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Des Linden on Ultrarunning, Vulnerability, and Doing What Makes You Happy

After becoming the first woman to break three hours for 50K, Des Linden talks hype and happiness.

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Des Linden is having fun. After winning the 2018 Boston Marathon, after making two Olympic teams, and, most recently, after setting the world’s best 50K time of 2:59:54 on Tuesday, it really just comes down to that simple concept.

“I’ve been in this sport for a really long time and I never want to feel like I’m stagnating or bored with what I’m doing,” Linden says.

It’s been a year of shifting priorities and exploring new interests for Linden (and all of us, of course). After she finished fourth at the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials, just one spot shy of making her third Olympic team, she had hoped to race the Boston Marathon. Then it was the New York City Marathon. Rinse and repeat with the COVID-19 race cancellations all of us have experienced.

Then Linden, 37, considered going for an Olympic Trials qualifying time in the 10,000 meters, but the speed and track work weren’t kind to her lower legs, so she canned that idea.

All the while, a desire to try ultrarunning distances—defined as anything longer than 26.2 miles—consistently lingered in the back of her mind. With the absence of racing opportunities, she embarked on a personal challenge in October, logging 496 miles over 31 days. She completed the same mileage as the date each day (one mile on October 1, all the way to 31 miles on October 31) and came away with the confidence to finally explore that ultra curiosity.

Although she had hoped to race the Two Oceans Ultramarathon in South Africa this spring, it too was canceled. So her agent, Josh Cox, her sponsor Brooks, and an array of other race officials created an opportunity in Eugene, Oregon, where Linden could not just debut at 50K, but go for the world’s best time.

Related: Des Linden’s 50K in Photos

The vision became reality on Tuesday as Linden and her pacer, Charlie Lawrence, clicked metronome-like miles—almost like a workout of 31 x 1 mile at 5:47 pace—comfortably bettering the previous record of 3:07:20 set in 2019 by Great Britain’s Aly Dixon.

Related: Check Out Des Linden’s Stats From Her Record-Setting 50K

After drinking champagne from her Brooks Hyperion Elite prototype shoe she wore to race in (a tradition called the “Shoey” that started when she chugged champagne from the shoes she wore to win the Boston Marathon), Linden and her support crew headed to Portland, Oregon to enjoy the Allison Inn & Spa—and do a little wine tasting. She spoke with Women’s Running on Friday from Detroit, en route back home with her husband, Ryan Linden (who finished the 50K in 3:22:09), to Charlevoix, Michigan.

Linden chatted about the race, the record, and how she’s able to figure out what inspires and motivates her at this point in her career—and gives runners of all abilities a few tips about how to follow your own path and hear what’s calling you.

On the post-race emotions.

Records are always temporary, but becoming the first woman to break three hours at the 50K distance will remain in the history books. After a year in which everything was turned upside down, just a little bit of “normal” life was a pick-me-up for Linden.

“It was just a ton of fun and that hasn’t changed a bit,” Linden says. “It was a little taste of racing, a goal to be excited about, so much great energy on the course—just everybody in high spirits. It left a great taste in my mouth.”

And the additions to her career accomplishments?

“I like that there’s this cool, new thing on my life résumé: ultrarunner,” she says. “That’s pretty neat.”

On teamwork.

While the record and the distance debut are what most of us will remember, what motivated Linden in the end was the group that put the event together. All the work that went into measuring and certifying the course, recruiting other runners and pacers, adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols, and promoting the attempt on social media, further inspired Linden to give it her best shot.

“The more invested we got in it and the closer we got to the race, you saw how much work everybody was putting in and you just wanted to hold up your end of the bargain,” Linden says. “This was about as small-scale as you can get for an event, so there was camaraderie in that and then I was the only one left with something to do. I wanted to hold up my end of the deal.”

On community and the hype.

Before the 50K attempt, long-time ultrarunner Karl Meltzer suggested on Twitter that Linden tone down the “hype” and talk about it after the race. That, of course, isn’t Linden’s style—she’s always believed that it’s better for the sport to put her goals out there, allow fans to become invested in them, and share the victories and defeats.

Related: Social Media Reacts to Des Linden’s Record-Setting Race

“Poor Karl. I didn’t mean to put his handle on Instagram, but this is why I’m putting it out there,” Linden says. “It’s definitely easier to not talk about it and just celebrate after the fact and say, ‘Look at me, I’m amazing,’ if it goes well. But I think that putting the question mark out there and a little vulnerability—it also might not happen, but I still want you to be part of this thing. Particularly right now, it’s how we can keep the community connected. It’s not a big thing, but it’s something. If all the pros are making those little connections, we get an audience.”

On following your heart.

Runners of all levels fall into certain traps, going for goals like qualifying for the Boston Marathon or setting PRs at 26.2 miles. But the distance isn’t for everybody. It’s worth it to ask yourself if your running goals are serving you from time to time.

Linden recently talked with Ato Bolden, a four-time Olympic medalist and NBC sports commentator, on Instagram, about how Meb Keflezighi, 2014 Boston Marathon champion, has almost convinced him to try a marathon. He asked Linden what she thought.

“I think I undid all of Meb’s work. I said, ‘If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it,’” Linden says. “That’s silly. Why would you do something to appease everyone else?”

Instead, Linden recommends going for what’s sustainable—in running, that means doing what you enjoy.

“Running is such a lifelong thing. It’s good for you and it’s so fun,” she says. “What’s going to be the thing that keeps you going day after day after day? If it’s running on your treadmill, go for it. If it’s wearing headphones when you run, go for it. If it’s running 5Ks, amazing. Just figure out what’s going to keep you going. You can always adjust.”

On learning lessons.

Not every path we travel is the one meant for us, though the only way to know is to try. And Linden doesn’t consider those misfires failures, just lessons that redirect her to better places.

“The track at the beginning of last year, trying to get that Trials qualifier,” Linden says. “It made me take a long break, which was worth it because it has made me feel fresher. If you pivot and learn from it, it’s not really a mistake. It’s just part of the process.”

On pushing boundaries.

Running is an uncomfortable pursuit and some of us are better at powering through than others. But the more we put ourselves in new territory, the more confidence we have that we can get to the other side of it.

“It’s staying super present,” Linden says. “A lot of what’s uncomfortable is when you start looking at how much you have left. It makes you tense and tight about the moment you’re in. Maybe I don’t feel great right now and I have a lot in front of me—that’s when it gets demoralizing. If we can stay present, you see they’re just patches. The good and the bad are waves and none of them last too long.”

On exploring new terrain.

The ultrarunning world offers a wide variety of choices on the roads, trails, mountains, tracks (think: 24-hour runs). Linden hasn’t ruled many things out, with one notable exception.

“I think sleep deprivation is just not for me. Like, I just don’t see that going well,” she says, laughing. “But the surfaces for sure are intriguing—I think UTMB [Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc] is so cool. We did a lot of running on South Mountain in Phoenix, which was a little, tiny taste of the trails—I’m curious about it and I’d like to know if I could be any good at it.”

Linden’s husband, Ryan, isn’t so sure the single track is calling his wife, but time will tell.

“I’m sure with one ankle roll, I’d be like, ‘Yeah you’re right,’” she says. “But those other races do fascinate me, it’s just figuring out the right time to test them out.”

On what she’ll take from the 50K experience.

With plenty of racing ahead of her, Linden and her coach, Walt Drenth, took note of what worked in the preparation that might translate to the next training cycle. In retrospect, Linden thinks she could have put in a little more weekly mileage and in the middle of the race she thinks she was too aggressive, laying down a few fast miles when she was feeling good.

“Doing those big, bulky long runs—like the marathon we did within the training—22 and 24 milers were really fun and I think I adapted well, so I think that’s something we’ve talked about implementing into marathon training as well,” she says. “That’ll be a fun challenge moving forward.”

On the women in ultrarunning she looks forward to racing one day.

When the time comes to line up at her next ultra-distance race, Linden says she hopes to meet some of the women who have inspired her, including Magdalena Boulet, 2008 Olympic marathoner; Courtney Dauwalter, who won the 2019 UTMB, and meeting up again with Sally McRae, who is currently training for the Badwater 135 and ran the 50K on Tuesday, too.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get into the same races, but Courtney Dauwalter is iconic. I just want to go on a run with her,” Linden says. “And Sally—what a nice person. She said I could come pace her for 80 miles [at Badwater] and I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ But when our paths meet, it will be really fun…I look forward to just meeting the people on this scene along the way.”

On what’s next.

Linden has made it clear that she’s not done with the racing the major marathons yet. She has plenty to choose from in the fall—practically all of them, including Chicago, Boston, and New York City, are scheduled to take place between September and November.

Does she know what’s next?

“I do. I do. But, it’s to be announced,” she says, with a laugh.

Related: Inspired to train for your first 50K? Follow this training plan.