When Desiree Linden finished the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials in fourth place—just 11 seconds outside of making her third Games—she tried not to let the emotions immediately get the best of her. She was measured in the minutes afterward, simply stating that Aliphine Tuliamuk, Molly Seidel, and Sally Kipyego—the three women in front of her—were America’s best on that windy Leap Day in Atlanta.
Gracious and frank in the manner that has garnered her a legion of loyal fans over the past 15 years, she said, “I fought all day long. I gave it everything out there.”
Although she had been devoted to making Team USA a third time in the marathon, the 36-year-old also had plans to race the 2020 Boston Marathon on April 20. Instead of dwelling in the disappointment of the Olympic Trials, or overthinking what she could have done differently, she opted to just pour herself into preparing for the race she won in 2018—that historic victory in a deluge of icy rain, becoming the first American woman in 33 years to break the tape on Boylston Street.
So she got up the next morning in Atlanta and went for a light run—something she doesn’t typically do the day after a 26.2-mile race. And she felt surprisingly well, which lifted her spirits. Linden’s training was heading in the right direction and that realization buoyed her expectations.
“Immediately after the Trials, it was just Boston, Boston, Boston,” she says.
But then those whispers about the coronavirus, or COVID-19, which had already spread at an alarming rate in other regions of the world, started to crescendo into something much more. Within days the virus was declared a pandemic. Large events began postponing or canceling while public health officials pleaded with Americans to self-isolate. By mid-March, the term “social distancing” was part of everyday vernacular. And somewhere in her gut, Linden knew it was only a matter of time before Part Two of her spring racing plans would also be turned upside down. While Boston politicians gathered on March 13 to announce a plan to move the 124-year-old race to September 14, Linden did one of the only things that felt like a slice of normal during a time that was anything but.
“I went running during the press conference,” she says. “Obviously I had been connecting the dots like everybody else and it was the obvious thing to do.”
After Linden won the 2018 Boston Marathon, she felt liberated to take more chances in her running. She parted ways with the Rochester Hills, Michigan–based Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. Linden had been working with Kevin and Keith Hanson for the entirety of her pro career, since 2005 when she was a little-known, unsponsored NCAA athlete coming out of Arizona State University. She became a star under the program where athletes were dubbed “blue-collar” by the sport’s insiders, perhaps a nod to a group that appeared to succeed by sticking to the basics—mileage, hard work, and recovery. Nothing fancy.
“I think the blue-collar thing is always kind of funny. I think everybody in the running world is a hard worker,” Linden says. “I’m not running in wooden shoes or anything.”
Having already achieved two major career goals—making the Olympics in 2012 and 2016 and winning the Boston Marathon—Linden wondered what else she could achieve. She felt whatever the next challenges were, they wouldn’t be conquered by doing the same things she’d been doing for 13 years. Linden and her husband, Ryan Linden, wanted to be based out of their home in Charlevoix, Michigan, and spend the colder months in Tempe, Arizona. She had become accustomed to mostly training by herself anyway, so she asked Walt Drenth, her former coach at Arizona State who is now coaching at Michigan State, to guide the rest of her pro career.
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.”
Reflecting back to when Drenth recruited Linden to Arizona State in 2001, he probably wouldn’t have predicted he had started cultivating the career of one of the country’s future best marathoners. Linden became a two-time All-American in cross-country and track in the NCAA, but her results upon graduation weren’t remarkable.
“If you coach long enough, you encounter a lot of people with immense talent and the talent is only part of the gift,” Drenth says. “So I would say it would be hard to predict from anyone. She’s certainly evolved and a lot of the influence that the Hansons had on her is the reason why she’s where she’s at. It’s also who she is as a person—she’s smart and she’s able to digest things and recognize where she needs growth, then she goes after those things.”
Linden is self-aware to the core. The expectations she places on herself are always based on evidence, whether it’s feedback from her workouts or how her body feels. She always seems to know what she’s capable of. Most runners who leave college with her credentials would have entered the workforce or gone on to graduate school, but even back then, 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 [in 2011]. Are you kidding me? But I put in so much time and work and effort. Then, even on that day [at the 2018 Boston Marathon] 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.”
Boston is 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 hypothermia-inducing conditions, she found herself improbably leading the way to victory. How could she not return for an eighth time in 2020 when, as she enters the “twilight” of her career, those opportunities are no longer promised? Not only was it a practical decision—a payday—but a sentimental one, too. And Linden had looked forward to the challenge of the double 26.2-mile races in short succession—something she still may get to do in the fall if she competes at the rescheduled Boston Marathon on September 14 and the New York City Marathon on November 1.
Linden’s sister, Natalie Davila, encourages Linden to explore her talent in ways that keep the excitement level high.
“My philosophy is that she’s done so much, she’s a celebrated runner, and she deserves to savor every moment,” Davila says. “This is a special time for her to do the thing she loves to do. Athletics is not a forever job. She’ll stay in that community and do things for the sport, but these are really special racing opportunities to just allow her to be grateful for the life she’s created for herself. As she always says, it’s just icing on the cake at this point.”
Linden doesn’t deny that her time as a professional marathon runner is dwindling. She approaches every race like it might be her last. At the 2019 New York City Marathon, for example, she took a swing for the American course record and came up short by about a minute, finishing sixth in 2:26:46, but satisfied with her result.
She’s not sure when it will occur to her to call it, but it likely won’t look like a typical retirement.
“You don’t want to be the person who is just struggling, like the magic’s totally gone,” Linden says. “That’s kind of painful to watch, so it’s finding that balance. I’ll just keep running like it’s my last marathon so I’ll always be pretty satisfied if it turns out to be my last one.”
Linden doesn’t plan to stray too far, though, even after she’s finished landing on the world’s most-coveted podiums. She’s already envisioning what “retirement” looks like—and it’s untraditional, of course.
“I think I’ll shift over to trails and ultra-type stuff,” she says. “Just a place where you don’t have to compare yourself to the runner you used to be—it’s like learning a different sport and I think bringing people along for that transition will be really fun. Beyond right-foot, left-foot, I don’t know exactly what it’ll look like—I have options, and as soon as they look too appealing at mile 22 of a race, it’s time to do other things.”
What has been most transformative according to Davila is watching her sister develop into a public speaker, somebody who can inspire a crowd and leverage her acquired platform for good.
“She was, I would say, very shy and introverted as a child—always really smart and well-spoken, but she really wasn’t going to open up to you unless she knew you really well,” Davila says. “So for me to see her use her success in such a positive way—to see her use her passion and integrity to share her love of the sport with more people, the way she’s harnessed that to inspire others, it’s been really cool. It’s definitely different than the Desiree she was when she was younger.”
Fans relate to Linden’s authenticity. Her dry sense of humor, her work ethic, her honesty when training isn’t going well. What you see is what you get.
“Some people choose to be holed up in the mountain and just do their training. But you want people to turn on the TV and watch the Boston Marathon and care. If you can make someone invested in your story, they’re probably going to turn it on again next time,” Linden says. “If you’re crying because I missed breaking the tape by two seconds in 2011, yeah, it’s a bummer, but we care about that together. The whole point is to get people emotionally invested. That’s when they become fans. That’s what we want.”
Back in Atlanta, it was because Linden has invested her time and enthusiasm into the running community that so many were pulling for her to make the top three and earn a third trip to the Olympics. Fourth place is the most difficult of all pills to swallow at the Trials: an alternate for the Games if any of the qualifiers have to withdraw, but not officially a member of Team USA.
Linden, like most people in whatever situation they’re in, finds herself in professional limbo, wondering if those fall marathons will go on as planned or if COVID-19 will further disrupt the racing calendar. There’s no way to tell this spring, so Linden has decided to take one day at a time, recover from the Trials, and get back into a routine so she’ll be ready for competition again when the time comes.
“I always think of that meme that says, ‘Oh, you want to know what I am training for? Life, motherf*cker,’” Linden says, laughing. “There will be races again, some day. You have to find some purpose in putting one foot in front of the other and tap into why you run. It can’t just be about race results—hopefully you have a good ‘why.’”
The motto she famously adopted in the lead-up to her Boston victory, “keep showing up,” seems especially apt in uncertain times.
“I think I’ll be pretty motivated until all the wheels are off,” Linden says, with a smirk, “and I’m just in a pile of smoke. Like on the side of the road.”
It’s safe to say, then, that Desiree Linden is not done yet.