This piece was published before the Boston Marathon in 2018, which Des Linden went on to win in an astonishing and challenging race. Author Matthew Komatsu shares an updated introduction to this piece for 2020.
"When I wrote this essay about Des Linden's magical 2011 Boston Marathon near-miss, and how much it meant to me, I thought 2017 might be the year. But what we witnessed the following year was worth the wait. I say that because we got to see Des win in a way that highlighted her grit and determination and humanity – the things we admire most in her. The 2018 Boston Marathon runners faced punishing conditions, and many simply walked away from the cold, wind, and rain, having met their limits. But not our Des. We witnessed her stop to wait for a friend, thinking that if she was out of the running, she might as well help out someone was still in it. We witnessed her grind from start to finish, stoic until it was all over. And I'd argue that what we say that day was an example of what can happen when we refuse to quit. I write this right now in a world gone quiet from COVID. What should be a noisy few days of press and anticipation before the 2020 Boston Marathon, have become yet another in a long stretch of quarantine days unrecognizable from the ones that precede and follow. And we watch and hold our collective breath as the confirmed case and death numbers rise and rise. There appears to be little hope left in the world. And so I think this essay is strangely timely, as it is about loss and aspiration, and the finding strength in hard times and in unlikely places. May we all be like Des in the months to come."
As midnight approached April 18th, 2011, I could never have predicted the feat I would witness from thousands of miles from away, in the visiting officer’s quarters on Yokota Air Base, Japan. Nor could I have foreseen the way the footrace would impact me.
It had been over a month since the tsunami killed my last grandparent. Four weeks since I volunteered and deployed to Japan in support of the U.S. military relief effort, Operation Tomodachi, to find my father’s homeland cold and covered in snow. Three since the last survivor had been pulled from the roof of his home, floating at sea, a week prior. Two since my grandmother was cremated. I stared into a computer for twelve hours a day, amid the thrum of a humanitarian operation that could not deliver me from my grief or loneliness.
April 18th, another in an endless series of long days, offered the opportunity for a brief reprieve. I returned from work to my billet under low canopies of cherry blossoms, white despite the failing light. In my room, I scrolled the TV channels until I found a live broadcast of the 115th running of the Boston Marathon. I qualified for it in June 2010 with a 2:48 marathon, but even before the tsunami, I had never intended to race myself. I picked Desiree Linden – then still known as Desiree Davila – for the win: I had a soft spot for underdogs. But regardless of how the race was going to shake out, I knew that for the next two and a half hours, I could imagine myself there, laboring from Hopkinton to Boston. If only for a time, I could forget.
Over the course of our interviews, Desiree Linden – in 2011 still Desiree Davila – never used the word “secret” to describe what she knew on that morning six years ago. But this does not change the fact that she knew something the rest of us did not. Amid a bouncing crowd of jangled nerves, surrounded by the neon singlets and customized racing shoes of the Women’s Elite wave, she was nearly anonymous. She wore the unassuming yeoman’s attire of the Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project: white, yellow, orange, and black. Her dark hair tied into a ponytail above a sunglassed visage, her frame was no more diminutive than the browns and ebonies and alabaster whites that surrounded her. Cherop. Kilel. Goucher. These were the names upon the lips of commentators across the country. But Linden was coming off a 2:26, second-place finish at the 2010 Chicago Marathon. 2:26 on a hot day. Since then she’d put in the work and what’s more, she had stayed healthy. The temperature in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, was just north of 46 degrees, the skies sunny, and the breeze was favorable. Davila’s math added up: a good day to run fast. A good day to win Boston.
It was Kim Smith from the start, all angles and elbows. The pale Kiwi gapped the dark, lithe bodies of the lead pack early and held on. Al Trautwig calling the race for Universal Sports, his voice the sound of Olympic sport broadcasting since before I could remember: I sat in my dark room and watched from the sofa. The images cut from motorcycle-borne camera ahead of Smith, to a helicopter, and back. There was no mention of Desiree Linden.
The pace was hot, hotter still when the course swiveled the breeze from cross- to tailwind. Linden was back. Gapped far enough to feel the distance between her and the lead pack, she knew Kim Smith was nearly a quarter mile ahead. Every fiber of her yearned to close that distance and maintain the elusive sense of contact so important to victory.
But she did not give in. One foot after another. Chop wood. Carry water. If Kim Smith could run 2:19, then she would win. It was just that simple. But if the pace would settle and the surges die with six miles remaining; if the race would, as she and her coaches thought, take a 2:22-2:24 finish to win; if the race did not truly begin until Mile 20, then she would be there, ready. Waiting.
Between the facile commentary and the constraints of a camera focused only on the lead pack, the broadcast left me wanting. I caught an occasional glimpse of her singlet, blurred and out of focus, behind the lead pack. Too far back, it seemed, to be worth a mention.
She knew exactly what she was capable of. She knew because she had done the work required to earn the knowledge. The 120 mile weeks. The interval sessions. The race simulations. But despite all this, she remained in eighth place. On pace for a 2:22 finish, but unbelievably, nowhere near the leaders.
"This isn’t how it was supposed to be," she thought.
By the time the women hit halfway, I was fed up with the coverage. Not one mention of Linden, still ghosting a ways back off the lead pack. The only thing that saved the commentators from making the exact same observations over and over was the camera feed switching back and forth from the men’s race. Which was at least interesting, if only because they were on pace to break records. But when the view returned to the women’s race, my little room swelled. Energy and tension radiated from the television, flickering through the electric static of the occasional loss of camera signal. And it had nothing to do with the women in focus.
For eighteen miles, she abided, felt the breeze at her back and questioned whether the confidence she had brought to the day was misguided. Whether she should have abandoned the plan to run steady, and instead covered the moves and surges. For eighteen miles, Kim Smith set a blistering pace and punished the field with surge after surge.
But Linden silenced each doubt with strength and purposed restraint, and as Heartbreak Hill loomed, she could finally see it in the shrinking distance between her and the leaders. The plan had worked. They were coming back to her.
At one hour and fifty-two goddamn minutes, the commentators were still talking about Goucher, who had been gapped beyond hope. It was understandable – the close call of the year prior and all that – but unforgiveable, nonetheless.
“And on the left of the screen in the white top…” the announcer trailed off. I imagined him cross-referencing the name on the racer’s bib: “That is Desiree [Linden]…and that is her, pushing the pace a little bit. Wow!”
His incredulity pushed me over the edge.
“Finally!” I shouted at the screen.
The deafening roar of the crowd. They knew now, too: she was here to win. Descending Heartbreak, gooseflesh rippled across her skin; for the first time in her life, she understood what it meant to represent something much larger than herself. The last American standing, it was the U.S. versus everyone else, and every Bay Stater on the curb knew it. With less than 10k to go, the real race had just begun.
Couldn’t sit, couldn’t stand; instead I hovered, waiting for the shoe to drop. I’d felt the same way the year prior. The Africans had drafted off Goucher’s back until the finish was in sight, then dropped the hammer and left her in the dust. Please, I thought, watching Linden spar with Caroline Kilel and Sharon Cherop. Please.
Coolidge Corner nearly broke her, but she dug out, scratched back, buoyed by the spectators. This was why she suffered the key workouts on tired legs, why it was always that first step out the door when she wanted to do anything but run. It was the last repeat, the unforgiving rest interval, the merciless face of a ticking clock. Desiree Davila hardened herself for just such a moment. The journey, just a handful of miles ahead, was thousands of miles in the making. She could win.
It started as a whisper: “Come on, Desi.” I looked around my room sheepishly. A little louder: “Let’s go!” Each time, a little louder, these exhortations to an athlete continents away, until finally, I was with her on Boylston, shouting at the skyscrapers alongside thousands of Bostonians:
“GO, DESI, GO!”
Linden surged, leaving Cherop broken: shoulders slumped and arms swinging wildly into the gap. But Kilel hung on, face strained, and now it was her turn to break Linden with long, ground-devouring strides. Only Linden did not crack; she tucked in and let Kilel do the hard work of seeing nothing but pavement between her and the finish line blocks away.
With two blocks remaining, Linden made her move. Leaning against the protests of her body, she drove open a body-length lead on Kilel. But she couldn’t see Kilel’s resolve, teeth bared and head back. There was no looking back. It was her and the Hancock. For one, two, three strides. Still no Kilel. Ten, eleven, twelve: nothing but the distance ahead. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen. Eiighhhteeen. Trouble. Nineteen. Twenty.
Kilel did not respond so much as Linden’s legs rebelled. And when the Kenyan passed her, the finish line less than a block away, Linden’s body delivered its final ultimatum: this is the best we have.
Kilel broke the tape at 2:22:36 to collapse in a pile of dark limb and torso. Desiree Linden crossed two seconds in arrears. 2:22:38, nothing left to offer. Not even regret.
Maybe it’s silly to think that when I fell back onto the sofa just past two in the morning, breathless and smiling, my world had somehow changed for the better. As if a race, no matter how amazing, could have erased my loss. And yet.
I had witnessed the greatest American marathon of the twenty-first century. Watched the smoldering ember of American distance running erupt into hot, bright flame. And all this, from the unlikeliest of sources – a journeywoman whose first Boston Marathon, in 2007, resulted in a 201st place finish and an inauspicious time of 2:44:56. We were, all of us, surprised. All, of course, save Desiree Linden.
It is from that buoyant moment that one word comes to mind: hope. That all is not lost. That while we cannot undo what has been done, we persevere. That, like the wave of cherry blossoms that ripples white across vernal Japan each year, we can be reborn.
Matthew Komatsu is an Alaska Air National Guardsman, 2:44 marathoner (Marine Corps, 2013), and a Nonfiction Candidate in the University of Alaska’s MFA in Creative Writing program. You can find more of his work at www.matthewkomatsu.com but as always, please consider that his words do not reflect official policy or position.