The Rebirth of Des Linden

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After winning her first major marathon (heck, her first marathon ever) and leaving the Hansons-Brooks team, it will be a different Des Linden that toes the line at the New York City Marathon this weekend

By Jonathan Gault
October 30, 2018

Des Linden wasn’t supposed to win the 2018 Boston Marathon. Don’t let me tell you. Let her.

“I went into that thinking I was in good shape, probably equal to 2017, which I thought I was in fine shape then, but just the way I got destroyed the last couple miles [in 2017], I felt like I hadn’t done anything to close that gap,” Linden says, describing her pre-race mindset. “I was just in the exact same position.”

After that 2017 Boston, where Linden finished fourth in 2:25:06, 3:14 behind winner Edna Kiplagat, Linden made the deliberate decision to skip a fall marathon. She needed to recharge mentally, but she also felt that she needed to change her approach. Kevin and Keith Hanson, her coaches since 2005, believe in a cumulative fatigue philosophy. Under the Hansons, Linden kept her volume high, and one out of every three days was hard. The idea was that Linden would learn how to run on tired legs, with every workout simulating the late stages of a marathon.

And it worked: Linden developed into a master of energy management. When others would fade in the second half of a race, she stayed strong. Linden had become semi-famous for her eerily metronomic marathon splits: 1:12:45/1:12:54 to take fourth at Boston in 2015; 1:13:02/1:13:06 to take seventh at the Olympics in 2016; a dead-even 1:12:33/1:12:33 for another fourth in Boston in 2017 (Linden ran a sizeable negative split at the 2016 Olympic Trials — 1:15:04/1:13:50 — but she was intentionally holding back early on in that race, knowing that she only had to finish in the top three to make the team).

Courtesy Brooks Running

Courtesy Brooks Running

But the 2017 Boston Marathon caused Linden to rethink her approach. In that race, Kiplagat, like Linden, hit halfway in 1:12:33. But Kiplagat ran her second half in 1:09:29 (Linden’s PR is 70:34) to win handily in 2:21:52. Linden looked at that race and concluded that if she was going to contend with the likes of Kiplagat moving forward, holding the same pace over the second half was not going to be enough.

“I just got my ass kicked over the last 8-10 miles,” Linden says. “Edna Kiplagat runs a sub-5:00 [mile] in there (Editor’s note: her 20th mile was actually 5:01; close enough). I mean, I didn’t have a bad race, I didn’t totally blow up. I just couldn’t respond at all. I think you’re seeing people close marathons faster than ever before and if I want to be competitive and really feel like I’m racing, stick my nose in it, I need to have some turnover.”

Linden spent the fall of 2017 training and racing for shorter distances, but by the time Boston 2018 rolled around, she still felt that it was too early to see the benefits. Her buildup was fine — she says she was in about the same shape as the year before, but not the best shape of her life (that was before Rio 2016) — but it was not obvious that she was on the verge of a major breakthrough.

“It wasn’t that I was in poor shape,” Linden says. “It just felt more like a stepping stone to get ready for the fall and the next one from there.”

Of course we all know what happened next. Running in horrendous conditions, Linden outlasted everyone to win Boston in April. The career-defining victory Linden had been chasing for over a decade was finally hers.

Two months later, she decided to leave the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. From a distance, it sounds crazy: Linden was coming off the greatest success of her life. Why change anything? But just because an approach produces good results does not mean that it cannot be improved upon. In 2016, Emma Coburn put together the greatest season ever by an American female steeplechaser, breaking the American record and earning Olympic bronze in Rio. After the season, she left longtime coach Mark Wetmore to be coached by her husband Joe Bosshard and went on to even greater success in 2017, lowering her American record and winning the world title. Linden felt that the time was right to make a coaching switch.

Embed from Getty Images

“We had hit the pinnacle,” Linden says. “It was one of the big goals for a long time and we did it and I don’t really [see] what else was left to do together. But I did I feel like, from a training standpoint, I had sort of plateaued. And if I want to see if there’s anything left, I just needed fresh eyes on my training. I think at 35, the cumulative fatigue [philosophy], it makes a lot of sense, but at a certain point, it could be detrimental. And if I wanted to extend the last couple years of my career, I just needed something different, even to be excited about running.”

There were other factors at play. The Hansons had allowed Dathan Ritzenhein to join the group in July 2017, a decision Linden disagreed with because of the interim USADA report leaked by Flotrack last year that indicated that Ritzenhein may have inadvertently committed anti-doping rule violations while a member of the Nike Oregon Project. Linden also spent a good chunk of her 2018 Boston buildup separated from the Hansons. While the Hansons were in Florida for a warm-weather training camp with Ritzenhein and Shadrack Biwott, Linden was in Phoenix in order to be close to her chiropractor John Ball, who was helping her work through a rib injury.

Linden says the injury meant that she wasn’t able to implement the Hansons’ usual program. As a result, she used a modified training plan, and while Linden says it was heavily influenced by what the Hansons would have written for her, she had more input into her Boston 2018 buildup than any other in her marathon career.

“The workouts were theirs,” Linden says. “How I was implementing it on the schedule was my decision, based on how I was feeling and what I thought I needed.”

Linden says that there wasn’t a direct line between training alone, with more input into her training, and leaving the Hansons. She doesn’t know if she would have left if she hadn’t won Boston. But her buildup in Phoenix went well — “it made me realize that I could go in a different direction and it wouldn’t be a bad thing” — and Linden says that winning Boston made it easier to leave as she and the Hansons were able to check off a major career goal together. Linden also knew that if she was going to incorporate more speed work into her training, it made sense to seek out a new coach.

“When you’re on a team and you’re not there and you don’t train with the group and you don’t necessarily do the program like the rest of the group, it’s just a horrible example for the team, I felt like. And probably one of the biggest reasons for the change was I felt like a shitty teammate. I didn’t stay in Florida, I don’t live in Rochester, [Michigan, where the group is based], I’m not buying into the program. And then you have a bunch of young kids who are looking at you like, Well why do we have to?”

Linden wants to make it clear, however, that this was not a bad breakup (Kevin Hanson, who served as Linden’s lead coach, did not respond to LetsRun’s interview request). She joined the Hansons after a modest career at Arizona State during which she never scored on the track (her best finish at NCAAs was 10th) nor was ever top 40 at NCAA cross country (best finish was 41st). Together, they worked their way to the top of the sport.

In her first marathon with the group, she ran 2:44 in Boston and finished 18th. In her last, she won Boston after almost winning in 2011 when she came up 2 seconds short.

Maybe the best way to understand her improvement is this. When she joined the Hansons her 5k PR was just 16:17 – that’s 5:14.5 per mile.  When she left the Hansons her marathon PR was 2:22:38 – that’s 5:26.4 per mile.

“We sat down and talked about quite a bit of this right after Boston and they were respectful,” Linden says. “I didn’t feel like there was any tension at all.”

***

When Linden asked Walt Drenth, who coached Linden for three years at Arizona State (he left before her senior year to take the job at Michigan State, where he still coaches) to coach her again this summer, he thought she might be making a mistake.

“[My reaction was] go talk to the Hansons about making your relationship with them work,” Drenth says. “I wasn’t trying to turn her away, it was more out of respect for them and her and the progress that she’d made. She had a fair amount of success with them. It seemed to me like, can your current plan still work?”

But Linden persisted. Drenth spoke to Kevin Hanson, and, once Hanson confirmed that Drenth would not be stepping on any toes, Drenth assumed charge of Linden’s training in August.

It’s fair to ask why, at 35 years old and with 15 marathons under her belt, Linden needs a coach at all. And Linden concedes that she knows the Hansons’ training so well that she would be able to train herself at this point if she was going to continue to use the Hansons’ system.

“I think I could have written the exact same thing [as what I used for 2018 Boston],” Linden says. “Like, it would have looked exactly the same and it probably would have gotten the exact same results, which was not really the point. I wanted someone to look at it and say these are the things that I think you’re missing or this is the way I would adjust it…I don’t have a coaching background and I don’t know the science behind it, so I figured it was best to find someone who did.”

Linden and husband Ryan (left). Courtesy Brooks Running.

Linden and husband Ryan. Courtesy Brooks Running.

That was Drenth. Drenth is a native of Charlevoix, Michigan, where Linden lives with her husband Ryan, and the two would see each other frequently when Drenth returned home during the summer each year. Drenth is a couple of decades removed from his last stint coaching marathoners (his most notable charge was Lorraine Hochella, who won the 1993 Grandma’s Marathon and placed 15th at the 1996 Olympic Trials), but Linden knows that she doesn’t have many years remaining in her career and preferred to work with someone she trusted.

“It was just an easy fit versus trying to buy into something totally different and establish a relationship with someone I don’t really know,” Linden says. 

During this buildup, Linden has trained mostly alone or with Ryan, and says that it’s not uncommon for her to see more cows than cars when running along the dirt roads of Charlevoix (population: 2,513, per the 2010 Census). Drenth sends a workout schedule every 10 to 14 days, and he and Linden will talk about once a week on the phone. He has watched a couple workouts in person, but doesn’t think he needs to be there for most of the training.

“When you’re running workouts on the road, all I would do is get in the way on the bicycle,” Drenth says.

Drenth says he has no problem with Linden playing a big role in designing her training if that is what she desires, but she says that she has mostly stuck to the workout schedule Drenth has written.

“I still don’t look at my work here as me telling her what to do,” Drenth says. “She’s a veteran. She has an immense amount of capacity to manage her own training. I’m probably more of a sounding board and sort of help her plan and ask her questions than I am an authoritative coach telling her this is what we have to do on this day and there’s no flexibility.”

Linden’s mileage remains similar to what she was running under the Hansons, but the training is different. She has more recovery days between workouts now, generally running one hard session per week. Her second workout each week is the long run which will usually include some up-tempo segments and double as a second workout. The buildup itself has also been significantly longer: 16 weeks, compared to eight to 10 under the Hansons.

The reality of what Linden had signed up for hit her back in August, when she was assigned a workout of 5 x 300, 5 x 500, 5 x 400. “Looks like some zeros went missing,” she joked on Twitter — under the Hansons, Linden said the shortest workout she did during a marathon buildup was 8 x 800. But Linden responded well, getting down to sub-70 for the 400s, and Drenth has been impressed by what he’s seen.

“My concern for her was, she’s been at it for a while, how is she gonna come off the ground, is she gonna respond to this stuff?” Drenth says. “She’s been running a long time and been able to stay pretty well and been really well-coached, but it looks like she’s still coming off the ground well. I came back and told my wife, Desi can really still run. The life in her legs is certainly apparent.”

Under the Hansons, Linden’s favorite workout was 2 x 6 miles with 10 minutes between reps, and in this buildup, she incorporated a similar session, running five miles at marathon pace, followed by a four-minute break, a hard mile, another four-minute break, and another five miles at marathon pace with the option to dial it down if she felt good. Linden ran the mile segment in 4:49, which may have been her third-fastest mile ever (she couldn’t remember running faster apart from two mile races she ran; she’s run two in her career, 4:42 on the roads and 4:43 on the track).

Embed from Getty Images

Linden admits that it’s been “a little nerve-wracking” abandoning the system that helped her achieve so much success, but says she’s excited to test herself on Sunday, when she will race the New York City Marathon for the second time (she was fifth in 2014). And when Linden races across the five boroughs, the color of her singlet won’t be the only thing that has changed (she remains with Brooks but will no longer compete in the black, red, and yellow of the Hansons-Brooks squad). In years past, Linden felt pressure to make sure the pace did not lag too much early on, knowing she was at a disadvantage if it came down to a hard second half.

“We’ve spent a lot of time working on quicker turnover stuff and just being a little faster,” Linden says. “I think that kind of takes the pressure off having to make it this 26.2-from-the-gun race. I think I can maybe sit in a lot longer, not feel like I need to push the pace from the beginning. And I’m definitely more confident that I can cover moves or even get to that critical point and make the move to hopefully break things open.”

Linden will have her hands full in New York. In addition to reigning champion Shalane Flanagan and American half marathon record holder Molly Huddle, the New York field also features three-time winner Mary Keitany. Additionally, 2018 London Marathon champion Vivian Cheruiyot will race New York for the first time.

Of course, Linden, like Flanagan and Cheruiyot, is also a reigning World Marathon Majors champion. Would Linden have won Boston if it was 50 degrees and sunny? Not in our book. Linden has heard that opinion shared a few times since her victory, but no opinion will trump the fact that she will forever be the 2018 Boston Marathon champion.

“[The weather] was certainly part of the day, but once the gun went off, we all stood on the line and someone was going to win, so I played my cards right on the day,” Linden says. “I don’t know how to convince people that it’s a meaningful win. I guess I would take results over opinions.”

Linden has raced once in her NYC buildup, clocking 71:48 to win the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon on September 16, though she was disappointed not to run faster, derailed by a side stitch over the final miles. Since then, she has logged more miles in the air than on the ground: in the six weeks since Philly, she’s traveled to Phoenix (twice), Dallas, Austin, Orlando, and Atlanta for appearances and other commitments (not surprisingly, Linden, the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon in 33 years, was in high demand after Boston).

Courtesy Brooks Running

Courtesy Brooks Running

The downside to all that travel is that it can be tough to squeeze in workouts, with Linden sometimes hopping on the treadmill at 5 in the morning to knock out her run. On one of those trips to Phoenix, she arrived in town at 11 p.m. and began the next day with 8 x 1000 meters on the track in 90-degree heat and 20-mile-per-hour winds.

“Not my best workout,” Linden says.

Regardless of what happens in New York, this is not the last we’ll see of Linden. Unlike Flanagan, who has been dropping hints about retirement ever since New York last year, Linden is fully committed to running through 2020, where she has an opportunity to become the first U.S. woman to make three Olympic marathon teams. In fact, Linden says that she wants to run through “2021 at least,” assuming she stays healthy and remains competitive.

“Once you come off of [an Olympic year], you kind of have to go and do the fun ones, the big major marathons,” says Linden, who acknowledged that there is also a financial incentive (appearance fees and prize money) to keep appearing at those races. “You dedicate a whole year to the games, and I love running Bostons and New Yorks. If the body is still there, I want to do those one more time.”

And after that? Linden says she still won’t be done running. She’d like to take a crack at some trail races and ultramarathons, and while she wants to be competitive, Linden doesn’t believe that her success in the marathon guarantees success at the longer distances.

“I think it’s a totally different sport,” Linden says. “I think it’s like taking an 800-meter person and saying they’ll be the best marathoner. I have a ton of respect for those guys and I don’t think it’s an easy transition at all.”

That is a ways down the road, however. Right now, Linden is focused on New York and, major champion she may be, she remains a considerable underdog against the likes of Cheruiyot and Keitany; heck, with Flanagan and Huddle in the mix, most people won’t even pick her to finish as the top American. Once again, she will arrive at the start line as nobody’s favorite. Some things never change.


Talk about this article on the world famous letsrun.com messageboard / fan forum: MB: The Rebirth of Des Linden – After winning Boston, Des Linden parted ways with the Hansons’ team. Bold? Crazy? Wise?


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