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April 10, 2017

Q&A with Desi Linden on 2017 Boston Marathon, winning, nerves, booty shorts and more

I caught up with Des/Desi/Desiree Linden (we’ll settle that in just a moment) on Friday while she was in Florida – poolside… OK I may just be using my imagination here. For those of you who don’t know–but should already know–she’s running the Boston Marathon a week from today.

In Boston in 2011, though she took second and was disappointed (many of us were excited for her but she explains why we may have been wrong). She ran that race with grit and tenacity by tossing in some unprecedented surges and a bad-assery that hadn’t been seen in years. It was some impressive stuff. Like, I-remember-where-I-was-that-day, type of stuff.

In 2012, she was the runner-up at the Olympic Trials but posted a dreaded DNF in London due to injury. Dropping out kind of made her feel not like an Olympian. But in 2016, she finished second at the marathon trials again and finished seventh in Rio like the true Olympian that she was in the first place.

She’s returning to Boston and the race plan is to win the whole damn thing.

We chatted and I asked her some questions with varying degrees of seriousness. Some of the questions were from the Citius staff (some of these Q’s were posed as jokes, but I decided to ask anyway and see what happened).

Nicole Bush: Before we go any further, do you prefer Des or Desi?

Des Linden: I feel like people who are really comfortable with me will just call me Des. My mom calls me Desi. And people who are the fence tend to call me Desi, because that’s what my coaches call me. And then everyone else should just call me Desiree, [Gosh] damn it–no, I’m just kidding. Yeah, I mean I don’t have a preference. People who know me will just call me Des.

NB: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve fallen asleep doing after training, or weirdest position you’ve woken up in? Is that even interesting? [Before the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, Linden told reporters that due to running such high mileage professional runners are often “ridiculously tired and wanting to fall asleep in your soup.”]

DL: I do think there’s been a lot of unplanned naps, that’s when you know you’re really tired. And there’s kind of a luxury to our job where if you’re like “Oh my god I feel sleep for 3 hours…like, I didn’t have that planned.” There’s no other occupation where you could get away with that. So I feel like that is kind of an interesting question. I don’t think that it’s ever been anywhere weird, but there’s time segments of three hours on a random Tuesday. Just taking a nap is pretty special.

And it’s all relative. My husband, Ryan, can sleep anywhere. So what I think is weird, maybe is different than what other people think. He’s fallen asleep during his own story. He was talking about pizza one time and–he was so tired, he’s listing toppings or something–and in the middle of the story he fell asleep. That’s a gift. Or a medical problem. I don’t know. So yeah, perspective of falling asleep in weird places, I can’t even come close to that.

NB: What are your thoughts on LA Trials?

DL: I feel like I’m in a unique position because it went well, so I’m not going to complain about much. It was definitely hot [laughs], I think we all agreed on that. I didn’t have any trouble with organization or fluids, or anything like that. I thought everything went smoothly. But again, I’m in a position where I got everything I wanted out of the day, so, no room to complain. I thought, my fitness was fair going in and I was able to build on that. It was all the things I wanted to get out of the day. No complaints.

NB: In relation to running, what would you say was on your mind the most in college compared to your first five years out of school and then compared to now and the last couple years? How has that changed?

DL: Yeah, I think that’s been huge. I feel like in college I really embraced being a student-athlete and balancing all the things that go with the college experience. Running wasn’t–like I loved it and wanted to do well, but I also took a lot of fun classes and definitely had a fun social experience. I feel like if there was All-American for being a balanced student-athlete, I crushed the college experience and I would have been on that list. [It] didn’t make me the best runner but I did pretty well all things considered. So that was my college experience.

My first five years out, it was actually kind of transitioning out of that mentality and being like, “Okay, I’m trying to just be really great at running. And learn to this lifestyle and dedicate everything to finding out how good I can be.”

NB: Yeah, it’s a transition.

DL: Yeah, and it’s–it becomes all encompassing if you want to be really good, you have to make it your life. And then I feel like, once I had a breakthrough and was able to make this a career, it’s almost been transitioning backwards. Like it’s not the end-all, be-all. I need to have life balance again. Figuring out, you know, what things make me complete as a person beyond running. And that’s like–obviously socially it’s different than what college was. You know, hanging out with my husband and like spending time with our dogs–which aren’t children–traveling and stuff that, that fits in with the running lifestyle and allows me to do my job well but also kind of helps me be human.

NB: It kind of does go backwards like that. Especially because as we get older. We kind of put on hold the stuff that was interesting and outside of focus. And then, at some point, you’re doing your personal development a disservice by continuing to not do those things.

DL: Yeah, it’s like, it is balancing when it’s right to balance. Because if you’re going to make it, at some point, you have to just buckle down and be 100 percent in. But if you’re going to have longevity, you also kind of have to be a human [laughs].

NB: I agree. What nervous tick do you have on race day?  

DL: I’m usually not that nervous. I’m just really fired up and, like, I have to calm myself down because I’m so excited [laughs]. I would be like, “I’ve just burned through all my energy before I got to the start.” [So] I’m more excited than nervous. So my coaches are like “settle down.” So we always find someone who can make me laugh at breakfast before the race and, I guess maybe, take that nervous energy as humor and just kind of have a really funny meal before the race.

NB: What are your thoughts in that tight space between doing your last stride and before the race starts?

DL: I’m kind of like hurry up. Especially, well, in the marathon–it’s kind of funny but–I’ll hold a power pose to feel confident and smile and sell yourself on this is going to be an amazing experience and yeah, I’ll puff up my chest and hold a power pose.

On the track, I just feel totally out of place. I’m like, “I don’t know what I’m doing. These girls are still doing drills and I don’t even know how to do that stuff. So just shoot the gun.” Ya know? “Let’s get this thing going, because I feel completely out of my element here.”

So those are two totally different feelings that pretty much sum me up as an athlete, of where I belong and where I don’t belong.

NB: What about Boston feels like home to you?

DL: Yeah, I’ve been there so many times in a row now, whether I’ve been racing or just like, doing some kind of appearance or whatever. It’s like this weird homecoming where you see these people once a year and the folks at John Hancock, they’re so–the hospitality is second to none. So it’s like you get to know these people and you’re like, “Oh hey, how are your kids?” or “How’s your dog?” I see them every year and I catch up. Same with the Boston Athletic Association. They just take care of you so well, that you go back and see the same people. And that to me, is probably the most why it feels like almost a second home. You go and you catch up with everyone and see how everyone’s doing. And it’s just–it feels like a fun reunion and not a stressful race. And I think that makes it a lot easier.

NB: What’s something from your 2011 Boston experience that you carry around–and I’m asking you about it so it kind of voids the question a little bit–what’s an experience you carry around from that, that you’ll never quite be able to explain to anybody?

DL: I feel like to the outside world it was such a breakthrough and they were like, “Wow, this is so amazing! You should be so proud!” And all of those things are really true. But, to be in the position and to compete for the win, you have to think like a winner everyday leading up to it. As soon as I signed up for that race, like three or four months out, I was like, “I’m going to win the Boston Marathon.” And I pictured it everyday and I talked about myself as [the] winner of the Boston Marathon everyday. I guess that would probably bother most people, like, “God, you’re so cocky.” But that’s how much you have to buy into that to be able to have that kind of breakthrough. So when I crossed the finish line second, it was the first time in four months that I wasn’t the winner of the Boston Marathon and I was pretty pissed. Because I was like, “No, this didn’t go how I pictured it for forever.” And, I’m sure what people expected me to say afterwards–“That was amazing. That was the best experience of my life.” and I’m like, “This sort of sucks. Like, it’s not how I pictured this happening.”–was probably confusing for people. I just fell short of what I wanted to do. But it was me coping with an identity I had created for four months that wasn’t real. And then later I put it in perspective. But, I think that would probably surprise a lot of people, like, “I know she was disappointed but I can’t wrap my mind around why.”

NB: It’s disassociating that feeling of the narrative of the sports story and it being an experience for fans and removing that from the actual experience of the person who is giving that performance.

DL: Right, right exactly.

NB: The big thing right now is, “Desi’s adamant about winning.” As an athlete, to me that makes sense. But, to people who don’t understand all the way, how would you explain that?

DL: I think everyone in the John Hancock Elite Field is thinking the exact same thing. I don’t think I’m doing anything unique. I think I’ve just had the opportunity to say it and it’s been printed. But I think everyone’s thinking that way. When I step up to the line, I assume everyone wants to win. I think I’ve just verbalized it. I [don’t] think I’m adamant about winning, that’s just what the goal is. That’s what I’m trying to do out there. I think it would be silly for me to say, “I hope I’m top three,” because I’ve been runner-up there before. If I was like, “I just wanna have a good time,” it’s like, “Okay, I feel like you’re just kind of lying to us.” I’m okay stating my real goal. I’m okay if–I mean, I’ll be disappointed if I fall short, but I think it’s fair to let everyone know what I’m doing out there, is trying to win. It does, kind of, make a smaller–you have less options for success, there’s only one thing that considered a success. But I’m okay with failing and figuring out why. Instead of setting the bar really low and being like, “Great, I was a winner in my own way.” You know? [Laughs] I don’t think that does any good for me or anyone. I think you have to put your goals out there and not be afraid of them.

NB: I appreciate it. Because it also plays a little bit into that, “We’re supposed to be nice and polite.” And I don’t understand why is it not also polite to just say what your goal is? It helps you focus in on what it is and, in my opinion, it helps other people–especially women–in the sport not be apologetic about their goals.

DL: Right. I don’t think there’s any wrong with–I agree–you shouldn’t have to be ashamed about what you’re trying to accomplish.

NB: You’re dedicating your life to it so why wouldn’t?–yeah. I mean, some of it can come from nervousness. I’ve definitely been like, “I wanna be All-American” or “I wanna be top three.” And that’s fine too. But there’s also another side of the conversation and I feel like you’re pushing that forward and I appreciate that a lot.

DL: Thanks. Yeah, I think it’s sometimes viewed like you’re thumping your chest and trying to make a statement, or whatever, like, “I’m going to win this.” I assume everyone’s thinking that. I don’t know, maybe that’s wrong. Like, I think everyone wants to win.

NB: Just not everyone’s going to say it.

DL: Sure.

NB: And I think feel like more power to you saying it. I think it’s stuff like that, that helps make track be more relevant, mainstream, over time.

DL: Right, I think it’s fun too. Like, people are excited, and people want to tune in and watch and see how I do. If I was like, “I just wanna have a great experience.” People will be like, “Cool. Well, I’m going to go to the beach that day and check the results later.” Or whatever. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.

NB: Like, I want to watch because you said it. It’s even better when you know what people are doing. Especially when you actually know the people in the race. But, I imagine that also transfers to people who are total-fans and spectators.

DL: I think it helps connect, which is what we want to do. If people feel like they’re interested and they connect with you and they want to watch you race, they’ll tune in. That’s as simple as that.

NB: What are some of the doubts that creep in, and what do you do to have those not take hold? Because we all have doubts, but at this point, we know it’s not something to believe. What do you do to not believe the bad shit?

DL: I mean, I think there’s always something, like, “did I do enough?” “Was it the right work?” or, midway through the race you’re like, “I feel more tired than should.” I think it’s just trusting your coach and trusting your training. And then, I’m sure–I know you do this too–but writing down the race plan that doesn’t allow you process the doubt. It just like, you don’t really time to think about that because you need to go to the next thing. And if you go through the checklist instead of allowing your mind to have these conversation about the doubt, your race place should eliminate that. I know people sometimes will be like, “Well she talks about this plan all the time and it’s like, she needs to just relax–like race.” That’s not why the plans are there. That’s not how they’re written. Like “at mile one you need to be at 5.27”–whatever. It’s more to eliminate those conversations and the negotiation that takes place when you’re out there, because [it’s] super easy to make the pain stop–you just slow down. But if you just go to the next thing on your list, you’re not really thinking about whether it hurts too much, or anything like that. You just go to the next thing.

NB: Yeah, I think I’ve written race plans incorrectly, “at the mile I’m going to do…” and I think you learn that, that it helps you focus and it helps you relax. It’s not to be rigid. It’s preemptive problem solving.

DL: Right, there’s an art to a good race plan. It’s not–if you miss this one check point, your day’s over, or just step off the course. It’s to help you get through those mental battles easier. Or not even have them, they shouldn’t even take place. You’re busy focusing on something else.

NB: Which part of the course do you visualize that makes you feel the most powerful? Because we can talk about the planning, and what we’re going to do, and what we need to understand about courses and races and how that’s going to play out. But, which parts of the course do you visualize that make you feel the most powerful?

DL: I probably visualize running strong through the hills. Because I just feel like that’s one of the places where the race starts, naturally, breaking up. So I always picture running really strong around there. And, then–after Heartbreak–once you crest heartbreak you get these really gnarly downhills where you can run really fast if you haven’t goofed your race by going out too hard. If your quads aren’t burnt from the first six to ten miles, those downhills after the the Newton Hills feel amazing and you can really just let it rip. So, I always picture running really fast cresting Heartbreak, all the way in. Which is nice, in theory [we both laugh]. There’s still a long way to go, but to picture it going best.  

NB: How do you survive the day after a marathon, typically, following the race?

DL: Yeah. Bloody Marys [we both laugh].



NB: I always appreciate your answers to questions because they are more human. Where everyone’s like, “Well, I did this recovery thing.”

DL: “Ice bath.” Yeah, Bloody Mary’s. I feel like I tell people, especially with Boston, Boston’s the only time where I’m envious of men being to pee standing up. Because your quads are so burnt that, you try to like, sit down on the toilet and it’s this crazy process. So you sit, and you’re just like, “Ah, I’m just going to sit here a while.” [Laughs] So dudes don’t even have to go through that. It’s super funny–you watch people walking around, stepping off curbs. It’s like this big ordeal. Going down stairs, people will just be like “screw it, I’m going down backwards.” I’m just going to sit. Give me two days.

Off the wall and random questions

NB: What’s your explanation of the difference between bourbon and whiskey?

DL: Bourbon’s out of Kentucky, so to be bourbon you have to be out of Kentucky. And there’s a percentage rule–I don’t know all the specifics–but there’s a percentage of how it has to be made. And then anything else can be whiskey. So, bourbon is a whiskey but it’s a very specific Kentucky whiskey.

Bourbon is definitely where we gravitate. I have mostly bourbon whiskey, but I mean I’m not–if someone sent me whiskey and it was from somewhere else I wouldn’t turn it down.

[Later, via text, we nailed down that bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S. but that it has to be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51 percent corn]

NB: What is your favorite bourbon?

DL: I don’t really have a go-to favorite. I feel like it just depends on my mood. Most of the time we’re comparing stuff. But I’d say, if I’m getting after it, I would do a Bookers.

NB: Why do you hate half-tights so much?

DL: Is this about men’s half-tights or me wearing like the booty shorts? Because those aren’t really a half.

NB: Let’s go booty shorts.

DL: I feel like the boyshorts that the girls run in just end up becoming buns. They really just ride up. And maybe they’ve improved but I gave up on them a long time ago. Shorts just do what they always do and I’m just more comfortable in shorts.

NB: And not everyone likes buns.

DL: Right. Well I definitely don’t like boyshorts that become buns–so that’s a problem. And I feel like buns for a marathon is just, like, it’s a long time to be in your underwear. There’s also a little bit of function to the shorts because when you’re drinking fluids that are really gross and sticky and they’re spilling everywhere, the shorts are kind of a napkin of sorts. As is the singlet [laughs].

NB: What are your top five favorite artists right now. Then, of all time?  

DL: Oh, those are two hard questions. I’ve been listening to–this is really weird–I’ve been listening to a lot of Michael Jackson and Madonna, right now. I’m on a 80s thing, apparently. And Guns N Roses. What else do I have on my playlist? I’m trying to think of what else I have on there. I have Fleetwood Mac going on right now. Which has been on my playlist for a while. So what am I at? Four?

NB: Yeah.

D: Um, I’m stumped. Hold on, I’m going to look really quick–one second.

NB: Ok.

DL: Alright, Johnny Cash in on there too. I’ve got a lot of songs on there.

NB: Do any of those make the all-time list?

DL: I would say right now that Fleetwood Mac is pushing all-time. Rolling Stones. Let’s see, what else do we have? I listen to Saves the Day, a lot. They’re probably all-time.

NB: I don’t know if I know who that is.

DL: Yeah–it’s like [chuckles] high school, college–I’m dating myself. They’re very fringe-y. Let’s see–so that’s three. Uh. I would say Bob Seger is going all time right now. Um, let me think of one more. …I’m struggling.

NB: That’s okay, four is good.

DL: Okay, let’s just stick with four. I don’t want to force anybody in there.

NB: How much does losing all of your California high school state races to Sara Hall haunt you?

DL: [Laugh] That’s super funny. It’s actually hilarious. My mom was this huge Sara Hall fan. She’d be like, “oh you only lost”– like she would know how much I lost to Sara by. She [was] like, “Sara’s so good!” Or, when Sara didn’t make Footlocker she was kind of heartbroken. So it is kind of funny to look back at that. It’s like, “Jeez, thanks mom.”

This isn’t really answering the question, but I’m just telling that story because I think it’s a funny story about Sara.

And then I met the Hall’s parents, or I guess it was Sara Bei, at London in 2012 there was a viewing party for the men’s marathon. And I met her mom [I laugh]. And I she was like, “I’m such a fan. I was so sad to see you drop out.” And I was like, “Yes! She follows my running!” So that, for me–that was like a big moment. Like, “Take that mom! Now she’s cheering for me!” No, but she was a super sweet, like super nice lady. You know, it was kind of funny–it was [just] a funny moment.

NB: Was your mom there? Because that would be hilarious.

DL: She wasn’t. I wish–like, “could you say that to the camera?” I didn’t do that. That’s not an answer to the question, but it is a good story for you. I suppose. Maybe.

NB: I’ll say that’s an answer. Your mom haunted you with it, maybe?

DL: Yeah.

NB: What’s your favorite Drenthism/Drenth story? [Des and I were both coached by Walt Drenth. Her at Arizona State. Me at Michigan State.]

DL: Yeah, I just always loved that in college he would get so fired up during races that he would yell at 20-year-old women to rip some [expletive] heads off.

[I laugh, a lot, because I know what she’s talking about.]

And I was like, “This is the coolest guy ever! Who says that to girls?” And it was just like he cared so much, you know? And I think that his caring, and he was so invested, that sometimes it came off as frightening to people. But if he didn’t say that stuff you’d be like, “What’s wrong with him? Why doesn’t he give a shit?”

I meet people–because I spend a lot of time in Charlevoix now–and I meet people who know him just in a personal capacity and not about coaching and running and stuff like that. And they’re like, “Oh, he’s so mild-mannered.” And I’ll tell a story or two and they’re like, “Not Walt! Like, no.” And I’m like “really.” Any they just don’t believe it. It’s really funny.

[We both laugh]

This was edited for clarity and length. 

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