Fighting wind gusts, rain, freezing temperatures and her own fatigue and doubts, Desiree Linden became first American woman to win the Boston Marathon since 1985.
BOSTON – Desiree Linden calls it a storybook ending now, but she likely did not envision her fairytale would feature a torrential downpour.
The weather at the starting line of Monday’s Boston Marathon in Hopkinton was 38° F with winds gusting up to 18 miles per hour, making for the coldest start in 30 years. Linden actually thought her race was over just six miles into the race. It was not until she made the right turn on Hereford and left on Boylston at the very end of the race that she let out a few fist bumps to the crowd and truly believed she was going to be the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon in 33 years. With the rain streaming down and her feet splashing through puddles, Linden crossed the finish line in 2:39:54 in a history-making moment.
Much of the pre-race attention was on the other American women aiming to end the U.S. drought. Shalane Flanagan—the Marblehead, Mass., native who won the 2017 New York City Marathon— entered the race looking to win Boston and possibly retire. Molly Huddle, a 26-time U.S. national champion on the track, was ready to give the marathon distance a real crack. And 26-year-old Jordan Hasay was also a contender, after making an impact for the U.S. with the second-fastest time ever run by an American woman and podium finishes in her first two career marathons.
Linden—a 34-year-old two-time Olympian in the marathon and last year’s fourth place finisher—was seen as the dark horse of the bunch. But on Monday, Mother Nature did not care for anyone’s credentials.
The look of ponchos and jackets running six-minute miles was a stark difference from the singlet and buns that elites are accustomed to being seen in during a race. Linden spent the last few weeks of her training block in northern Michigan, where cold and rainy temperatures were the norm, but vastly different from the bulk of her work at altitude and warmth in Arizona.
Early into the race, Linden turned to Flanagan and said that she might drop out because of the weather, but was willing to work together with her compatriot. Flanagan said she needed to use the restroom and popped into a port-a-potty on the side of the course. The East African lead pack took it as a chance to quicken the pace slightly, but 13 seconds after pulling over to the side, Flanagan was back on the course alongside her U.S. Olympic teammate and they clawed their way back into the lead pack.
Before the half marathon mark, Ethiopia’s Mamitu Daska pulled away from the frontrunners and it appeared to be a reality check for Americans. Year after year, since Lisa Larsen Weidenbach’s win in 1985, the Kenyans and Ethiopians have dominated the race despite valiant efforts by Americans to slow them down.
“I felt that the conditions today took that speed away from people and I could just settle in and I didn’t need to do as much work,” Linden says. “I found that spot and pressed from there.”
Daska maintained through the first 20 miles before Linden and Kenya’s Gladys Chesir caught up. Linden, in her sixth Boston Marathon to Chesir’s first, used her experience on the course to pull away by Cleveland Circle and Mile 22. She never turned back.
“I thought she had it when she made a break then, because it was far enough out that she wouldn’t have made that break if she wasn’t thinking ‘I can carry this to the finish,’” her coach Kevin Hanson said after the race.
Linden made her marathon debut in Boston in 2007 and finished 18th overall in 2:44:56. Since then, she’s consistently finished among the top Americans and the four fastest times of her 10-year marathon career have come on the streets from Hopkinton to Boylston Street. Linden came close to winning in 2011, a year with heavy wind, when she ran 2:22:38 and finished second to Caroline Kilel of Kenya by just six seconds. In 2012, she made her first U.S. Olympic marathon team but a fractured femur left her questioning whether she would ever get back to her top form.
“It was tough because running is her job and you wanted to be happy in those times,” her husband Ryan Linden says. “We kind of chatted about winning Boston but I was always like ‘Do your thing. You’ve done all the hard work and just enjoy the moment.’ She’s one that lets her running do the talking.”
The doubt was discarded when she ran 2:29:15 for fifth place at the 2013 Berlin Marathon and then took eighth at the 2014 Boston Marathon. She made another U.S. Olympic team in 2016 with a runner-up finish at the Olympic Marathon Trials and then took seventh in Rio de Janeiro.
“She’s developed incredibly as an athlete,” Hanson says. “Any success she’s had is success that she did a better job of envisioning before I did. She’s smarter than I am in those things. Honestly, I think this is way less of a surprise for Des than it is for almost everybody else.”
In her all her races since 2012, Linden has become a master tactician with her approach to the marathon. She will sometimes stick to a selected pace and become a human metronome all the way to the finish, with her first and second halves looking almost identical.
Like the weather in Boston, it was not the usual for Linden on Monday. From 22 miles on, she pushed her pace. Because she never looked back, she never saw the carnage unfold as Daska and Chesir dropped out of the race.
The fear of having to kick down her competition before the finish line on Boylston Street was still there from 2011 but this time no one was behind her for another four minutes.
A flurry of unknown U.S. marathoners such as Sarah Sellers (a full-time nurse from Arizona), Rachel Hyland (a full-time Spanish teacher from Massachusetts) and Jessica Chichester (a full-time nurse in New York City who didn’t even start with the elite women) ended up being the second, fourth and fifth place finishers overall and the U.S.’s top four. Flanagan finished seventh, Huddle hobbled to 14th and Hasay scratched from the race the day before due to a stress reaction in her heel.
“The last couple steps it was like ‘Oh this is for real.’” Linden says. “It was nice to get it right down Boylston this time. That’s for sure.”