Desiree Linden has a lot of titles: 2018 Boston Marathon champion, two-time Olympian, bourbon connoisseur. She’s attempting to add two more to her list in April, though — ultrarunner and world record holder.
Linden, 37, had a lot of racing dreams dashed (like so many of us) in 2020. Her last competition was the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, where she finished in fourth place, one position shy of making the Tokyo Games (she is still the alternate, should Aliphine Tuliamuk, Molly Seidel, or Sally Kipyego be unable to race). When the pandemic hit and her plans to race the New York City and Boston marathons evaporated, she took some time to figure out what new goals would motivate her to get out the door.
She logged 496 miles over 31 days of October, a challenge she called #RunDestober, completing the same mileage as the date each day (one mile on October 1 all the way to 31 miles on October 31). That last day of the month was her longest ever. To make it more meaningful, she traveled from her home in Charlevoix, Michigan, to complete the challenge in Central Park in New York, crossing the finishing line near Tavern on the Green on the Sunday the New York City Marathon would have taken place.
The challenge got her wheels turning about another curiosity that Linden has long held to try ultramarathon distances (anything longer than 26.2 miles). In mid-April she’s going for the women’s road 50K world record on a certified, though undisclosed, course in Oregon, a creation of her agent, Josh Cox (who once held the men’s 50K world record) and her sponsor Brooks. The current women’s record is 3:07:20, held by Great Britain’s Aly Dixon, set at the 2019 world championships in Brasov, Romania.
To reach the goal, Linden will have to average faster than 6:02 per mile. Her fastest 26.2 miles was at the 2011 Boston Marathon, finishing second in 2:22:38, an average of 5:27 per mile. More recently she ran the 2019 New York City Marathon in 2:26:46 (averaging 5:36 per mile).
Linden spoke with our sister publication, Women’s Running, by phone about why she’s going for the record and what she finds appealing about ultrarunning.
Women’s Running: So, no 10,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, then? How did you decide that wasn’t your interest this time around?
Desiree Linden: I started getting ready to adjust to the track, basically, right after Boston was postponed (to October 11). My plantar and achilles — it’s just really hard on my lower legs to go fast. I couldn’t train and work on speed for a long stretch. I’m not totally against coming off of this (50K) and seeing if I can translate the fitness to one shot at a Trials qualifier. But that would be icing on the cake and we’ll see if the body can tolerate it. But training for it for too long of a time was too much of a challenge for me right now.
WR: What’s appealing about this attempt for you?
DL: The spring is so free. Marathons are off the table and it’s diving back into serious training. I think the fall is going to look relatively normal or closer to normal. We had this open opportunity and Brooks and myself and Josh all got on some calls. They seemed excited about it and we’ve been flirting with this ultra thing for a while, so we figured now was a great time. Initially I was going to do the Two Oceans Ultramarathon (in South Africa). That’s what I was getting ready for, but obviously that was canceled. So we figured we’d make our own up.
WR: What would it mean to you to have a world record?
DL: It’s one more thing I could add to the résumé, but I’m not really looking to collect accolades or define a legacy or anything like that. For me it’s motivating and this new distance is intriguing. Maybe that’s a question for afterwards. If I get the record maybe I’ll articulate it better. Right now it’s just a goal I’m chasing that I think is exciting.
WR: How did your running in October inspire it or inform your decision to go for it?
DL: I think it just confirmed it. I had already been thinking about it, but being durable to get through that month was really important. Enjoying being out on the road for that long was important, too. And then the 31 miles told me I could cover the distance and I’m not going to die. This is actually doable, but can I do it faster? We’ll find out. It just became more intriguing in October. I was really surprised by how I got fit during that month. You’re obviously doing way too much and it’s not sustainable, but I was getting stronger as the month went on. I was intrigued by that.
WR: I know, due to COVID safety measures, you can’t tell me a lot about the race itself, but can you talk about how will the race be set up? Will you have pacers? Will anybody else be competing? What’s the course like? What’s the terrain like?
DL: It will be flat, out-and-back, and some loops. It should be really simple. I think there’s going to be a decent group of marathoners who are trying to run Olympic standards for their countries. There will be a few doing that. There’s a handful of people doing the full 50K for age-group records and other goals. I don’t know the pacing situation. I’ll probably have two male pacers. Ryan (Linden’s husband) allegedly wants to do it, but I don’t think he’s going to be in shape to do it. He’ll get pissed that I said that, but I’m like, “Dude, you can’t keep up right now! You gotta get in shape!” (Laughter) If it’s a totally solo effort, there’s just bodies out there covering the distance, I still think I’ll be in a pretty good place. I’ve done quite a bit on my own. I’m not relying on pacers by any means.
The date is flexible right now. It’s going to be mid-April. We’ll release it much closer to the date.
WR: How does the training differ from your norm? Will the weekly mileage go up considerably? How does the pace general feel and what adjustments are you making as you gain more experience? Does ultra training entail a different kind of speed work or is it incorporating the pace into longer efforts?
DL: I’m probably doing lower mileage than a marathon segment. But my long runs are a lot bulkier, so I’m just making sure I’m recovering on those in-between days a little better. We’ll do a lot of workouts within the long run, where the warm-up is 10 miles at long run pace (under seven minutes per mile), then we’ll do a session like 3 x 4 miles with two miles recovery at long run pace. At the end it’s 24 miles of work. The 3 x 4 miles is supposed to be a 5:45 pace, but I’m struggling to adjust, so I go out a little too hard, like a 5:35 range, but it’s good to know what that’s like late and then make some smarter decisions.
Peak weekly mileage should be coming up in the next week or so. I’ll probably be at 115–120 I would guess. I’ll have a 26 mile day on Thursday with 3 x 5 miles in it. The 24 miles was intriguing. I think I took myself to the well but not too far. I wasn’t patient enough with the pace. By the last one I was getting moderate marathon cramps, like, “I might’ve done some damage here.” I was fine three or four days later and then two weeks later it was like, “Oh yeah. I definitely feel fatigue here.” It’s been a lot of adjustments with [coach] Walt [Drenth]. He’ll call and ask how I’m feeling and what I think, then he shifts things around. Nothing is set in stone and we solve it as we go.
WR: Will you do the rest of your training in Arizona?
DL: I’ll do three weeks in Arizona then come back to Michigan for a week or two. I think that’s the time frame. I don’t really even know.
WR: Have you sought out any advice from other ultrarunners?
DL: I don’t think I have yet, but Brooks has a great ultra/trail team and they’re arranging some conversations for me. It’s really cool I’ll be able to get feedback from them. And Josh, of course, had the 50K record and he’s been super helpful in getting things dialed in and working with my coach as well.
WR: Has Josh shared any especially good advice?
DL: We’ve gotten into nutrition and the fueling aspect of it quite a bit. His take is to run it like a marathon because he went overboard thinking that the last few miles were going to kill him, so he kinda lost his lunch in the middle, which defeats the purpose. He says to just do what you normally do and be more diligent about doing it well.
WR: Have you found nutrition has had to switch up at all?
DL: Not really. I’ll really dial it in over the next couple of weeks, but my plan has been really good. I’ve been using Powerbar products for so long. They sit well in my stomach and I haven’t had any problems. My main thing is that I get to the end of the marathon and 30K in, I tell myself I don’t really need anything. I’ll pass on my bottles or take one sip and throw it out. That won’t be an option.
WR: What’s the thing that scares you about this?
DL: Everything after 26.2. It’s cool. It’s so exciting because when you run your first marathon, you get to 20 miles and you’re like, “I don’t know what I’m doing. Am I ready for this?” It’s unfamiliar, it’s scary, it’s different. You do the work diligently, you respect the distance, and that’s what cool about it: conquering the unknown. I feel like I’ve gotten a little bit complacent with the marathon because I understand what’s going to happen and for the most part it’s always gone to form. So I like that fear of the unknown. I don’t know what this is going to be and that seems alluring.
WR: Do any other forms of trail or ultrarunning interest you in terms of specific races or distances?
DL: Two Oceans is still on my bucket list and I’m not counting out Comrades. But also we’ll see after this if I’m like, “No, I don’t like this at all.”
WR: Assuming you’ll run a fall marathon, how do you think this kind of training might help or hinder you?
DL: That’s the game plan. It seems like a gradual re-entry into serious training and I’m touching on those marathon paces, the quicker stuff I’d do in those training segments, but not an aggressive marathon build. I think it’s just going to be a sort of gentle re-entry. We’ll see how recovery goes — that’s the big question mark. But Walt and I talked beforehand about how the goal is to come back and be really good at the marathon still. I want some good, aggressive runs in the marathon left in the legs. We’re being cognizant of not going too far into the well and losing too much speed. We’re still touching on that, so I think it’ll be a really good balance, I hope.