Des Linden Gets Her 1st World Record, Runs 50K World Best of 2:59:54 to Become First Woman Under 3 Hours

By Jonathan Gault
April 13, 2021

Entering today’s Brooks Running 50K and Marathon in rural Oregon, American Des Linden — and just about everyone else — expected herself to break the 50K world best of 3:07:20 set by Great Britain’s Aly Dixon in 2019. Besting the mark would require Linden to average just under 6:02 per mile — or 2:38:05 for a marathon plus another five miles — well within the capabilities of Linden, a 2:22:38 marathoner (Dixon’s best in 17 marathons is 2:29:06). Less certain: whether Linden would become the first woman under 3:00.

Linden, the 2018 Boston Marathon champ who came two seconds shy of winning the Boston in 2011 and 11 seconds short of making her third Olympic team at the US Olympic Trials in 2020, knows the feeling of just missing a major milestone. Today, she got to experience the other side of it, running 2:59:54 (5:47/mile) to destroy Dixon’s record and, in the process, sneak under that coveted 3:00 mark.

“For me, [sub-3:00] was the big high-end goal, so it’s nice to achieve that,” said Linden, who utilized a male pacer, Charlie Lawrence during the event. “And I hope the 50K does become more popular. Aly Dixon took a huge swing at it, took a nice chunk of time off. She’s been so supportive of this effort.”

Courtesy Justin Britton

Over the last two years, the 37-year-old Linden, a two-time Olympian and Boston Marathon champion, has sought out new challenges to get her out the door and logging miles. Before the pandemic hit, it was the audacious aim of running the Olympic Trials and Boston Marathon in a seven-week span. This spring, it was supposed to be the Two Oceans Marathon, a 56K race in South Africa on April 3. But that event, like so many others, was cancelled due to COVID-19, leaving Linden, her agent Josh Cox, and her sponsor Brooks to dream up an assault on Dixon’s record in the woods of Oregon. Cox had a soft spot for the 50K distance: he is the men’s American record holder, running 2:43:45 in Tempe in 2011.

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Enlisting the help of Eugene Marathon race director and 2008 Olympian Ian Dobson, who engineered similar events for Galen Rupp and Sara Hall last year, Linden made her attempt on a 6.5-mile stretch of bike path and, predictably, ran very even half marathon splits (1:15:47 for her first 13.1 miles, 1:15:26 for her second 13.1 miles). But after hitting the marathon distance in 2:31:13, Linden was in uncharted territory, and it was there that fatigue, muscle aches, and doubts began to seep in. Those are the challenges that have traditionally fueled the dramatic denouement of major marathons — elements that Linden feels are fading in an era of supershoes designed to prevent those physiological breakdowns from occurring.

“At 25, 26 miles, it was that depletion where I’m right on the edge of cramping, I need to manage this,” Linden said. “I’ve taken enough fluids, but do I take a little bit more? All of those challenges that used to happen with 10k to go were there and were present. And they’re the things I miss about watching marathons — when people’s feet start to stick to the ground and you go, they’ve lost 20 seconds in the last mile, can they manage it, which way is it going to go?”

Indeed, Linden did fade after hitting the marathon distance, covering her final 7.805k in 28:41 (5:54 pace) after running her first 26.2 at 5:46 pace. But she held on just well enough to break the record and earn a celebratory Oregon red wine this evening — no word on whether it will be served out of a shoe.

Further back, Nicholas Thompson, CEO of The Atlantic, ran 3:04:36 to set a US record for the 45-49 age group. Pro marathoner Adriana Nelson of Romania, who had planned to stop at the marathon mark prior to the race, ran 2:35:26 for 26.2 miles.

While today’s record attempt excited Linden, it was driven in part by necessity: with Tokyo, Boston and London all shifting to the fall, she could not have run a major marathon this spring even if she wanted to. Linden has already said she plans to run a major this fall — she hasn’t said which, but Boston is the smart bet — and recently told the Detroit News she’d like to keep going through the 2024 Olympic Trials, when she will be 40 years old.

“The gameplan is to get back into the major marathons,” Linden said. “If I’m finishing top 5, top 10, contending at the front, it’s what is exciting to me and I love competing at that level. If that gets too far away from me, then I’ll shift and make sure that I’m enjoying what I’m doing, have fun competing or chasing down different goals.”

What could those goals be? Ultramarathon and trail events have long appealed to Linden; she has often cited Magdalena Boulet, 2008 Olympic marathoner for the US who has won the Western States 100 and Leadville 100 during her second act as an ultra/trail runner, as an inspiration. Linden doesn’t have anything specific in mind yet, though Cox has suggested the idea of a simultaneous attempt at the 50-mile/100k world record.

“I think it’s something that she’d be great at,” Cox said.

That is a discussion for another day. Linden’s first ultramarathon foray was an indisputable success, but it is hard to conjure the same excitement for a one-off record attempt at a rarely-run distance as for a big city marathon. Crowds for today’s event were nonexistent; so was any sort of live video coverage, given the course’s off-the-grid location. It is time for Linden to return to the streets of Boston, Chicago, or New York and the events that made her famous.

“There was good energy out there [today], so that helped a ton, but I’m so ready to get back into big races,” Linden says.

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