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Her arms were stretched wide. Her running jacket was drenched. Des Linden’s expression seemed equal parts “I’m so glad that’s over!” and “Is this really happening?”
Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it better. Our country’s running drought had finally ended, amid Mother Nature’s worst: On April 16, 2018, Linden became the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon in 33 years.
This was the same woman who had crossed the finish line here five times before, losing by just two seconds in 2011; who had raced 15 marathons in 11 years—but never broken the tape. The same woman who didn’t think it was her day, but ended up having the biggest performance of her life.
Spectators thought they might be witnessing another huge moment for Linden at the 2019 New York City Marathon. The conditions were about as good as they get in New York: sunshine, high 40s, and just a light breeze. In her 19th marathon, Linden thought she should take advantage of the gift from Mother Nature and go for the American course record—2:25:53, set in 2008 by Kara Goucher.
“It was a good day to take a big swing,” Linden said after the race. She went out hard and fast early, leading big through the first half of the race. The eventual top three caught and passed her, but Linden managed to hold on for sixth-place; she was the top American, and her time of 2:26:46 was her fastest time in two and a half years.
How to Keep Showing Up
A month before her win in Boston, Linden had tweeted: “Some days it just flows and I feel like I’m born to do this, other days it feels like I’m trudging through hell. Every day I make the choice to show up and see what I’ve got, and to try and be better. My advice: Keep showing up.”
It’s advice Linden has certainly taken to heart, but in many ways it felt like the sport as a whole needed to hear it, too. In 1984, American Joan Benoit Samuelsen took gold at the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon; after her, only four other U.S. women had cracked the top 10, and only one of them ever brought home a medal (bronze for Deena Kastor in 2004). As for other major world marathon wins, well, you could count what we’ve collected in the past 20 years on one hand… and still have some fingers left over.
Then seemingly out of nowhere, a cascade of ground-breaking finishes: All three U.S. women, including Linden, placed in the top 10 at the 2016 Rio Olympics (a first-ever); Amy Cragg took bronze at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London (the first U.S. woman to medal on that stage in 34 years); and three months later, Shalane Flanagan triumphantly, fist-pumpingly clinched the 2017 New York City Marathon title (the first American female to win the race in 40 years).
An Eye on the Bigger Picture
What many noted after Linden’s historic win in Boston was not just that she won but how she did it. Struggling from the start of the race, she was sure she’d eventually drop out. So Linden decided to shift her attention and energy to the Americans running alongside her: first, by hanging back to help Flanagan catch up to the group after an un-traditional bathroom break; then by helping powerhouse American runner Molly Huddle—who was making her Boston Marathon debut—rally against the brutal headwinds to get closer to the leaders.
There was a similar public display of “I’ve got your back” camaraderie at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. In beautiful stride-for-stride rhythm, Cragg and Flanagan led the pack until the last few miles. With only three Olympic spots and two other contenders chasing them down, Cragg refused to drop her training partner, who was struggling with the record-high temps; she stayed by Flanagan’s side, talking her through it and even going out of her way to grab her water. Cragg went on to win, then promptly turned to wait. Des Linden came next. And then a severely dehydrated, completely exhausted Flanagan—who collapsed into her teammate’s arms at the finish line.
Such blatant acts of benevolence are not something you see every day in competitive sports focused on individual performances. And not all that long ago, you wouldn’t have seen it in this one either. But that’s exactly why the example being set by the American women distance runners matters so much: They aren’t just fueling the growth of the sport, they’re changing the collective mindset on how women support each other.
“The current crop of marathoners have been in the game a long time,” says Linden. “I think there’s a maturity among us and a recognition that someone else’s success doesn’t take away from your own accomplishments. We’re competitive, we all want to win, but it’s become apparent that if an American wins and gets the spotlight on the sport, we all reap the benefits.”
When this story first went to press, it was unknown whether Linden will enter the Olympic Marathon Trials in February. “I could walk away at any point and be very happy with my career,” Linden told reporters days before New York City Marathon. “But I do feel like I have the legs still. I don’t want to cut it short just because I’m looking at the page going, oh, I’m 36, I’m too old for this, if the body is still representing.”
We now know Linden is planning for three marathons in 2020. But we’ve known this all along: Des Linden’s example is already pushing others around her to step up and swing away—and will help fuel Team USA to one of its strongest marathon teams ever.
This profile was first published in the January/February 2020 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Front Runners: 20 Power Women of 2020” which celebrates 20 elite female runners who are giving power new meaning, and a new image. You can see the full list of honorees here.