By Barbara Huebner
In 2007, Des Linden made her 26.2-mile debut at the Boston Marathon. In 2008, she competed in her first U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials here, certain that she would make the team; an infuriating late-race fade sealed her determination to master the distance. In 2011, she briefly led down Boylston Street, coming within an agonizing two seconds of becoming the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon since 1985.
Boston is to Des Linden what oxygen is to the rest of us: It keeps her alive.
And now it has entered her into the ledger of its 122-year history not only as a champion but as the first American woman to win here in 33 years, since Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach in 1985.
“It means everything,” she said. “This race is a marathon. It’s not a 26.2-mile road race; it’s where marathoners come to do their stuff. To win on this course and to have it be significant for American marathoning means everything.”
Linden’s winning time of 2:39:54 – the slowest in 40 years – reflected the conditions: 38 degrees Fahrenheit at the start, with fierce rain squalls all morning, making for some of the worst conditions in race history.
“It was brutal,” said the two-time Olympian. It also led to results as topsy-turvy as the flailing umbrellas along the course. Finishing second was Sarah Sellers, 26, a full-time nurse anesthetist from Tucson, Ariz., while Krista Duchene, a 41-year-old mother of three and Canadian Olympian, was third overall and top masters. Among the superstars they vanquished were defending champion and two-time World Champion Edna Kiplagat, who finished eighth.
The early miles of the race played out as expected, with the top contenders crawling in a tight pack as they fought the elements and going through 5K in 19:18 – compared to 17:44 last year. Ethiopians Aselefech Mergia, Mamitu Daska and Buzunesh Deba, the course record-holder, all threw in a few surges and didn’t seem to mind leading or running to the side, apart from the pack, but none got away until Shalane Flanagan needed a porta-potty stop just past mile 12.
Flash back to a conversation at the 10K point: Linden confessed to Flanagan that she was feeling horrible and would probably drop out, offering to block the wind for Flanagan until calling it a day. When Flanagan veered off the course, the pack shattered and Daska took off. At first, Linden slowed to wait for Flanagan, but when she saw Daska’s break she decided to first help American Molly Huddle catch up before slowing again to escort Flanagan back to the pack.
“By then I was in third or fourth and I couldn’t drop out,” said Linden, prompting laughter at the post-race press conference.
The 36-year-old Flanagan, who grew up in nearby Marblehead, MA and last fall became the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon in 40 years, had said before the race that this would be her last Boston Marathon. After finishing seventh she seemed to waver, unsure if she wanted to go out after a race in which she was so delirious from the cold that at one point she thought she might be in the lead despite being well back.
She was sure, however, about Linden’s sportsmanship.
“I’m really happy for Des,” she said. “She just seemed like she was going to be the sacrificial lamb, doing whatever she could to help … then I just saw her keep going. I think that momentum of just helping someone else, not investing so much in how she’s feeling maybe gave her that little lift she needed.”
Daska, meanwhile, was apparently confident coming off an impressive third-place finish last fall in the TCS New York City Marathon. Although she was reeled in and part of a pack of nine women who went through the halfway mark in 1:19:41, the Ethiopian surged again, defying the headwind, and led by almost 30 seconds by Mile 14. Coming into Newton Lower Falls, Linden, Kiplagat and Kenyan Gladys Chesir began to chase, slowly reeling her in; by Mile 21, Daska was looking confused after struggling with the simple task of taking off her gloves and pushing up her sleeves and was caught first by Chesir and then by Linden. Head held high and arms pumping, Linden churned inexorably toward Boylston to chants of USA, USA!
“This is storybook stuff,” she said later. “I got into the sport because of the Boston Marathon.”