“I’m disappointed,” Desiree Linden said after finishing fourth at the 2017 Boston Marathon.
How could she not be. The race of her dreams, the one where she broke the tape on Boylston Street, has been ten years in the making. It’s been ten years since she first crossed that finish line in 19th place, and Monday she was there to be first. She would settle for nothing less.
She did not break the tape. She did not come in first. She was fourth. And it wasn’t the head-to-head battle of the wills that she fought so hard and lost in 2011. Instead, she was broken with many miles left to go, many miles left to mourn.
I cannot speak for Desiree Linden. I’ve only spent a few hours talking with her, and once sat in the back of a gator for 70 minutes as I watched her race in front of me. I do not know her particularly well, but I know enough to know she’s human. As a fellow human, I understand the pain of disappointment, of putting so much stock into one race and how much it stings when your best isn’t good enough. When Des’s voice broke in her post-race interviews, with Ryan concernedly looking on, I understood.
I hurt for Des as she fought those last miles, when the magnificent Edna Kiplagat glided to the finish in one of the most commanding Boston wins I have ever seen. I believe Des when she says she’s happy Edna won. I believe Des when said she’s impressed with Jordan Hasay’s fantastic debut marathon and that she’s excited to see what the future holds for the ingenue. I also believe the quiver in Des’s voice when she wondered if the peak of her career is in her past.
Des was not first. But she did not settle for fourth. She can’t settle; her job is not settling. She can’t change the outcome now and she couldn’t change it in the race. She’ll accept it, maybe she’ll try again, but she’ll never settle.
She said she failed. But to us, the fans so inspired by her, Des did not fail. Ten years since being a 23 year-old novice embarking on her first marathon, a marathon run on these same streets, Des is a world traveler, a married woman and a true professional, experienced and wise. She’s known for being somewhat conservative in her tactics, a cold executioner, a runner who makes a plan to run a steady pace and sticks with it. To those who’ve followed her career, Des is not known for front-running. But Monday she did. After a (relatively) slow first 10k, Des made a move to dial down the pace. If she wanted to win on this day, she knew she had to do things differently than she’s done them before. She needed to make all her competitors race her way. The self-reliant Des, who runs her own race, needed to impose her will on others.
And she did. As planned, Des fearlessly led the pack of women through miles seven, eight, nine, ten, with runners falling out of the back of it with each mile. To win, she’d need to lose all of these women, or most of them, before the Citgo Sign at mile 25.
Halfway through she seemed energized by the screams of Wellesley, but not long after there were signs her body was not going along with her race plan. She tugged at her shorts. She dropped back into the pack after commanding the lead for miles. She fell off the pack, she came back, she fell off again, she seemed to come back, but she could not hang on by 17. She was only a few seconds behind, but by the time Edna Kiplagat dropped the hammer, a 5:01 20th mile uphill, careening away and breaking up what remained of the pack, with Rose Chelimo and Jordan Hasay trying to keep up and Des now out of contention save for a disaster in front of her.
That left Des nine miles to contemplate what part of the plan had gone wrong. Nine miles is a long time, even at 5:30 pace, to contemplate anything.
But she’s been at this for 10 years and she’s developed a solid M.O. Des is going to do her Des thing, but so far the Des thing has never brought home a win. At this point in her career, Des could line up at Boston and run a safe race and win lots of money and sign autographs and keep her sponsors happy. Had she done that, run a safe race, maybe she could have raced for third. Maybe she could have escaped the heartache that comes with going for something bigger and missing … Maybe. But what’s the point?
If Des is in this to be her best, to find out how far she can take this running thing, she has to push herself out of her comfort zone. She has to change things up in training, in racing, in thinking. She has to take risks.
To be truly bold, to go to a place one has never gone before, requires bravery and a fearlessness that few people have. But Des has it. I don’t know her well, but I know she has it. She might not have let herself think too much about it beforehand, but she is smart enough to know that striving is not without risk. If she didn’t take that risk, she’d never know. Sometimes a risk means failing. But without taking the risk and the fail, she could never learn whatever lessons this race had in store for her.
I hope Des enjoys a glass of whiskey or a few. I hope she and Ryan have some fun in Boston. I hope she knows that it’s not the winning that inspires us. It’s the striving.
How did the 2017 Boston Marathon inspire you?