"Epic" can be an overused word in sports writing, but it was exactly the right adjective for Desiree Linden's win at the 122nd edition of the Boston Marathon last week. Start-line temperatures in the high 30s, gusting winds and heavy rain made for a race of attrition in which numerous elite athletes dropped out, unheralded and unknown runners placed in the top 10 and finishing times were the slowest in 40 years. Linden, 34, initially thought it wasn't her day, but after helping fellow American and 2017 New York City Marathon champion Shalane Flanagan rejoin the pack after a bathroom break near the halfway point, she found another gear and fulfilled her long-sought ambition of winning a major marathon after many close calls and setbacks. Linden spoke with ESPN senior writer Bonnie D. Ford about her landmark achievement, the first by a U.S. woman in Boston since 1985.
ESPN: How did you feel the day after?
Desiree Linden: Surprisingly good. I just kept thinking that it was because we ran actually ran fairly slow, so if you didn't totally crater -- maybe that's why I felt a little bit better. Although I think if it went poorly, it was the opposite end of the spectrum.
ESPN: I did see video of you drinking champagne out of a shoe.
DL: Yeah, that was unfortunate [laughs]. That was supposed to be under wraps. It was very well into the evening.
ESPN: Was it a Brooks shoe, and was it a clean shoe?
DL: It was a Brooks Birds of Paradise, and it was lightly worn -- with socks.
ESPN: I'm sure that imparted an interesting bouquet to the champagne. What was the first thing you ate after you were able to?
DL: I think I grabbed a hot dog at Fenway, at the Sam Adams after-party for the masses. That was the first time I had real food.
ESPN: You've said repeatedly that you felt horrible early in the race. Can you elaborate?
DL: It was just heavy legs, felt really flat, like I was getting some tightness in my arches -- things that were just happening way too early. My hands were so cold I was missing [hydration] bottles, the first couple bottles. I was trying to grab cups, but obviously those would spill out down my hands and the front of my jacket, which was making me colder, seeping through. So, it was rookie mistakes combined with already feeling pretty bad. Also, I guess in hindsight, maybe it was because I felt the pace was a little too rich. We were going slow, but there was more racing going on than I expected. I thought everyone was just going to slog together for a really long time. It was a respectable pace given what we were running into, and that it was only going to get worse.
ESPN: Have you ever run a full marathon in a rain jacket?
DL: [Laughs] No. I think that might be a first in history.
ESPN: I want to delve more into the "Michigan toughness" aspect of this. You've logged a lot of miles there, but you're from Southern California. You've trained in Kenya and Arizona [in college, and leading up to Boston] and all kinds of different conditions.
DL: In Michigan, we get those exact same conditions, and sometimes worse quite often, and you realize it's just about knowing you can get through it. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable -- the old cliché. I've had so many training runs that were probably worse than what we ran in. And a really big part of it, honestly, I think, was understanding how to dress. For the first time in my life, I think I was best dressed for the day. Picking the right jacket that you're not going to sweat in underneath and start shivering because you're cold from the sweat, staying dry as long as possible. I had a full hat on all the way until they shot off the [starting] gun, and then I switched it and put on a fresh, dry headband that kept my ears warm. The temperature wasn't cold enough that you needed a full thick hat, because that was just going to saturate and hold it there.
ESPN: How did your feet emerge from this?
DL: They've never been better. Which is super weird. There were huge puddles, and when we went through them, I felt like my shoes were getting really loose. I felt like I was going to have to stop and put my shoe back on and tighten it up. I don't know if I was just losing feeling. For a long time, it felt like I didn't have shorts on.
ESPN: That sounds like an anxiety dream.
DL: It's like, "I hope the shorts are still there, because it feels like I'm wearing nothing." [Laughs]
ESPN: When you woke up to those conditions, you had to know intellectually they could play in your favor. Was that mixed with dread, or did you go to the start line with anticipation?
DL: I knew it was going to be bad. I didn't know how bad. I didn't do any research until we walked out of the Fairmont [Copley Plaza hotel] and it was just blowing like crazy. I found it comical. That mindset really helped me: "This is gonna be miserable, whether I make it to the finish line or not, whether I finish last or not, this is gonna be super hard, and it's gonna hurt like hell."
ESPN: The attrition rate of the elites was unprecedented, and the high finishes of non-elite or emerging elite runners were striking. Someone who wasn't familiar with the ethos of the marathon might say, "There's always going to be an asterisk next to this race." What would you say to them?
DL: I mean, that's why they hold the race. We don't just submit résumés and physiological testing results and workouts. You show up and race because the day can throw anything at you. And that's what Boston does. Racers pick Boston. In 2011 [in Boston, when she finished second], I ran super fast and people don't necessarily consider it my PR because there was a tailwind. You can always put an asterisk on a race.
ESPN: And you've got the laurel.
DL: [Laughs] Exactly.
ESPN: [Retired distance runner] Lauren Fleshman made an observation that evening on Twitter that both Shalane's performance in New York and yours in Boston came after [racing] breaks that you took for very different reasons -- Shalane due to injury and you because of burnout.
DL: For us, coming off the [Rio] Games and the [U.S. Olympic] trials, it's stressful, and you try to keep rolling into the next one and the next one, and banging your head against the wall. It was taking a step back and refreshing. And I think both Shalane and I have been at this long enough and have so much mileage in our legs that hitting reset is OK. You can back off and it can pay off on the other side. I think it takes a lot of confidence to do that, to know that it's not all going to go away. You can take a break and lean back on the work you've done over your career. Sometimes it's by design, and sometimes it isn't, but I think for both of us, that's kind of what happened. It was a regrouping point.
ESPN: I looked back at my interview with Shalane after New York, and she said, verbatim, "If Des were to win Boston this spring, or any of my fellow marathoning friends, it would feel like a victory for me. We all make investments in each other.'' How has your relationship evolved?
DL: Shalane's always someone I've looked up to. She's a rock star. She's been supportive of me coming up, and I know we're competitive, but there's so much respect. Once you step into the marathon and start doing the high mileage, and realizing these majors are really tough, you step back and say, "Wow, second at Boston, that's the real deal." Or her debut in New York, that's the real deal. You see these performances, and when you're doing it, you realize how hard it is. Everyone's working their butt off, and when someone has a breakthrough, whether or not it's you, I'm proud that they got their day because I know how hard that is.
ESPN: Did being Olympic teammates [in 2012 and 2016] make a difference?
DL: I think so. Rio was pretty important, especially after the drug bust of [stripped gold medalist] Jemima Sumgong, when you go, "What are we doing? Why are we doing this?" The frustration for a lot of athletes hit a peak right there. So when she came back shortly afterwards and got the [New York City] win, it was like, "Thank you." She's someone I believe in and respect. It was nice to see someone get that done who, in my opinion, is doing it right. You have the feeling that it's possible even though there's all kinds of crap going on out there. You can still hope, you can still dream, you can still work and maybe you'll have your day.
ESPN: When you crossed the finish line, you put your hands over your mouth.
DL: Just disbelief: "That really happened. I can't believe this." It was also really cold fingers. That's the hand motion for all the feels.
ESPN: What did [your husband] Ryan [Linden] and [your agent] Josh [Cox] say to you in those first moments?
DL: It was me just screaming, "I can't believe that just happened," and them just laughing and saying they were really proud. I'm pretty sure that's what happened.
ESPN: Joan [Benoit Samuelson, the 1984 Olympic marathon gold medalist] got to you even before they did.
DL: She's so funny. Later, she came up and said, "I'm so sorry about that, I stepped in front, I was just so excited." I was like, "Joanie, if there's anybody in the world that gets the first hug, it's 100 percent you."
ESPN: You've said you wanted to run through the 2020 Olympic season. What are your thoughts on whether this result might change your plans? Achieving a lifelong goal can play both ways with motivation.
DL: I think it will change things. I'm going to be really picky about moving forward. I'm not going to put anything down right now, I'm kind of going to let a race speak to me -- whatever does inspire me, whatever does get me motivated. Hopefully, that comes. We'll see as we get back into things. But, yeah, I mean, I think it would be silly to say that you move along as planned when the whole plan just got torn up and thrown out the window. I don't expect my goals and motivations to be exactly the same. 2020 is the long-term thing I'm leaving out there. I won't rule that out just yet.