For those competing in last week’s Boston Marathon, the race was even more tortuous than usual: Temperatures hovered in the 30s and 40s and a heavy, ice-cold rain pelted the runners amid near gale-force wind gusts of up to 32 miles per hour. The fact that anyone can run 26.2 miles in those conditions is amazing to me.
Equally amazing is how Desiree “Desi” Linden won the race with an inspiring act of good sportsmanship.
Early in the race, Linden was running with the pack of elite women runners, including Shalene Flanagan, who won the Women’s New York City Marathon in November. Linden wasn’t feeling well.
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“Honestly, at mile two, three, four, I didn’t feel like I was even gonna make it to the finish line,” she told NBC Sports.
Rather than focus on trying to win, Linden decided she would help Flanagan for as long as she could. “I told [Flanagan] during the race, ‘If there’s anything I can do to help you out, let me know, because I might just drop out.’”
About halfway through the race, Flanagan told Linden she was going to “hit the bathroom” and veered off toward the line of Porta-Potties adjacent to the course. The pack of elite runners kept going.
To the surprise of race commentators, Linden slowed down to wait for her friend and rival. When Flanagan rejoined her, the two ran together to catch up to the pack that had gone ahead. Linden helped block Flanagan from the wind and pelting rain.
As the race continued, however, Linden realized she had more left in the tank than she had expected. At one point, looking around, she noticed she was actually in third place. She decided not to drop out.
At around mile 21, Linden charged past a Kenyan runner, took the lead and never let it go. She crossed the finish line in first place with a time of 2 hours 39 minutes and 54 seconds. While not close to a course record, the time was pretty remarkable considering the brutal weather conditions.
Flanagan finished seventh.
The second-place runner, Sarah Sellers, finished four minutes behind Linden. Sellers, who works full-time as an anesthesiology nurse in Arizona, was running in only her second marathon. Unlike most elite runners, she has no agent or sponsors. She wakes up early in the morning to train before working full shifts at the hospital.
“I still can’t believe I finished second,” the virtually unknown Sellers told the Washington Post. “I’m going to wake up, and this will be a dream.”
Linden’s victory was all the more sweet because she had finished second in 2011, losing to Kenya’s Caroline Kilel by a whisker-thin margin of just two seconds. At last year’s marathon, Linden thought she stood a good chance at winning. Instead, she finished a disappointing (to her) fourth.
Years of serious competition had taken their toll.
“I hated everything about running,” Linden told Runner’s World.
So she took some time off, going fishing and kayaking, and spent hours buried in a book. She didn’t run at all. Finally, last September, after a five-month break, she started training again. Then, last week, she won the Boston Marathon.
After crossing the finish line, Linden buried her face in her hands.
“I don’t have the right words,” she told reporters. “I’m thrilled.”
Linden’s victory was the first for an American since 1985. Before then, men and women who won in Boston received no money, only a wreath woven from olive branches and the knowledge they had just won the world’s oldest annual marathon.
But in 1986, race organizers began to offer prize money for top finishers. This lured many of the world’s top runners who would otherwise never have come to Boston. In recent decades, runners from Kenya and Ethiopia have dominated both the men’s and women’s divisions. This year, each winner received $150,000.
What Linden may be most remembered for, however, is her act of good sportsmanship when she slowed down and waited for her friend during perhaps the most prestigious race in the world … and still managed to win.
“When you work together, you never know what’s going to happen,” Linden told NBC Sports. “Helping her helped me.”
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.