Will Linden bounce back in Boston?

Training in Kenya has 2011 runner-up ready for more marathon success

Updated: April 3, 2014, 6:02 PM ET
By Peter Gambaccini | Runner's World

Caroline Kilel, Desiree DavilaAP Photo/Elise AmendolaCaroline Kilel kept Desiree Linden (then Davila) at bay in 2011, but Linden is confident in 2014.
It's easy to forget, with all the chatter about the lack of an American champion at the Boston Marathon since 1985, how close one American runner came to breaking the tape in 2011.

That runner, Desiree Linden, will be back at the Hopkinton starting line later this month, and she may be a better runner than she was three years ago.

Linden -- then competing as Desiree Davila, before her marriage to triathlete Ryan Linden -- inched ahead of Kenya's Caroline Kilel at various points in the final mile of the 2011 Boston Marathon. Kilel had just a bit more leg speed, though, and finished just ahead of Linden in 2:22:36.

In a TV interview shortly after the race, Linden had her wits about her and expressed no regret after giving everything she had for those 26.2 miles. Kilel, meanwhile, was splayed on the pavement, gasping for breath.

It's natural to assume that, because Linden has come that close to winning, it could happen. American success in distance races on the track along with recent victories by Americans who are still competing in three major marathons -- Meb Keflezighi at the New York City Marathon, Deena Kastor at the Chicago Marathon and the London Marathon -- have sparked that kind of hope.

With Linden and 2013 fourth-place Boston finisher Shalane Flanagan back in the women's field, some think this is the year an American not only could, but should, win Boston.

"I don't know that the majority of that rests on me," Linden said. "Shalane's been on fire, she's got a lot of momentum, and she ran really fast 15K [at the USA Championships in Jacksonville]. For me, I'm still trying to find out where I'm at."

Linden went through plenty to get where she is. After her Boston breakthrough she finished second to Flanagan at the 2012 Olympic marathon trials, but was soon plagued by a stress fracture that was not quickly or correctly diagnosed. Linden considered not going to the London Olympics at all, but did start the marathon before dropping out early.

Linden wasn't speaking much, but her Michigan-based coaches, Kevin and Keith Hanson, let it be known how hurt and miserable she was. 

She returned to racing in the late spring of 2013 and signed up for the Berlin Marathon in September. Linden and her coaches viewed the race as a gauge of her progress on the way to a full-fledged effort in Boston. Her fifth-place finish (2:29:15) was encouraging.

However, the 2012 Olympic trials was her last satisfying 26.2-mile result. Approaching Boston she said, "I think I'm ready to be competitive, and I think I will be, but still, it's going to be a jump from Berlin. Where exactly I land, who knows?"

Still, she agrees an American win at Boston has to be a believable part of the discussion.

"We have to keep putting in our best, and the attitude does have to shift to, 'Yeah, this should happen, it should be expected.' But then on the flip side, I think [elite sponsor] John Hancock put together the best Boston field ever."

Meselech Melkamu of Ethiopia, who ran 2:21 in her debut marathon, was added to the field for Boston on Tuesday, the same day Linden spoke with Runner's World.

"We can't expect [an American win] to be easy," Linden said. "It's going to be hard work. You have to have the perfect day; you're not going to run away with it. But we're certainly going to be in there."

Linden was among those surprised by her performance in 2011.

"I trained to be in 2:24 shape on the day, and I just nailed everything," she said. "I'm doing stuff that indicates I'm ready to go."

Linden and her Hansons-Brooks teammates customarily run away from the Michigan winter and head to Florida for several weeks. This time, Linden made it clear she wanted to train at altitude in Kenya for the first time. Thanks to an introduction by Boston Marathon champion Wesley Korir's wife, Tara, Linden was able to team up in training with Canadian record holder Lanni Marchant in Iten.

For a dedicated runner prepared to embrace a Spartan athletic existence with few distractions, the Kenyan adventure seemed almost unimaginably ideal.

"It was nice being there because you were away from everything and it was so simple and you do just train," Linden said. "My whole point is to be away and just to be in the zone."

In a pastoral setting that included trails through thick forest, Linden and Merchant were in a community thoroughly committed to running.

"I could say, 'I could do a fartlek run and 300 people show up,' and people will say, 'Yeah, you're probably exaggerating a little bit,'" Linden said. "No, it's really around 300 people."

[+] EnlargeDesiree Davila
AP Photo/Michael DwyerLinden faded only slightly in 2011 and hopes to remain ahead of the entire pack through the finish line in 2014.
And on a dirt track in Iten, there was an endless circuit of runners whose feet created a deep groove on the inside lane.

Linden met up with Sharon Cherop, who finished third at Boston in 2011 and won the following year. Cherop took Linden for the best Chai tea Linden had ever tasted and showed Linden her wedding video.

"The hospitality there is so important," Linden said. "To feel like this is a friend that I have in a totally different world, that's unique and pretty cool."

"The experience was great. I'm glad I did it," Linden said of her trip to Kenya. "As runners, sometimes training gets monotonous and boring and you have to put your head down and grind."

Linden says she was cautious with the altitude in Kenya.

"I didn't want to dig a hole I couldn't get myself out of," Linden said. "So we didn't really do workouts or anything, it was just mileage up there. I felt like it was really beneficial."

She has also taken trips to Boston to get more comfortable with the course, once in November after running the Manchester Road Race in Connecticut, and again recently. A point-to-point course with severe elevation changes, Boston presents its own challenges.

Linden said one key to Boston is "how much damage you did to your quads early on. If you miscalculated, that's where it will get you. But if you managed it right, you can run really fast the last six miles."

Boston may be the ideal course for Linden, who will not hammer the opening downhill stretch.

"I just tend to build into it. It's probably become physical now, just because of all the practice. It's how I work out, and it's ingrained in how I race. But I think it's a good thing for me," she said. "There is no reason for me to get out harder and try and fade less."

Linden has come a long way from the doldrums of late 2012 and early 2013. She has done everything she can to again show Bostonians what they witnessed in 2011.

"It's rare to get a perfect marathon [training] segment," Linden said. "This one has gone really well, all things considered."

Linden feels she has a great marathon ahead of her.

"Even if it doesn't click [in Boston], I know that physically, I'm in such a better place," she said. "You hope to cash in on Marathon Monday, but if not, it'll carry over and I'll see the jump somewhere down the line."

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