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It’s one of those Midwest spring days, the ones 30 degrees cooler than the day before, with pouring rain that chilled more than snow as it drummed down on rows of sleepy mid-century cottages and split-levels. It’s the kind of day where nobody wants to stand around outside, particularly not on a Saturday morning after a hard 0-dark-thirty workout that didn’t go exactly as planned. But there is Desiree Linden, a two-time Olympic marathoner, bundled up with coffee in hand, sleepily shouting “Good job!” to participants in the Bill Roney 5k.
It doesn’t take much for Des’s husband, Ryan to get her to smile and gin up a little enthusiasm despite the conditions and her lingering angst about the workout, which had gone ever-so-slightly awry.
What brings Des to this rainy street corner in suburban Detroit, three weeks before she hopes to win the Boston Marathon?
A Solidly Good Start
Des grew up in Chula Vista, California, a sunny suburb of San Diego, the younger of two sisters raised by the kind of mom and dad you might find lining the little league sidelines every weekend morning. She was an active kid who loved playing soccer, but in middle school she discovered her undeniable running talent. In high school, she was a regular at the California state championships, a girl who broke five minutes in the mile her freshman year. She was a “solidly good” high school runner, but stayed mostly in the shadows of teenaged running phenom Sarah Bei (who would later marry Ryan Hall).
For college she moved one state over to Arizona State where, again, she was solidly good. She was an All-American, a consistent performer on her cross country and track teams, alongside long-time friend and ASU teammate Amy Hastings (now Cragg). Her collegiate results also gave no indication of a future as a world-class runner.
As graduation loomed, Des wondered what she could do with running if she made it her top priority. In high school and college, Des intently focused on maintaining a healthy balance of running, studies and social life. She never dedicated herself to running to the extent that some of her peers did. She sensed if she committed to running excellence, she could be better than solid — she could be really good. She wanted to find out.
Rust Belt … uh … Ho? Yeah, Ho!
Back in 2005, the elite development opportunities were more limited than they are today. Sarah Hall went to train in Mammoth Lakes, California with her husband and Deena Kastor. Amy Cragg went to Providence to train with Kim Smith and Molly Huddle. Others went to the Nike Oregon Project, to train under Alberto Salazar, or joined Team USA Minnesota. Only one elite development group was even remotely interested in a solidly good 22-year-old runner named Desiree Davila: the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in Rochester Hills, Michigan.
To say the Hanson brothers were falling over themselves to convince Des to join their team — well, let’s just say that’s not quite how it went. When she discussed the opportunity with Kevin Hanson, he said as if it weren’t a known fact, “You know it gets cold and snows up here, right?”
But Des was committed to this running thing and the cold, the unknown, and the rustiness of the Rust Belt were not going to stand in her way.
After college graduation, she moved to the outskirts of Detroit, Michigan. While Hansons-Brooks is known for helping their runners pay the bills by giving them jobs in one of their four local running stores, there were no available openings for Des. Instead, she found a customer service job at the Michigan-headquartered online retailer Moosejaw. She liked it, actually. It allowed her to make a few friends in Michigan outside of the team.
She was a young, quiet middle-distance runner, new to a well-established team of marathoners. Shortly after joining the team in the fall of 2005, she raced a 10k in Disney World (38:22 or 6:10 average pace per mile, if you’re wondering) and then suffered an injury. But a year later she was racing the 10k more than four minutes faster as she prepared to join the ranks of Hansons-Brooks marathoners.
In April 2007, as the winds of a nor’easter whipped and cold rain alternately sprinkled and poured, Des passed her first marathon starting line. She finished in 2:44:56 for 19th place. While solidly good, it was in her words “nothing special” and certainly no foreshadowing of her next performance on the storied course in 2011. That’s when, with weather approaching perfect, she raced to win down Boylston Street, before finishing second in 2:22:38, just two seconds behind Caroline Kilel.
So how did the solidly good Des manage to become two-time Olympian, Boston win contender, hanging with the best runners in the world Des, when the hundreds of other women who ran faster than her in earlier years did not? What’s her secret sauce?
Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?
The Hansons-Brooks team has always had its official members, but there have always been local runners who don’t quite have the running resumes to be on the team, but are fast enough that they are capable of training with the team. Within a few years of the team’s founding, Ryan Linden was one of these locals who trained with the Hanson runners and was a good friend to many of them.
When Des joined the team in 2005, Ryan didn’t make the best first impression. Like everyone else, he wasn’t convinced the newbie with the solidly good resume was destined for greatness. How poetic that five years later, as Ryan logged his current marathon PR, 2:26:21 in Chicago, Des also PR’ed at the same race — finishing ahead of him by one second in 2:26:20. He grins as Des insists it was a coincidence. Dating at the time, the two often trained together, but went into the 2010 Chicago Marathon with different race strategies and barely saw each other on the course until the finish.
Maybe it helps that Ryan has since added biking and swimming to his repertoire and has traded in running for triathlon, but he doesn’t seem to mind being eclipsed by his wife. Theirs is a partnership of equals. While they laugh about Ryan’s claim to fame being “Desi’s husband,” they also laugh at how Ryan could school Des in the pool. Were she ever to compete against him in an Ironman for instance, Ryan jokes, “I could float on my back and shoot water out of my mouth and still beat her by an hour.” It frustrated Des maybe more than Ryan when Kona spectators shouted, “Go Desi Linden’s husband!” as he raced past. “My bib even had my name on it!” Ryan laughs as Des rolls her eyes.
In running circles, Des is known as a cold, calculating executioner. In a sea of crop-tops and bun-huggers, Des’s signature singlet and split shorts uniform in Rio looked more like Galen’s and Meb’s than Shalane’s and Amy’s. But out and about in Rochester with Ryan, Des giggles and flashes a knowing glance his way. She’s affectionate and sweet which, in contrast to her appearance on the race course, reflects her natural sense of balance.
Some people pursue excellence for fame, glory, money, power. Des is not one of those people. She’s an introvert and the long race weekends where she has to go out and be among the people, talking at expos, smiling for cameras and signing autographs are things she accepts as part of her job, but they do not energize her and certainly do not motivate her. This is not to be misconstrued as a lack of appreciation for her fans and well-wishers, because she certainly appreciates them. It’s just that the duties of being a famous person do not come naturally to her.
Outside of a race context, Des is not the celebrity we see on a marathon course waving to the crowd and grinning behind her sunglasses. This is particularly true living in Michigan. The local runners know her, of course, and are excited to share their roads and trails with her, but even they are very respectful of her privacy and they understand that running isn’t just her hobby, it’s her job. “When we see her out it’s exciting, but we don’t want to bother her because she’s very serious out there,” said one of the Rochester-area runners who participated in the Bill Roney 5k.
To those outside of the running community Des is just another face in the crowd. Most days she’s sipping coffee, buying groceries, or pumping gas around people who have no idea who she is. In fact, it can be awkward when someone asks her what she does for a living. When she tries to explain she’s a professional runner, people don’t generally understand. At a recent haircut with a stylist she’d never met before, Des wrestled with not wanting to have to explain her career, wondering whether she should just invent something easier to understand, like maybe a stats analyst or sunglasses sales rep.
It’s not that she isn’t proud of her work; she is very proud of herself. Even to this day, she gets a little defensive when someone brings up how unlikely her success is in light of her pre-Hanson’s resume. “I was an All-American!” she counters only half-jokingly, before explaining that in college she’d “get an A for balancing running with the rest of the college experience.”
But that world-class running talent? She doesn’t now and has never needed anyone else to know or care or recognize it. It’s the truth and she’s always known it.
If she has to prove herself to anyone it’s, well, herself. There’s no chip on her shoulder. To Des, it’s a simple fact that her potential defied her resume until she came in second at the 2008 Houston Half Marathon, the race where she seemed to come out of nowhere to mark her place among the country’s best. She knew, at 24, coming into the 2008 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials with a qualifying time far closer to the slowest than the fastest, that she was in contention to finish in the top three and snatch a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team heading to Beijing. By then her coaches, Keith and Kevin Hanson, knew it too. Something happened in the two-and-a-half years between college and 2008 that turned a solidly good runner into one on the cusp of greatness.
It was not criticism that drove her there or what drives her now. It’s not her mother’s continued incredulity that she’s faster than that amazing Sarah Bei (now Hall). It’s not those who questioned her when she arrived at Hanson’s. It’s curiosity that seems to drive her, the curiosity to see how good she can get, to find out if she can be who she believes she can be.
Twelve years after she moved there, it’s hard not to think it was fate that brought Des to Michigan of all places. Fate is a hokey concept in a story about a great athlete, but maybe it’s become a cliché for a reason. I can’t help wondering if, deep down, Des isn’t a Michigander accidentally born in California. She has the affect of a Rust Belt native: that scrappy, hard-won-victory, self-effacing thing. Glamour, attention and spectacle make her uncomfortable. Des wants to lace up her shoes, do her job, and then leave it behind when she’s not on the clock. While she’s no pleaser, she’s intensely loyal, dedicated, hardworking, and grateful for her family, her team, her coaches, agent, sponsors and community and can identify how each has helped her find success.
The Hansons-Brooks training is often compared to the Rust Belt ethos of nose-to-the-grindstone, blue collar work. While Oregon churns out tightly managed and messaged professional runners, Michigan runners aren’t afraid to wipe their brows.
Des sweats. She hurts, she struggles and she doesn’t care who knows she does. She has doubts and fears sometimes, and isn’t afraid to admit that either. But as human as she is, she’s perhaps one of the most pragmatic people you’ll ever meet. We tend to view type-A women as cutthroat bitches who will do or say anything to reach their goals; Des is type-A in a different way, perhaps more true to her introversion. She knows what she needs to do, how she needs to think, what she needs to say, who she needs to be around to achieve her goals and she does, thinks, says those things and surrounds herself with the right people.
Ask her if she worries about competitors wearing spring-loaded shoes or doping and she hasn’t really thought much about it. How will it help her to think about it? She doesn’t have those shoes and she’s not doping, so how does thinking about what other runners are doing help her to win Boston or make another Olympic team or be her best? It doesn’t. Ask her about competitors, weather, or pressure and you’ll get the same answer: “I don’t think there are reasons to worry. It’s just extra stress.”
In every fact sheet about Des you’ll likely learn two things: she collects whiskey and loves music, particularly live music. Dig a little deeper and you might find the random fact that she and Ryan once saw Bob Seger live three times in one year. For those not up on 70s roots rock, Detroit-native Bob Seger is most known for Old Time Rock and Roll, and if you look beyond that one, you’ll hear Seger sing wistfully of gritty Michigan landscapes or escaping them for the open road. He has a deep appreciation for his roots, for Michigan, its beauty and its blight, the kind of appreciation of a place that can only come from someone who has seen the bigger world.
Des moved thousands of miles against traffic to this Rust Belt state, where she made her home and found her life partner, Ryan Linden, whose roots sprouted in Rochester Hills. Twelve years later, she and Ryan talk excitedly of the surprisingly great running on the rolling dirt roads extending out from the suburban limits, the proximity to Ryan’s family and to Northern Michigan, which they love so much they got married and bought a second home there. They also love the open road and to travel all over the world. But they are always eager to return home to Michigan.
The best relationships bring out the best in the participants. The best bosses and employees work together to create their best work. The best marriages foster greatness in both spouses. The best communities allow their citizens to thrive. Everything about Michigan was made for Des — Ryan, Hansons, the state itself, maybe even Bob Seger, they have all brought out the best in her.
But it’s not Michigan alone that made Des into a world-class runner. Who’s to say if Des returned to Southern California after college or moved on from Hansons-Brooks to train somewhere else, that she wouldn’t be as good as she is now? Michigan, Ryan and the Hansons bring out her best, but the potential has always been inside her.
What are the things about Des, her characteristics, her habits, the things she does that 12 years of training in Michigan have allowed to thrive?
Des is the first to tell you that she’s led a very stable and secure life. The biggest tragedy she’s experienced to this point is the injury that prevented her from racing the marathon in the 2012 Olympics. She grew up in a relatively drama-free, stable family, with parents who provided her a comfortable home life and were involved, but not too involved.
She’s very self-assured and not afraid of failing, perhaps as a result of the safety net that this stability provides her. She never doubted her ability, never developed a complex, never grew a chip on her shoulder, or had excuses to inflate. For Des, she can go for it and if it doesn’t work out, so what? If she shoots for the stars and misses, she knows she doesn’t have that far to fall.
There are very few people on Earth who care less about what others think of them than Des. How many memes proclaiming the lofty goal of giving zero Fs does the average person see in a week? While the rest of us work hard to approach zero, Des is pretty close to zero already.
She certainly cares about people, but when it comes to running, Des does not waste precious brain cells worrying about what her competitors are doing or what people will think if she misses her goal. She doesn’t Google herself or check the chat boards for what the people are saying about her. She’s not a slave to convention or trends or fashion. When it comes to running she wears what’s comfortable, she executes her race plan, and runs her race, her way. If that doesn’t work, she’ll own it and learn from it.
She’s the first to admit that it’s strange how often her race results in a second place finish. She was second in her breakout 2008 U.S.A. Half Marathon Championship in Houston, at the 2011 Naples Half Marathon, at the 2011 Boston Marathon, at the 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon, at the 2013 U.S.A. Half Marathon Championship in Duluth, at the 2016 Olympic Trials Marathon, and at the 2016 U.S.A. Half Marathon Championship in Columbus. For all her achievements, she’s never won a National Championship or a major marathon, but she’d sure love to. Her desire to be a champion isn’t about asserting her dominance over her competitors, though. It’s the next frontier in Des’s pursuit of her own excellence. Because she hasn’t quite found it yet, that’s what keeps it fun.
Des is a student of the sport, but she’s not out there reading every book about mitochondria and ATP. She’s analyzing race stats, splits, and perhaps the most impactful things she studies are her own performances.
At mile 22 of the 2008 Olympic Trials Marathon Des was in fourth place, just a few steps behind Blake Russell. And then, just as she tried to make a move to nab the spot on the Olympic team, she crashed hard, fading to 13th place by the finish. She was crushed with disappointment, but said, “I’ll figure out why instead of pouting about it.” And that’s exactly what she did.
Her studies have paid off. Going into the 2016 Olympic Trials, she probably had the equivalent of a PhD in marathoning and she raced like it. She learned how to take in fluids during races after she bonked at the 2008 Trials, and wasn’t concerned about the heat. Making the 2012 team took some of the pressure off, and she knew from studying race splits that all she had to be able to do to make her second Olympic team was to get to mile 23.1 in the hunt and she’d have a spot. Why? Because her studies have shown that she is one of only a few women who can run a comfortable 5:40-something pace for 23 miles and still drop a sub-18:00 5k at the end of a marathon. If she looked like she wasn’t worried as she ran loops around L.A., your eyes weren’t deceiving you. She wasn’t. She knew she was acing the test.
Self-Control Is a Finite Resource
All great athletes use their minds to exert super-human feats of self-control, to will themselves into extraordinary performances. But this self-control is a finite resource. Des understands that, if used too much during training or outside of running, there might be no self-control, no will to call upon her inner-Hercules on race day.
When she was injured in the build-up to the 2012 Olympics she wasn’t in the pool three hours a day. She didn’t hop on the bike or the elliptical. “I just got out of shape,” she says. She stopped training. For months she relaxed, watched movies, read books, lived like someone who is not a professional athlete. On one hand it was depressing, but on the other it was refreshing. Sure, by the time she was cleared to return to running, “it sucked,” she laughs about it now. She was out of shape and could not keep up with her teammates even on their easy days. But she now sees this break as necessary to her long-term success in the sport. It replenished her bank of self-control.
If Des ever wrote a cookbook, she might consider titling it Run Fast. Eat Food. Another example of how Des preserves her self-control is when it comes to her diet. She doesn’t eat unhealthfully. She doesn’t eat junk. She just eats. She’s adventurous with food when she travels. She eats what’s around when out. She doesn’t really think about it that much, beyond making sure she eats enough. Drinking is another story. During training she’s limited to two beers a week. After the race, that’s when the whiskey collection comes in handy.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Des is how balanced she is. She’s confident, but not cocky. She’s an introvert, but a natural public speaker. She’s focused, yet relaxed. She’s smart, but not an over-thinker. She’s practical and ambitious. She’s serious and supremely funny. She’s secure, while exceedingly grateful. She’s optimistic, pessimistic, or realistic, depending on what the situation demands. She runs and when she’s not running and doing her work for her sponsors or her team, she’s off the clock. She’s so self-aware, she has the uncanny ability to know her limits, to keep herself in check, and avoid taking anything to an extreme.
That 2012 injury, the femoral stress fracture that kept her out of her first Olympics, happened the one time she kept pushing herself in training when she otherwise should have, likely would have, backed off. With other goal races, if training isn’t going well or if her body isn’t cooperating, Des and her coaches move along to plan B. For instance, if she was struggling in training for Boston this winter, she might scrap it and focus on a fall marathon instead. With Boston there’s always next year, but with the Olympics there might only be that one shot. So, in 2012, while training for London’s Olympic Marathon, Des pushed herself through training and past her body’s breaking point trying to force her body to adapt to that timeline. Lesson learned.
For Des, running is a quest and the prize is seeing how good she can get. Along the way, as many runners find, she’s honed these skills that translate to the rest of life. In true Des form, she’s in the middle of her career and hasn’t truly thought about the next act or what the future holds. She’ll figure it out, but in the meantime she’s got a job to do. “If you plan your exit strategy, you’re not focused on what’s right in front of you,” she says.
On This Rainy Day
For all her accomplishments, two Olympic teams, podium finishes in World Marathon Majors races, she’s still a part of the Hansons-Brooks team. When coaches Keith and Kevin say the team is working at a local 5k, she’s there alongside her teammates, like fellow Hansons-Brooks veterans Dot MacMahan and Melissa White, and newbies like Cally Macumber and Melanie Brender.
She’s there even if she has a key Boston-prep workout the morning of the race and there if the weather stinks. As a part of the Hansons-Brooks program, supporting her team and the local running community is her job. Like anyone, she doesn’t love every aspect of the job, but she is exceedingly grateful for the support that both the team and the running community have given her. So even on a day when she might be slightly grumpy about being there because of the frustrating workout and the crappy weather, she gets over it fast, hamming it up as she presents awards to women of every age group while Kevin Hanson serves as master of ceremony like he missed his true calling in life.
In real life, Des is every bit the anti-prima donna she seems to be. Perhaps this is why she recently made headlines when she announced her goal for Monday’s Boston Marathon is to become the first American woman to win since Michigan-native Lisa Rainsberger in 1985.
After the 5k, Des and Ryan take us to their favorite Rochester, Michigan coffee shop to warm up. It’s a cozy place known for hosting live local music in the evenings with a bit of an old-school coffeehouse vibe: sofas, exposed brick, and local artwork hanging on the walls. As we sit and sip our pour-overs, I ask her about the Boston headlines. Bristling a little at the thought that they made her statement sound like trash talk or showboating, she makes her case, as only Des can.
“Saying I want to win isn’t guaranteeing I’m going to win,” she says with a hint of exasperation. Looking at the list of runners who will be joining her on the elite women’s starting line on Monday, she says, “There’s nobody on that list that I see and think they have to have a bad day or something to go wrong for me to have a shot.”
“I’ve been second already, so there’s no reason to want do something I’ve done before.”
Unless noted, all images in this post ©2017 Kyle Gorjanc for Salty Running.