It was a race that required putting mind over monsoon and finding a second wind stronger than the icy gusts that rattled runners’ jackets like spinnakers ballooning on the open ocean. It was a day for an athlete who knew how to bail water from the boat and keep rowing, which is what Linden did when she thought she was about to sink.
Rain-slicked asphalt turned the finishing stretch of Boylston Street into a mirror in which Linden could have seen all her unfulfilled ambitions staring back at her, had she chosen to look down. She kept her gaze forward, the hollows around her expressive eyes deepening with every step. She was outkicked in the last hundred meters of the 2011 race, a result that has both propelled and shadowed her career since.
She ran “afraid,” she said, until she crossed the finish line. She needn’t have. The 34-year-old Linden finished more than four minutes ahead of the next-best runner — an unheralded nurse-anesthetist from Tucson named Sarah Sellers — other favorites having long ago disintegrated behind her.
Linden covered her mouth with her hands as if what might come out was too big to bear. She leaned into the arms of her husband, Ryan Linden. Her agent, former pro runner Josh Cox, clasped her from the other side and wept for the first time since his children were born.
Astonishment, exhaustion and elation washed over Linden’s face as the national anthem played moments later.
“Even when I got into the lead [at Mile 22], I was like, ‘This is going to go horribly wrong,”’ she said later. “I tried to not let off the gas and get right up to the tape.
“When I made the right on Hereford [Street], I thought, ‘This is happening, this is for real.'”
That final turn onto Boylston reflected a larger plot twist. U.S. women distance runners have turned a corner after years of distinguished results that fell short of the defining moment they all wanted. Linden’s win in 2 hours, 39 minutes, 54 seconds was the first for an American woman in this race since 1985 and came just five months after Shalane Flanagan snapped 40 years of futility in New York City.
Add to that a 2:21 performance by Linden’s former Arizona State University teammate Amy Cragg in Tokyo earlier this year and a promising brace of younger runners such as Jordan Hasay — a last-minute scratch in this race — and “we’ve got great momentum,” said 1984 Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson, who has rooted as hard as anyone for her legacy to be refreshed and renewed.
Samuelson had faith that the many miles Linden logged in the often-hostile climate of southeastern Michigan would pay off. Her words to Linden before the start: “‘You’re the master of this sport, master of this event, it’s your day,'” Samuelson recalled. “She was truly in her element today, and she so deserved this.”
And yet with a little more than half the race in front of her, Linden thought the morning would belong to someone else. “I was feeling horrible,” she said. The diabolical combination of wintry temperatures, fog, episodically torrential rain and wind that made forward progress “comical” at times seemed insurmountable.
Linden nudged her Olympic teammate and longtime friendly rival Flanagan and said, “I might drop out today, if you need something — block the wind, whatever — just let me know.” Flanagan took her up on the offer when she made a 13-second detour to a portable toilet. Linden slowed down and helped Flanagan bridge back. Then she realized she’d put herself back in the conversation and in relatively decent shape within the pack, “and I thought to myself, ‘I shouldn’t drop out,'” Linden said with an oh-what-the-heck shrug.
Monday marked Linden’s sixth Boston start, 11 years after she debuted as a “nobody” and ran 2:44:56 in a nor’easter that now ranks as the second-most difficult weather conditions she has ever faced.
Just as she entered her prime years, Linden was forced to step off the 2012 Olympic course in London after just two miles with a femoral stress fracture. She was sidelined for more than a year and embarked on a long, slow build back to form, tamping down her expectations.
“I knew that wasn’t the end of her career,” said Kevin Hanson, her longtime coach with the Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project in the Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills, Michigan. “I didn’t know how long the healing process would be. I didn’t know where her head would be, coming back from the healing process. I knew in a sense it would keep her hungry.
“She made her mark on this course for a reason. I know this sounds incredibly biased — she’s the smartest person out on the course. Mother Nature threw a whole other part of the equation in, so the smartest person had to think through that part, too. It increased her odds tenfold.”
Understand, this was no fluke. Twice in the past three years, Linden has finished fourth here, drawing a hard lesson from game plans that didn’t quite succeed. It’s one thing to be aware of an advantage and quite another to exploit it.
“Des is the definition of unrelenting,” said Kara Goucher, 39, one of the best marathoners of her generation. “But she always treats her competitors with respect. In 2011, I was the American favorite, but as she passed me, she encouraged me to keep going. We have communicated throughout the years, and even last night, on the eve of her run, she responded to my good-luck message by telling me that I got this whole thing rolling. She is true to her values and true to herself. Boston deserved an incredible woman to end the drought, and they got the best with her.”
It was a day for a girl who grew up playing soccer in southern California, and chased her goals as a Midwestern transplant, a diminutive, self-deprecating, quiet dynamo, a whiskey aficionado and coffee guzzler, a dog lover whose new golden retriever puppy is named “Boston,” an avid reader who once said that author Joan Didion would be her dream partner on a training run.
“This is storybook stuff,” Linden said, the gold-plated laurel wreath glinting from atop her head. She has run this course in heat, with a tailwind, in every frame of mind. Sometimes it just takes a lot of water under the bridge to reach the far shore.