always a bunch of your training videos up: They covered your build-up to Boston extensively. Then after Boston, nothing, very stealth. Was that on purpose?
No, not by design. There was a lot of really unsexy hard work happening. It was sort of boring, ugly. I was just dealing with the monotonous grind. During the summer, I was a little flat, bouncing back from Boston. It was not worth highlighting; just a lot of work.
I pictured you training in secret, and then bursting out of seclusion, all cut …
(laughs) We'll see. Maybe my eyes will be all sunken in. I'm ready to race, that's for sure.
What have you done differently to prepare for New York?
In Boston, the focus was on the big downhills, preparing for the pounding. We've gotten away from that. My focus has been on strength stuff, more volume, longer workouts. I've done extra rest intervals with semi-quicker pace, but just longer workouts, more time. Other than that, it's been a pretty typical marathon segment.
Are you doing more injury prevention, stretching, strength exercises?
Nothing special. I have been working with John Ball [chiropractor in Arizona]. He's a good guy. He's helped me out quite a bit with the injury. I'm feeling really smooth, which I haven't felt in a long time, so that's a good sign.
Same stride as in 2011?
Yeah, I'm running like my old self. It's funny—in 2011, I didn't have a single bad day except for the self-esteem workout …
Wait, what's a self-esteem workout?
It's when you just show up and don't even think about it, knock out an easy two times three miles at marathon pace. And you're like, that was easy. Anyway in 2011, that was the only workout I didn't hit. This time I haven't had any one day where I felt I really knocked it out of the park, but I've strung together really solid, really quality workouts. And I nailed the self-esteem workout in the middle of 120-mile weeks. So that was a confidence boost.
The trip to Iten [Kenya] seemed more about inspiration and getting your mojo back than training—true? Are the effects still with you?
Yeah, I think I had to sell it to Kevin and Keith [Hanson, her coaches] a little bit—I'll love running again—and I thought they'd think, So what are you doing here if you don't love running? But really, they were on board 100 percent with it. Actually I didn't plan it that way, as an inspiration. I didn't think Oh yeah, I love running until I got there. And yeah, I'm still feeling it. I have days when I don't want to put in the work. On those days, I think about the Kenyans and Ethiopians—they truly love it. Running is the joy of their day. And then it seems silly to say, I don't want to work hard for a few hours, and then have nothing to do the rest of the day. The hard work, the grind, one foot in front of the other, is what my day is about.
Did you do Hansons' workouts in Iten or whatever the local folks were doing?
I just did mileage. It was early in my Boston training so it was just going out for a run every day. I did jump into one of their fartleks. I think it was a 10-mile day. One guy just decides right there; he says, one minute on, one minute off. Set, go. And 300 people take off. Cars had to wait because runners were taking up the whole road. You hang on as long as you can, and if you're feeling bad, you take the turn off and walk home.
Did you make it the whole 10 miles?
Did you see Edna Kiplagat or Mary Keitany [who are both running NYC] while you were there?
I saw Mary doing a long run with a male pacer, but otherwise she was by herself. Kenyan women group up less. It's kind of weird—if they're not super fit, they won't run with a group. Women runners are a smaller group to begin with, and they do less together.
Tell me about a key marathon workout that tells you you're ready for New York.
I like two times six miles. We do it later in the segment when you've already done a lot of miles, usually at the end of a 120-mile week. It's two six-mile loops of a lake at 5:30 pace or a little under with 10 minutes of jogging in between. It was an incredibly windy day and I was able to finish really strong. I thought I managed the conditions and my effort. The pace felt comfortable, so that was a confidence boost. It can be windy in New York, so I feel prepared for that.
Did you do this workout with anyone?
No, it was a solo effort. It's just worked out, because most of my teammates did Chicago, that I've worked out mostly by myself. I think that's a good thing because I'm comfortable not having a pacer [New York does not allow pacers]. I actually like not having a pacer because I get locked into my own rhythm; someone else might throw me off. In Boston this year, I fell off the group early and basically ran the whole race by myself, so I'm confident I can do that.
Speaking of running alone, the elite women start early and run separate from the men and the rest of the field in New York until the lead men catch up, so it's kind of like a 50-person marathon. Have you spoken with Kara Goucher or Deena Kastor or the other Americans about running together for a while?
Yeah, we called each other up and ... (laughs) No. I'm sure Deena has big goals. I'm comfortable running my own race. If it works out that we can run together that's fine, but there's no set plan.
Mary Keitany, Edna Kiplagat, and Buzunesh Deba have all run fast and like to run at the front. If they take it out fast, will you let them go?
Yes, I will let them go. I have a plan to get myself efficiently to 20. It's possible people will come back and I can race from there, but if I go out over my head, I'll be a mess. Having a race without pacers changes the dynamic. I think you'll see people who are used to having a pacer, out there fighting for a spot, really racing.
I think the New York Marathon looks for people who will race, gutsy people who will dig deep and throw it down, and you fit that bill.
Thanks for that, and I hope that's what happens. I have a competitive spirit and if I'm in the hunt after 20, I'm ready to race.
Do you have a halfway split in mind?
1:12, 1:12:30 would be awesome. It's hard to say. It could be really windy. 5:30 is a good pace for me; I can sustain it and hopefully reevaluate and be able to pick it up after 20.
Do you have a mental picture of running through Central Park?
I picture myself outside Central Park, running along the edge and then turning in at Columbus Circle. I think that's sort of an uphill to the finish. I try to visualize myself being really strong, fighting for a spot.
Do you ever think about the final miles of Boston 2011? Can you channel that incredible energy during the race?
During the race, I'm pretty much in the moment, but in training I sometimes think about 2011. I picture myself winning the race—I'm doing my own race commentary, with a British accent, like Tim Hutchings—and I have a huge lead and I'm smiling and waving to the crowd .... And then I'm like, No no no, I'm racing all the way to the finish. You have to picture the right thing.
What's your biggest concern this time—hydration? Fueling? Pacing? Injury?
All good options, but I'd say I'm most concerned with the different route, unfamiliarity with the course. I know the Boston course so well; I would like to know this course better. It's kind of a fear. I think it's going to be really really difficult. I've almost built it up too much. I ran it this summer, over a couple of days, but I was really out of shape, so it felt hard. And that was a while back. I don't really think about carbs during the race. Hydration? I'll drink Powerbar. And pre-race meal? I don't overthink it. I'm not going out for Indian food; I'll probably have pasta.
What's your greatest strength? Why do you think you can win?
I think I'm fit and ready. My coaches have prepared me. I can't control anyone else, but I think I can be in contention. I'm ready to run my best, whether that's first or 17th—I'll take it. I'm ready to go to the well; that's the person who's going to win. Whoever can get out of their comfort zone and handle that the longest will win.
Not really. I put on some tunes, kick my feet up.
Do you want to be called Desiree or Des? Wait, do you have a nickname on the team? How about D-train? D-money?
photo credit: AP Images