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Des Linden Talks About Her Biggest Choices

In her memoir, “Choosing to Run,” the 2018 Boston Marathon champion takes readers through the pivotal decisions that have led to her long and successful running career.

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We know how the story ends. But most of us didn’t know how the story of Des Linden’s biggest career win at the 2018 Boston Marathon began or unfolded along the way.

In her memoir, ‘Choosing to Run,’ available April 4 from Dutton, Linden, along with former ESPN sportswriter Bonnie D. Ford, cleverly craft a tale of that historic day in Boston by weaving together the details of Linden’s childhood, NCAA history, early career, Olympic bids, and the stressful year-long lead up to April 16, 2018.

Linden has left many of the details of her personal life off the table during her career, even as the inclination of so many of her competitors has been to share more over social media. Her fans have always been more likely to get a snippet of her wit and humor, mixed with a bit of inspiration and a dash of cute dog photos, rather than an elaborate explanation of whatever might be going on in her life and training. She’s always saved her public opinions on current events—inside or outside of the sport—for times when they’ve mattered most to her.  That’s a big part of what makes “Choosing to Run” compelling—it’s an opportunity to get to know Linden more intimately, as well as the people who have influenced her, and what she’s gone through on the way to becoming one of the most admired and talented U.S. distance runners in history.

Notably, the book reveals that in the months preceding the 2018 victory, Linden was dealing with a big health scare. She had been diagnosed with severe hypothyroidism, which is when the thyroid gland doesn’t make enough thyroid hormones to keep the body functioning. It was life-threatening, though treatable, but because unethical use of thyroid medications (which are not banned by anti-doping agencies) has been linked to cheating in sport—in an effort to artificially lose weight and increase energy levels—Linden was hesitant to take them and she nearly died, she writes.

“The brand name, Synthroid, rang out like a four-letter word. In my mind, thyroid medication was a shortcut drug, something athletes had sought out or been instructed to take with no true medical need,” Linden writes. “I felt a flash of fear, subsumed swiftly by anger that boiled down to a single obstinate word: no.”

Women’s Running had the opportunity to ask Linden, who is also the women’s 50K world-record holder (2:59:54), a bit more about the writing process, including how challenging it was to cover some of the complicated relationships in her life, her health, and coping with cheaters as a professional athlete. What follows are some of the highlights of our conversation.

RELATED: Book Review of ‘Choosing To Run’ by Des Linden

On the timing of her memoir and working with Ford:

Ford spent much of her career extensively writing about doping in sports, including the Lance Armstrong case, and performance-enhancing drugs. She’s also covered Olympic sports including track and field, for many years. Linden and Ford had already formed a strong relationship, ever since Linden came in second, just two seconds away from the win, at the 2011 Boston Marathon. In the aftermath, Ford tried to contact Linden to write an ESPN profile of the athlete whose talent and personality were on the rise.

“She called me like every single day for like three weeks or something [in 2011],” Linden says, laughing. “If I don’t know your number, I’m not answering my phone and I don’t check my voicemails. But finally, I was like, ‘Who is this person?’ and she said [in the last voice mail], ‘I really want to write this piece, but this is the last time I’m going to call you.’ I called her back immediately.”

The duo has come a long way in 12 years and although Linden wanted to write the book shortly after the 2018 win, the timing wasn’t right for Ford. So Linden waited.

“There are just a lot of things that we have connected about and not having to start from square-one and build rapport or explain the ins and outs of the sport to someone was really important,” Linden says.

Although it took several years longer than Linden had originally anticipated to get the book on the shelves, it also allowed her more time to reflect on her experiences. “It allowed me to process the stories really well before I put them on a page and I think it’s probably a better piece because of that.”

On detailing the complicated relationships she’s had with her father and former coaches, brothers Keith and Kevin Hanson:

The book begins with the earliest memories Linden has of running, pushed to train by her father, Dennis Davila, who she also credits with a “hereditary” chip on her shoulder. Her dad could be demanding, holding high expectations for Linden and her older sister, Natalie Steele, when he felt he had invested in athletic opportunities for them.

That kind of relationship led to tension at times and Linden was reminded of it later in her career as she progressed to new levels of the sport while a member of the Hansons Original Distance Project, financially supported by Brooks. The group had been a great opportunity for a runner who didn’t have a long résumé coming out of the NCAA. Through the team, the brothers provided coaching, cheap housing, and bonus-only pay structures in their contracts (instead of a base salary plus performance bonuses). But they also served as the athletes’ agents, which led to conflicts of interest and power imbalances down the line.

“The structure that put the Hansons in the role of financial gatekeepers felt out of balance now, and it was no surprise that it reminded me of the dynamic with my father, when I couldn’t separate running from the emotion embedded in that relationship: ‘Do x, y, and z, or I’ll take this away from you and remind you how much I spent on it.’ Now that I was a professional, I owed it to myself to draw boundaries where they belonged and make sure my business plan was sound,” Linden writes.

During our conversation, Linden labeled these topics “challenging” material, though necessary and important to her story. While writing, she’d get the “roughest version” of events out first, then trimmed the anecdotes and dialed them back as necessary.

“It was very honest and I think my dad understands that. I don’t think he’ll be surprised by it,” Linden says. “So many of the lessons he taught me are what kept me in the sport, what made me push hard, what gave me my work ethic. In those moments when you’re a kid, it feels negative or punishment. There’s no guidebook for parenting and this is just what he thought was right. The root of it was always out of love.”

On the importance of learning to making sound business decisions as an athlete:

The role of a professional athlete is emotionally charged, no doubt. But Linden gives readers a good sense of how she discovered, over time, to view her career through a business lens, beginning with hiring Josh Cox as her agent in 2011. Together, they’ve made decisions that have set her up for longevity and relevance outside of her performances and kept a bigger financial picture in mind, something not all track and field athletes have done well or have had the opportunity to do at all. Linden thought it was important to discuss, because often people forget that running isn’t just a sport, it’s also an industry.

“It was always important to me to show it can be a career, but you have to work at it and have the right things in place,” Linden says. “It’s one thing if you win the gold medal or you win the Boston Marathon, but if you don’t have the right contract in place and the right terms in place, then it’s great, but medals don’t pay the bills.”

Des Linden smiles with hands on hips ahead of the 2022 Boston Marathon
(Photo: Courtesy Brooks )

On how she’s coped with doping and unethical behavior in the sport:

Readers will find Linden’s discovery of her hypothyroidism alarming. You’ll want to yell at her to take the medicine, immediately. But given how some coaches and athletes have made thyroid prescriptions synonymous with nefarious acts, it would give anybody in her position pause. Athletes who have legitimate reasons to take life-saving medications pay the price for those who lack values and integrity.

We asked Linden how that makes her feel.

“When people manipulate and find shortcuts, it’s just another way it hurts other individuals,” she says. “It’s frustrating and it makes me angry. It was a hard thing to share because at the end of the day, somebody, somewhere will probably still question my integrity. I know my story and I’m comfortable with it.”

Linden also recounts the 2016 Rio Games, where she placed seventh in the marathon, behind Shalane Flanagan, who was sixth, and Amy Cragg, who was ninth. Since then, the gold and silver medalists, Kenya’s Jemima Sumgong and Bahrain’s Eunice Kirwa, have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs (though they’ve kept their medals and titles). Linden recalls how the three women of the U.S. team felt something was off from the moment they crossed the finish line that day.

“We openly shared our unease and disgust. What was that? Something did not add up. We all knew this race had been dirty, and speculated that medalists would be busted. I predicted two women in the top five would be banned from competition within a year,” Linden writes.

In moments like that, what is the payoff for all that work? Are the Olympics worth it? Linden says they are, but she wanted to give fans some insight on how it feels behind-the-scenes.

“The Olympics are special and they’re definitely worthy of putting on a pedestal, but they’re also complicated,” Linden says. “There’s a moment when the lights go off and people have to deal with the aftermath. And truthfully in our sport, it’s podium–or-bust. But it’s out of your control and that’s really hard when you grow up thinking that the clock doesn’t lie—the longer you’re in it and you fall short, you’re left wondering if it’s worth it.”

RELATED:  The Effect of Des Linden’s Boston Marathon Win on American Running

On what she wants readers to take from her story:

What comes across in “Choosing to Run” is how Linden has stayed true to her core values every time she’s had to make a decision about her career path. She’s allowed her integrity to guide her and it seems like although it’s led her to some stressful moments at key times, she’s come out the other side better for it.

Linden also hopes readers also see her as human, not a perfect person with extraordinary running talent.

“I’m always learning and I hope that’s a big takeaway,” she says. “I hope people see that they can advocate for themselves and be their own biggest fans. And one of the things that really sustained my career, in situations where there was a power imbalance, was having really great mentors. They’re so important.”

On what’s harder: Writing a book or training for the Boston Marathon?

“Writing a book…that says a lot about how difficult it is.”

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