It didn’t take long for Des Linden, the 2018 Boston Marathon champion and two-time Olympian from Michigan, to realize a global pandemic was going to wreak havoc with her race calendar in 2020 and beyond.
But after months of running to stand still last year, Linden came up with a solution. She filled her own calendar in the fall. And then she created her own race this spring, one that’ll have her targeting a world record at a new distance — at 50 kilometers, or just over 31 miles — and perhaps giving her a sneak peek at her future as an ultramarathoner.
“Yeah, I’ve been a little bored,” Linden said, laughing, after a recent workout at Stoney Creek Metropark near her home in Washington, Mich.
Her audacious plans to run a grueling double last spring — competing in two elite marathons seven weeks apart — were scrapped after Linden finished fourth the U.S. Olympic Trials in February, just missing qualifying for her third Olympic team. The Boston Marathon in April was initially postponed until September, so she contemplated a different double, piggybacking Boston with the New York City Marathon in November. But both those races eventually were called off as well.
“And those are the things I’m excited about, getting into the major marathons and kind of having that pressure-filled stage,” said Linden, 37, a veteran of 20 marathons who owns nine top-five finishes in world majors. “So I was just looking for something that was gonna get me out the door.”
After taking a break from training for a couple of months last spring, Linden got to thinking — and planning — along with her agent and sponsors. They came up with a punishing training plan that had its own hashtag — #RunDestober — and encouraged others to join her “calendar club” by running as many miles each day as the date in October. (Or kilometers, for those who weren’t quite up for the full challenge.)
Linden typically tops out a 120-125 miles a week during a marathon-training segment. But this challenge ended with her running 196 miles over the final seven days of the month in the cold and rain near Charlevoix, where she and her husband, Ryan, also have a home. And just for kicks, she capped the month by traveling to run the final 31-mile day in New York, finishing with a full marathon in Central Park on Halloween.
“It was definitely amped up, but we had some fun with it and were able to involve other people,” Linden said. “And for me, it was a trial run, to a degree. How do I respond? Am I durable enough? Do I like it? So those were all questions I was trying to answer.”
The verdict was sorely reassuring, and the result was a bid she’ll make to break the women’s world record at 50K early next week. The current mark is held by Great Britain’s Aly Dixon, who ran a 3:07:20 at last year’s 50K world championships in Romania.
But Linden will try to lower it in an event she and her team helped create out of thin air, working with race organizers in Oregon to set up a World Athletics-certified course, lining up post-race drug testing and recruiting a field that’ll include several international athletes trying to hit the Olympic marathon qualifying time standard.
In order for Linden’s run to qualify for a world record, she’ll need to have at least three competitors finish the 50K distance. She has enlisted some pace-setting help from, among others, her husband, an elite triathlete and distance runner himself, and Charlie Lawrence, a former teammate with the Hanson-Brooks Distance Project in Rochester Hills.
“It’s a lot of moving parts,” said Linden, who’d initially planned to run the Two Oceans Ultramarathon (56K) in South Africa this spring before it was canceled due to COVID concerns. “You gain new respect for people who put on races, and also for the volunteers who go out and make it happen.”
To make this happen, it also took some tweaks to her training regimen. Because as her coach, Walt Drenth, who recently retired as director of Michigan State’s track and cross-country programs, noted last week, “This is not a trail many people tread down.”
Still, after weighing the risks of an intensified workload, they’ve discovered there might actually be some hidden rewards in the long run, if you will.
Normally, Linden would fit one 20-mile run into a three-month marathon training segment. But this winter, she added a few more — at 22, 24 and 26 miles — and while her weekly volume was lower (105-110 miles) the results were encouraging. (“She seems to have adapted to it pretty well,” Drenth said.) Linden completed her 26.2-miler in Arizona a few weeks ago in 2:36.17, which equates to a 5:58 mile pace.
“We’ve come off workouts and Walt and I both look at the splits and are like, ‘Oh, wow, this is really good!” said Linden, who’ll need a 6:01 pace to break the 50K record. “So now he’s already kind of turning those things over and seeing how we can adapt this to marathon training in the future.”
As for what the future holds, Linden sounds like she’s in no hurry to find out. A move to longer distances — and new off-road challenges — seems likely at some point, particularly given the accelerated pace and strategy involved in the marathon these days.
“I think the marathon has kind of become the comfort zone for me,” Linden said. “When I started it was like, ‘What’s gonna happen after 20 miles? How does the body respond? How do I take to training?’ All those things were very intriguing, and then it was trying to figure out the distance and squeeze everything I can out of it. I feel like I’ve done a really great job of that.
“But I also feel like how people run the distance is changing as well, just with this new era of (shoe) technology. So it almost runs more like a 30K and just generally my thought is, ‘Well, maybe the 50K will run more like a marathon?’”
That said, a year without racing also has given her time to step back and look at her decorated career from a different angle.
“I think it kind of gave me another chance to look at it more long-game, which is nice,” Linden said. “Because I was kind of all-in, like, ‘Let’s just do everything until I burn out here’ in kind of a one-year or two-year time frame. But now I feel really refreshed and excited and rejuvenated. So I think it’s gonna be another four-year push and when the wheels fall off, we’ll know.”
With the race calendar likely returning to normal this summer, Linden will return to the marathon for now. As the first alternate for the U.S. team headed to the Tokyo Olympics in July, she says she’ll be ready if one of the top three American women is forced to pull out due to injury or illness. In the coming weeks, she’ll likely announce her plans for a fall marathon event, with a return to Boston expected next spring.
“The thinking now is let’s look back from the 2024 (Olympic) trials and fill things in that way,” Linden said.
She’ll turn 41 the day of the 2024 Opening Ceremony for the Paris Olympics, but that’s the same age Meb Keflezighi was when he won the 2016 U.S. marathon trials. And as she is quick to point out, the U.S. men’s team headed to Tokyo this summer also includes 44-year-old Abdi Abdirahman.
“I won’t be at the top of my game at those ’24 trials, but crazier things have happened,” Linden said. “So I won’t count myself out just yet.”
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