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A Day For The History Books
When Shalane Flanagan held off defending champion Mary Keitany through Central Park last November to win the New York City Marathon, it felt as though the entire country rejoiced at once. American runners were thrilled to have one of their own win the title back after a 40-year drought, and even those who aren’t athletically inclined knew by reading the headlines that it was a big day for running.
Last Monday, an American woman again won one of the most prominent marathons in the world, again against steep competition to end a decades-long drought. While both wins are historic and have inspired patriotism in a country fraught with tension, this woman in particular deserves her moment in the sun—not just for the path she slogged to victory through rain, wind and near-freezing temperatures, but for the marathons that came before.
Boston Marathon champion Desiree Linden approached the race with tempered expectations. It was, after all, her sixth attempt at this crown, one she’d come so close to winning when she crossed the finish line in 2011 just two seconds behind winner Caroline Kilel of Kenya. She also placed fourth at Boston in 2015 and again last year. After approaching 2017’s marathon confident in her ability to win, Linden was more hesitant during this year’s buildup, explaining in early March that she’d wait to settle on specific goals until the days before the race. Linden held to her promise, finally sharing her goals for what she identified as “the marathon” on the Saturday before the race. “I would love to see an American woman win the race,” Linden told a crowd of reporters. “I’d love for it to be me.”
As weather predictions for Marathon Monday grew dismal, several of the professional athletes registered for the race assured their fans that a little rain was nothing to fret over. Pros like Flanagan, who trains in Portland, Ore. and eschewed an early retirement to return to the Boston course after her 2017 New York City victory, even cited the weather as a potential advantage. “I train in conditions pretty similar to what we’re in,” Flanagan said three days out. “I feel ready to tackle the day.”
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Linden was similarly confident in the days before the race. “I like that it’s hard,” Linden said during a pre-race press conference. “I like that these conditions can make a 26.2-mile race feel like it’s 28 or 30 [miles]. It’s all advantageous to me.”
The conditions that followed—37 degrees Fahrenheit at the start, consistent heavy rain and strong headwinds—weren’t exactly advantageous to anyone. After the race, Linden spoke of having trouble fueling along the route, as her hands were too numb with cold to squeeze liquid from her water bottles. The constant downpour and strong headwinds convinced Linden during the first few miles that it wasn’t going to be her run to victory. “I was definitely taking it mile by mile out there—I wasn’t even sure if I was going to finish,” Linden said. Though Linden was among those in the pro field who shrugged off weather concerns before the race, she good-humoredly acknowledged later that the weather turned out to be much worse than expected. “I’ve never raced that distance in those conditions. It was definitely the toughest conditions on the cold side that I’ve run in,” Linden said. “Obviously the heat’s a whole other factor, and I guess if I had to pick between the two, I’d just take a day off,” she joked.
Linden was animated in discussions with reporters after the race and the day following, sprinkling humor into her race-day narrative amid honest reflections about the toll it took on each competitor’s mind and body. “I just felt really bad very early on,” Linden said, explaining why she’d considered dropping out of the race during the first several miles. “At first, I thought it was going to be a huge problem—hypothermia, my hands were freezing, my body was cold, you’re never going to warm up. As I started doing other things, I stopped thinking about it.”
“Doing other things” meant not only running a marathon but helping her direct competitors run their races better. One of the most surprising moments of the elite women’s race occurred when Flanagan broke from the pack near the halfway mark for a brief portapotty stop—and Linden paused, too, waiting to lead Flanagan back to the group. Later, Linden attempted to help American Molly Huddle catch then-frontrunner Mamitu Daska of Ethiopia, who by that point had established a significant gap. “There was so much pride with the American field,” Linden said. “I thought, I’ll just do as much as I can to help these guys have the day, since it’s not going to be my day.”
The competition continued whittling down. Still keeping pace with the frontrunners, Linden no longer had any American pros nearby to hustle toward the finish. “That was when it occurred to me that everybody was suffering; it wasn’t just a me thing. We’re all out there suffering, it’s hard for everybody and [I was] actually being quite a bit tougher than everyone else.” It was at this point that Linden realized she had energy left to give. “The miles were going by way quicker than I realized,” Linden said. “I started getting a better pop in my legs, feeling a little better.”
Instead of dropping out as she’d originally planned, Linden continued running, splashing through puddles as rain continued pouring along the course and finally breaking the tape in the slowest Boston Marathon winning time for women since 1978, a full four minutes and 10 seconds before second-place finisher and fellow American Sarah Sellers crossed the finish line. Even though she was far ahead of her competitors, it wasn’t until her final steps on Boylston Street that Linden released the fear of a 2011 repeat experience and embraced the reality of her win. “It was the biggest day of my running career,” Linden said later. “If it hadn’t been difficult, I don’t think it would mean as much.”
Linden’s victory comes as a celebration not only of American athletics, but of sportsmanship and second chances. Linden has raced Boston six times, and despite a near-miss at victory seven years ago, she remained determined to win and retained belief in herself that she could do so. “I thought I’d missed my opportunity in 2011,” Linden said after this year’s race. “You can’t get two chances to do this—this just doesn’t happen.” But it did happen—despite harsh weather, tag-teaming part of the race with direct competitors and slim odds of coming so close to the win on yet another Marathon Monday. Through the determination, perseverance and good sportsmanship that Linden embraced from the starting line in Hopkinton to the finish on Boylston, her Boston Marathon story is the kind that makes runners proud of their sport.