Sports fans love an underdog story, the more fantastical the better. In Boston, our come-from-behind stories become the stuff of instant legend. Victory tastes all the sweeter when you’re down three games to none in the ALCS or 28-3 in the third quarter. It also helps if there’s some kind of apocalyptic once-in-a-lifetime weather event happening to heighten the dramatic stakes.
The 122nd Boston Marathon was extraordinary from start to finish, but one performance stood out. Around noon on April 16th, every fan of American distance running was screaming their heads off as the waterlogged figure of Desiree Linden took her last left turn onto Boylston street and charged down the final straightaway into a 40 mile per hour headwind to claim the first Boston title by an American woman in 33 years.
Perhaps it’s unfair to call her an underdog, but that didn’t stop us all from doing it. The 2011 runner-up and two-time Olympian was part of the pre-race prediction coverage, but the money was on New York champion Shalane Flanagan, defending Boston champion Edna Kiplagat, or road racing queen Molly Huddle to don the laurel wreath at the finish line. Des was largely relegated to an outside-shot status, although several prescient commentators noted that the expected conditions would make for a slower winning time, which favored the patient and famously even-keel Brooks runner.
Then Patriots Day came. Brutal conditions decimated the field and it was physically exhausting to stand along the sidelines and cheer, let alone run 26.2 miles. Nine of 16 women in the elite field did not finish the race. Des admitted to feeling like crap early on and dropped back when compatriot Shalane Flanagan stopped to use the bathroom. Linden helped tow Flanagan back to the leaders because she assumed her own race was shot. But sure enough, around mile 21 she powered down the latter half of the Newton hills past the last of her competition, moving into the lead and into the history books.
Des followed up her Boston victory with a sixth place finish at the NYC marathon and was the third American woman across the finish line. It’s hard to argue that one performance alone qualifies a runner to be “Athlete of the Year,” but Des’s big run was more than the sum of its parts. This was a victory for grinders everywhere. For those runners who’d rather run in mud and wind and rain than hit the treadmill. It showed us that if you keep showing up and working hard, you can make your dreams come true.
Des is also far more than just her top-tier talent or amazing consistency. She is one of the most brightest and most buoyant personalities in the running world, with a Twitter game as strong as her second half. Not only did she start the iconic “this is fitness” series, but she regularly tweets about everything from her love of whiskey to her Netflix binges. Plus she teamed up with Ben True to create a truly excellent coffee blend (I’m a convert) and made headlines for her vocal, but necessary, criticism of the sport’s tendency to forgive and forget when it comes to doping allegations.
Just like her victory in Boston, Des is larger than life. And the fearless perseverance that has become her brand truly exemplifies everything that is right with our sport in this age. Underdog, come-from-behind stories aren’t just satisfying because the “good guy” (or gal) gets to win; it’s because we think that one day we can do the same. And Des is not just easy to cheer for because she is funny and tough, but because we see ourselves in her story.