When Shalane Flanagan thrust her right fist in the air and uttered an expletive before breaking the tape at the New York City Marathon last year, Desiree Linden watched from her home in Michigan with tears in her eyes and a renewed conviction that anything was possible.
“The last few miles when she was opening it up — I went from being super frustrated with the sport to believing in it again,” Linden said of Flanagan’s scorching splits in Central Park. “On your day, if you give yourself a chance, it’s doable. It meant a lot to me. I mean, I cried. I actually cried.”
Five months later, halfway through a Boston Marathon raced in freakishly awful weather, a flagging Linden helped Flanagan bridge back to the lead pack after a bathroom break and found her own second wind while making the unselfish gesture. Later, Flanagan spotted Linden, the marathon winner, in the lobby of the Fairmont Copley Plaza with the olive wreath Flanagan had coveted since childhood and embraced her warmly three times in a 30-second span.
“She was under the radar and just slowly chipped away at being one of the best in the country and then one of the best in the world, and I appreciate her diligence and her persistence and her patience to get where she’s at,” Flanagan said. “It’s been over a decade’s worth of work to get to where she is now. Like she says, if you keep showing up, your moment’s gonna come.”
The two will race Sunday in New York City with lifelong goals in their pockets, having lifted U.S. women’s distance running to a place that was hard to envision during four decades of frustration. It raises the question of how Flanagan and Linden will follow their own acts.
What do you give the women who have everything? Chiefly, continuing to run is a gift to themselves. There’s an obvious lure to lining up as reigning champions of prestigious marathons. Their stature and marketing value are forever changed.
Yet both have seriously considered retiring, or at least ratcheting back, over the last year. The weeks of hard training and self-denial leading up to a major race are the same as they ever were, and each has had to find tangible motivation to slog through them. As it turns out, the sideways rain and frigid gales of Boston are what propelled them to this weekend’s start line, for very different reasons.
Flanagan’s hopes of staging a grand finale in her hometown event last spring were inundated as she suffered hypothermia and gutted out a seventh-place finish. “I didn’t get to race — I just kind of survived,” she said. “It was just not a great representation or something I was super proud of to walk away from the sport. I felt very unsettled.”
As perhaps befits the co-author of two cookbooks, Flanagan said she elected to “sit and marinate in the unknown.” As the summer went on, she felt drawn to put herself through the process at least one more time. A year ago, she declared unequivocally that nothing but winning would satisfy her. Her mindset has shifted — somewhat.
“I don’t know if it’s my last, but hopefully I can showcase a really good race that is me,” Flanagan said. “It’s cool if I win again, and if I don’t, it’s probably expected, because of how crazy hard it is to do. How the actual race unfolds doesn’t mean much. It’s everything before the gun goes off that’s important to me.
“I’m definitely preparing and visualizing what it takes to win. I want to face the top women again and spar with them and go through the process of competing with them again.”
Linden also came into Boston last April thinking it might be her farewell to the majors.
“Obviously, winning kind of changed everything,” she said. “I had a good, long chunk of time off running [afterward]. The body was cooperating. I still feel like I’m competitive enough, and I’m going to do it as long as I can. I would hate to turn on the TV and know I have the ability to do this and opted to stay home instead.”
For all the respect Linden has earned for her epic title run, she knows there are some who will always regard it as a weather-generated fluke. And she’s candid about the fact that the conditions played to perhaps her greatest strength — sheer tenacity — rather than raw speed. She’s so accustomed to being an underdog that it was only natural she would use that to spur herself now.
“I’m the only person who sat on the bus [to the start] and was like, ‘This is the best thing ever. This is my dream come true,'” Linden said. “Everyone else is sitting on the bus going, “Holy s—. Are we really doing this?’ and I’m like ‘This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.’
“When I was getting back into training, that was the first thing I planted into my mind. Where’s the reason you have to try to do this again? Well — maybe it was the weather. It doesn’t really matter, because I still won. But winning a second time would be really nice, on a great day, just to say I can.”
Linden, 35, and Flanagan, 37, have traveled intertwined roads since Flanagan, an Olympic silver medalist at the 10,000-meter distance, finished second in her marathon debut in New York City in 2010. Flanagan signed with Nike after starring in track and cross-country at the University of North Carolina. Linden had an unheralded college career, spent her formative years with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in southeast Michigan, and improved in increments. They have been Olympic teammates twice and in 2016 shared the honor with Amy Cragg, Linden’s pal from their Arizona State University days, who trains with Flanagan at the Bowerman Track Club in Portland, Oregon.
Neither is prone to platitudes and they aren’t close friends, but over time, it’s clear they’ve come to genuinely admire each other. Part of that respect between two outspoken anti-doping advocates is built on trust — a trust that doesn’t extend to all their international rivals. Their results in Rio (Flanagan was sixth, Linden seventh and Cragg ninth), were disappointing enough on the day. That emotion intensified in the ensuing months as deficiencies in pre-competition testing emerged and gold medalist Jemima Sumgong of Kenya was busted for testing positive for EPO.
“We were all super fit,” Linden said of the three U.S. women. “We were ready to do something special. ‘This is the best American squad we’ve ever seen on the line. Someone’s getting a medal.’ And then we weren’t even close. It was kind of heartbreaking.”
Given their restored spirits and respective accomplishments, Flanagan and Linden both expect to be marked women in New York City. Linden has raced there just once before, in 2014, when headwinds ripped her hat off and made for a laborious race.
“As much as I love bad conditions, I think a headwind is not very favorable because you have to do what the pack does,” said Linden, who finished fifth four years ago. “You just have to tuck in and maybe go with moves that aren’t necessarily smart, versus getting stuck running by yourself, which traditionally I would be OK with.”
Flanagan doubts the other favorites will dally around as long as they did last year, a tactical choice that enabled her to conserve energy.
“I don’t think they’ll leave it to a 10K,” Flanagan said. “I think they’re aware of me now, and more aware of Americans, between Des and I. They don’t underestimate us now.
“I can’t deny it. New York and I just have chemistry. I would have hoped to have the same chemistry in Boston, where I have such a connection with the fans, but for some reason, the course just doesn’t seem to suit me quite as well. I really enjoy racing there.”
With many miles behind them, Flanagan and Linden are likely bearing down on the last two-tenths of their distinguished careers. This particular run bears watching and appreciating.