Desiree Linden is the only contender on the Olympic Marathon Trials start line who’s made the team before—twice. She has big plans this spring and this is just the beginning.
On a Saturday morning five weeks before the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, Desiree Linden is dripping in sweat. She climbs up a flight of stairs to a bare-bones, one-bedroom apartment she’s renting above a garage in a residential neighborhood in Tempe, Arizona.
“Well, that was hotter than I thought it’d be,” she says, noting the weather forecast with a high of 90 degrees—unusual at this time of year, even in the desert.
She and her husband, Ryan Linden, just finished an easy 14 miles around Tempe Town Lake and along the gravel paths that line the canal system throughout the Phoenix area. Later, she has another four miles on tap. The long run? That’s on Sunday, over much hillier terrain.
Linden grabs an orange and a drink, plops down on the couch, and gives herself a few minutes to rejuvenate before cleaning up. The next order of business is brunch—Whole Foods grab-and-go or sit-down style at a restaurant? Linden jokes that she needs to know whether to put on her “dressy” sweatpants.
She opts for her fanciest black joggers and pairs them with some white Louis Vuitton hightops. Brooks, her sponsor, doesn’t make casual footwear, so she treated herself to the high-class kicks, trimmed in pink and blue, as a reward for a few speaking engagements and appearance travel she done since that one glorious day in 2018—you know, that rainy day in Boston when she became the first American woman in 33 years to break the tape on Boylston Street.
The Lindens head to a brunch spot nearby, crowded with Arizona State students, bleary-eyed and in need of a different kind of recovery. Over a giant breakfast burrito, Linden talks about what she’s gotten herself into this year, the Olympic year.
As most know by now, Linden, already a two-time Olympic marathoner, was faced with a difficult decision—whether go for her third trip to the Games, by way of competing at the Olympic Marathon Trials on February 29 in Atlanta, or train for the Boston Marathon on April 20, a race that’s played the most pivotal role in her career.
Approaching what she’s called “the twilight” of her career, Linden, 36, surprised us all in December by saying, “Why not both?,” and if she finishes in the top three on Saturday at the Trials and makes the Tokyo Games in August, that will turn into, “Why not all three?”
“I’m not going to the Trials to have a good experience and have some fun,” she says. “I’m going there to make a team.”
The idea took even some of her closest supporters off-guard, including her sister, Natalie Davila, who initially thought it was a little crazy. Nonetheless, she’ll be cheering on her little sister every step of the way in Atlanta, Boston, and hopefully Tokyo, too.
“I can’t deny that I think it’s a little insane,” Davila says, “but I totally get just wanting to soak up every opportunity as you’re in that sunset phase of your career. And it seems like if you’re smart and you listen to your body and build off the momentum, it’s possible to run, stay healthy, and have really good results in spite of the short turnaround time.”
In Atlanta, Linden will be the only one on the line who has made the marathon team before—in 2012 and 2016 she placed second at the Trials. Her former Team USA partners, like Shalane Flanagan, have retired from competition. Amy Cragg, who placed first in 2016, is recovering from illness. Then there’s Linden—true to her form throughout her pro career, she’s the steady, even-keeled, and (inexplicably, at this point) under-the-radar threat to to the podium.
“I just want her to be grateful for the life she’s created for herself and have a great time out there,” Davila says. “I’ll always encourage her to find the gift in the opportunity.”
— Natalie Davila (@NatalieDavila_) February 25, 2020
And that extends to Boston—a place where a large part of Linden’s heart will always reside. It’s where she debuted at 26.2 miles, finishing the 2007 race 19th in 2:44:56, and found her calling. In 2011 she shocked and thrilled everybody by taking second place by only two seconds, in her personal best of 2:22:38. And, in 2018, under a hypothermia-inducing deluge, she found herself improbably leading the way to an historic victory. How could she not return for an eighth time when, as the years pile up, those opportunities are no longer promised? Not only was it a practical decision—a payday—but a sentimental one, too.
Boston is indeed the place that made a big-time running star out of a woman who, coming out of Arizona State, shouldn’t have had much of a chance at the life she’s created. She earned All-America honors in cross country and track, but was never in contention to win any NCAA titles. Most runners who leave college with those credentials would enter the workforce or go on to graduate school, but Linden knew she had more to give.
“I’m the person who had to plug away for years and years, and on paper I shouldn’t even be a pro,” Linden says. “I shouldn’t have gone to the Olympics. I shouldn’t have been runner up in Boston. Are you kidding me? But I put in so much time and work and effort. Then, even on that day when it was just, like, garbage outside, it was like, ‘Who’s had to suffer the most and work for it?’ It was the most appropriate day for me to win.”
And she goes into the April race with the same intention and now with the credentials to make it happen. However, first thing’s first. Linden is taking it one race at a time, relying on her coach, Walt Drenth, to manage the training load and keep the big picture in mind.
“It’s all eyes on the Trials,” she says. “My mileage is probably the highest it’s been in about four years. And knowing it’s up really high, I also know that when I come back from the Trials, I already put this big base in for Boston. It’s sort of thinking about the long-game.”
Her peak weekly mileage in the Trials buildup—which includes three or four days of easier recovery runs, an 18–20 mile session with 10 miles of harder-paced work, and a long run (which also can include harder efforts within it)—got to about 128 miles, she said, careful not to cross that 130 threshold.
“There’s no reason for that,” she says. “I think if I got to 130, Walt would read my training log and be like, ‘Why did you do that? Like, why?!’ I’ve gotten into the rhythm of it—I feel fine and I’m not going to the well. Sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m on pace to hit 130. I need to peel back just a little bit.’”
Drenth and Linden have a relationship that doesn’t require long talks or heart-to-hearts. When they have dinner together, the conversation barely touches on training schedules, they say. They have a mutual respect for each other—Drenth has confidence that Linden knows what she needs and what she doesn’t. Linden has full faith that Drenth will make the decisions she can’t.
“It’s her career and I’m not her boss. I’m just trying to help,” Drenth says. “When she tells me she wants to try to do something, it’s my role to put the pieces together. Right now, doing enough without doing too much is the challenge.”
The hardest part of designing a segment that includes two (or three) goal marathons is rolling with the punches, says Drenth, who was Linden’s coach at Arizona State and is currently the director of track and field at Michigan State.
“The margin for error if she gets sick or has a couple of bad weeks is difficult,” Drenth says. “All of a sudden it’s less favorable, especially because the Trials are first and we want that to go well. But we seem to be getting in sync pretty well.”
Linden admits the recovery from the New York City Marathon in November was a little rocky. She came in sixth in 2:26:46 at that race, taking a shot at the American course record but falling short by about a minute. In the aftermath, she struggled during the first weeks of Trials training while still logging miles at her home base in Charlevoix, Michigan. When she relocated to Tempe to enjoy warmer weather and proximity to John Ball, her chiropractic sports physician, things started clicking.
“I just felt a little off at first, then when I got to Arizona I just took one week of moderate running and I turned a corner at the right time,” Linden says. “Now I call Walt and he says, ‘That’s good’ instead of, ‘Are you okay?’ That’s always a good sign.”
On this Saturday five weeks before the Trials, the next order of business is recovery. Perhaps a nap, but probably not. Linden will likely pick up a book instead and get ready for her afternoon run. Already she and Ryan and discussing the next day’s plans—a Super Bowl Sunday long run and maybe some tacos for dinner? On the way home from the restaurant, they stop by Whole Foods.
What’s in the bakery bag?
“A donut,” Linden says, laughing. “I’ll probably want a snack before my second run.”
And when she crosses the finish line on Saturday, she plans to crack open a Samuel Adams ’76. Because no matter what happens, “it’ll be a nice, light reminder that Boston is just around the corner.”
Des Linden definitely isn’t done yet.
Editor’s Note: This article is a condensed version of an upcoming feature story on Linden. Look for the full story from Women’s Running in April.