By Mark Holston.
In the millisecond it took to touch the finish line tape at the 2018 edition of the fabled Boston Marathon and become the first American woman in 33 years to win the hallowed race, Desiree Dávila Linden went from being a seasoned long-distance runner known mostly to die-hard fans of the sport to becoming a freshly-minted celebrity. “It’s definitely been a game-changer. I’m not as anonymous now,” she states, adding with her characteristic sharp sense of humor, “Now I have to be nice to people.” The fame she achieved quickly became evident when she was in New York City a few days after the marathon. “I was definitely recognized,” she laughs. “But we’ll see how long it lasts – people tend to have a short memory!”
It’s likely that it will be long before fans of this grueling sport forget who came out of nowhere to become the world’s most celebrated female athlete of the moment in distance racing. For decades, the 26-plus mile race has been dominated by athletes from Kenya and a handful of other countries in East Africa and Central Europe. But on an inhospitable day in April, the diminutive runner who grew up in sunny San Diego exceeded all expectations and etched her name into the annals of sports history.
“The big issue that day was the weather; it was out of the ordinary,” she remembers. “It was cold and rainy with headwinds of over 20 miles an hour. In that kind of situation, you want to lead as little as possible. And that was my strategy; to stay back and let someone else block the wind for me until I was ready to charge to the finish line.”
She credits her experience and training but also her tiny, wiry body as factors that contributed to her surprising victory. “People always say, ‘You look so much bigger in pictures,’ but I might break 5’1”. With less body mass than most of her competitors, her compact torso was perfectly suited to absorbing gusts of wind.
Desiree’s triumph was surprising because she had a pronounced sense that she could reach the finish line much earlier than she had planned. “I was kind of shocked by that,” she remembers, “because for the first 16 miles or so, I was in a fairly large pack of runners.”
The 122nd edition of the marathon, after all, boasted 12,063 female athletes – a daunting number of competitors. But her optimism was not dissuaded. “In a couple more miles, it came down to three of us trading spots, but for the last four miles or so, I was suddenly by myself and pulling away,” she recollects. “I didn’t want to glance back over my shoulder to see where the competition was, because the second you do that, the person who’s there knows that you are worried. Even though I was a little worried, I kept my eyes focused on what was before me and was more concerned about what was ahead of me and not what was behind me.”
Desiree – Des to her friends and most ardent followers and Desi to her mother – has used that simple philosophy as a tool to guide her throughout her life. Always thinking about what is ahead has served the 35-year old well in a quest for excellence that began in high school and has continued through a collegiate and professional career that’s taken her to the world’s elite marathons and Olympic competition.
Born of Mexican-American parents, she grew up in a comfortable middle class Southern California setting. Her father was a contractor while her mother worked for a telephone company. Her older sister, Natalie, played field hockey at Cal-Berkley and ran her first marathon before Desiree tried it. “I played soccer and softball before beginning track and field activities in middle school,” she adds, “but I always thought I would be a soccer player. I started at a young age and that was my passion. However, I never really got any bigger, which made soccer a lot more difficult and running much more important. I was always running away from people trying to hit me.” She came to realize that her niche in athletics would be running, and that quickly translated into success in track and field competition. “You could win races and medals,” she giggles. “I was immediately successful because of all of the running I’d been doing in soccer.”
She and her sister were the first members of her family to attend college. Desiree went to Arizona State, where she distinguished herself in track and cross-country competition, being twice named an All-American. She graduated with a BA in religious studies and a BS in psychology. She particularly liked religious studies. Although she had been baptized a Methodist, her family wasn’t involved in organized religion and she seldom went to church. “The college courses, however, offered a lot of history, culture and tradition. I ended up with a Liberal Arts degree and with little career prospects. I was lucky that I was running fast.”
When she told her parents she was going to become a professional runner, they asked, “And what else are you going to do? You have to supplement it. You are not going to make a living as a professional runner.” But, while it hasn’t all been easy, she has. “While historically runners haven’t had the financial backing and fan base enough to sustain a profession, that’s slowly changing,” she comments.
Corporate sponsorship has become a major factor. In Desiree’s case, she is supported by Hanson-Brooks, a leading firm in marketing running shoes and athletic attire. The company supports Desiree and 19 other members of its sponsored team, allowing them to train at a site in Michigan. “This kind of support allows runners like me to stay in the sport and do it as a career,” she shares. “Our Hanson-Brooks Distance Project is split between men and women, and all of us are marathon specialists – post collegiate and professional. Team members are always in the half marathon or marathon levels. And, we are selective; we pick the races that work best for us. As a consequence, we are seeing more depth in American long distance running now than ever before.”
Boston, New York and Chicago are the major marathons in the U.S. and among the top such competitive events in the world. “If you go overseas, Japan has an amazing running culture,” she observes. “I’ve raced in Berlin, and the fan base there is great. London also has a huge appreciation for the sport. It’s fairly global today, and when you are overseas, there’s not the competition for attention we have here with major league baseball, basketball and hockey. The result is that there are many more eyeballs on marathons outside of the U.S.”
It’s not all hard work and no play, however. A curious footnote to Desiree’s career is that several years ago, she and some roommates developed an appreciation of bourbon, of all things. “We started with a bottle of Knob Creek just strictly out of curiosity,” she laughs. “We then decided we needed to compare that popular brand to other bourbons. That was the beginning of a collection. It was a fun way for us to hang out and be social and just do some tasting.” She also knows how to make the most of a trip to foreign events, typically adding an extra week or so to her itinerary to enjoy the local scene. When represented the USA at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where she placed seventh in the women’s marathon, Desiree spent some extra time in the Brazilian city before flying to Argentina to enjoy a few days at the ski resort city of Bariloche.
Along the way, she’s benefited from the counsel of her husband Ryan Linden and manager Josh Cox, both successful former professional runners. She is quick to pass along some advice of her own to young women who might be interested in the sport. “Running is not just one thing,” she advises. “There’s cross country, track, different marathon courses, and different body types work well in different circumstances. Maybe my body type helped me in the rain and the wind of the Boston Marathon. But, there’s not one specific look in this sport, which is pretty rare. And it’s a good message for girls and young women, that you don’t have to look a certain way. You develop your body to be the best it can be and then seek out the conditions that work. It’s not one-size-fits-all, which is a positive thing.”
At an age when she’s competing against runners many years her junior, Desiree knows her career can’t go on forever, but she vows to stay active as long as possible. “What’s really cool,” she states, “is that running is just right foot, left foot. Repeat. It’s super simple. Eventually, something doesn’t function as it should, but at this point I don’t really want to find out what it is. It might be leg speed that goes first. Women can probably compete longer because of their strength, and a marathon is a very strength-oriented event, so a good runner can probably extend their career a bit. But, father time always wins out in the end. For now, however, I just want to enjoy the joy of running.”
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