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Desiree Linden tackled her first ultramarathon on Tuesday on a certified 50K course near Eugene, Oregon, and she finished the distance faster than any other woman in the world ever has, becoming the first to break three hours.
In an official time of 2:59:54, Linden, who is a two-time Olympian and 2018 Boston Marathon champion, added another impressive line to her résumé, averaging 5:47 per mile for 50K. Although World Athletics does not recognize the distance as an official world record, it is a world best. The previous record was 3:07:20, held by Great Britain’s Aly Dixon, set at the 2019 world championships in Brasov, Romania. Linden said Dixon has been cheering on her quest to better the mark.
“It speaks to women in sports and women in running specifically; this community is just so supportive. We want to push things forward and we want to see progress, we want to see recognition,” Linden said. “We got a little bit of pushback on hyping this event, but that’s the point—let’s get people excited. I hope people got excited and I hope the record does move forward and the 50K gets more eyeballs on it and gets run more often.”
— Boston Marathon Pro (@BostonMar_Pro) April 13, 2021
During the post-race press conference, Linden said it took her the first six miles to warm up, but after she and her pacer, Charlie Lawrence, locked into a rhythm, it felt smooth.
“I had a healthy fear of the distance and I haven’t raced in a really long time,” she said, later adding that the 6.5-mile course of out-and-backs was easy to break down mentally and even clock a few fast miles inadvertently. “The conversation every now and then was like, ‘Let’s stay really patient and not do anything crazy.'”
Linden came through the half marathon split right on time, at 1:15:47 and the 26.2-mile point at 2:31:12. After that, it was all new territory.
“Around 24 [miles] or so, I felt like this is about to get very, very tough,” she said. “I knew I had time banked…I was very conscious that I wanted this to be under three hours, so [I told myself], ‘Don’t get too excited but don’t have a soft mile where you go to sleep.'”
Linden, 37, competed at the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials, where she placed fourth, one position shy of making the Tokyo Games (she is still the alternate, if Aliphine Tuliamuk, Molly Seidel, or Sally Kipyego become unable to compete). When the pandemic started shortly after that race, Linden’s plans to race the New York City and Boston marathons evaporated and she took some time to figure out what new goals would motivate her.
Originally she wanted to race the Two Oceans Ultramarathon in South Africa, but it was canceled due to the pandemic. So Linden, her agent, Josh Cox, and her sponsor Brooks created their own race on Tuesday near Eugene. It was certified and included a marathon, too, contested by Adriana Nelson and Chirine Njeim.
Linden has long held a desire to try ultra-distance races. She set out on Tuesday averaging 5:47 per mile, exactly the pace she had predicted. Her fastest 26.2 miles was at the 2011 Boston Marathon, finishing second in 2:22:38, an average of 5:27 per mile. More recently she ran the 2019 New York City Marathon in 2:26:46 (averaging 5:36 per mile).
“I’m not really looking to collect accolades or define a legacy or anything like that,” Linden said in March. “For me, it’s motivating and this new distance is intriguing.”
After the race on Tuesday, Linden didn’t rule out exploring longer distances, though she still plans to compete primarily at the World Marathon Majors races for now. In the future she finds the 50 mile and 100K distances appealing.
“The game plan is to get back into the major marathons,” she said. “It’s what is exciting to me and I love competing at that level. If it gets too far away from me, then I’ll shift and make sure I’m enjoying what I’m doing and having fun competing or chasing down different goals.”
Linden had company on the course on Tuesday, too. Also competing at the 50K distance were Linden’s husband, Ryan Linden. Nicholas Thompson, CEO of The Atlantic, was hoping to set the 45-49 national age group record and pro ultra runner Sally McRae used the course as a training run for the upcoming Badwater 135.
The hardest part of the debut ultramarathon?
“Coming around that marathon mark and mentally heading away from the finish for a few miles and just looking for that last turnaround,” Linden said. “I just wanted to head in the right direction, so it was a total grind at that point.”