Des Linden, Shalane Flanagan and the power of example

For as far back as I can remember, the American women were fighting to hopefully place at Boston each year, and often they didn’t do that. Women who did were celebrated as top Americans, but didn’t have the same respect as the women who won from countries around the world.

Des Linden changed that Monday with her first victory in six races to Boylston Street. It was the cap to a remarkable six months that will probably be remembered as the point that American women’s distance running inspired a generation of future champions.

The moment began when Shalane Flanagan crossed the finish line first at NYC in November, her “Fuck yeah!” was a rallying cry across American women’s running. For the first time in the memory of current elite runners, an American woman had won a World Marathon Major.

Leading up to Marathon Monday, the discussion wasn’t “Could an American place?” It was “Could American women sweep?” With four of the top U.S. distance runners in the elite women’s field — Shalane, Des, Jordan Hasay and Molly Huddle — what would have sounded crazy a year earlier seemed almost inevitable. Even after Jordan dropped out the day before the race because of injury, the sweep seemed possible.

Des was the one to get the win on a brutal day filled with rain, wind and temperatures cold enough to give many runners hypothermia. Shalane finished seventh, and Molly was further back, one of the hypothermia victims. But between Des and Shalane were five other American women finishers, most with names nobody had heard before Monday. Seven of the top 10 runners were American women.

Before the race, Shalane mentioned that both Des and Molly had beaten her in races before during their careers. If Shalane could win, why not Des? Why not Molly? That’s the power of example.

Roger Bannister and the race to break 4:00

Back in 1954, British medical student Roger Bannister was one of three men chasing the sub-4-minute mile, a quest that had eluded runners for decades. His name went down in history as the man who did the impossible, and yet 46 days later, John Landy also broke 4 minutes.

History can debate whether Bannister was just lucky enough to be the first of the trio to make his attempt, or if he was the only one who could have crossed the seemingly insurmountable barrier. But once he did it, it lost its mystical power. Now the best high school boys run sub-4 miles.

More and more, running is discovering that many of the limitations on what we do are mental, not physical. And one of the biggest mental hurdles is the thought that something is impossible.

Harnessing the group effect

When Shalane joined the Bowerman Track Club, she was the only women in the marathoner group. She talks on Mario Fraioli’s Morning Shakeout podcast about how she asked Jerry Schumacher to bring in more women after a while so she could train with other women.

By all reports, Shalane and her focus on creating that group of elite women runners within Bowerman has powered all the women in the group to reach new levels of achievement. Shalane won NYC. Amy Hastings Cragg knocked more than 5 minutes off her marathon PR at Tokyo in February.

The best example of the power of a group was the 2016 Olympic marathon trials, when Shalane struggled and Amy worked with her to keep them both in the lead in the later stages of the race, until Shalane finally made her charge on ahead to ensure her spot on the team. Des ran down Shalane in the final miles, but Shalane was able to hold on for the third spot on the team.

Another example, from an earlier Boston Marathon era was when the Greater Boston Track Club, led by Bill Rodgers, dominated Boston in the 1970s.

Groups don’t just work for elite runners. I’m the furthest thing from an elite runner, and yet during the past two-plus years, I’ve done things I never thought possible because of my running group, the Sub-30 Club.

BEAST mode: Be Epic And Strong Together

At some point after I started running again as an adult, and before I was immersed in the Sub-30 Club, I read a feature in Runner’s World about multi-race weekends and thought “Those people are crazy! I could never do that.”

In October, I’ll run my fourth multi-race weekend in two years at the Runner’s World Half and Festival, and what used to seem impossible is now a given. Why? Because every day I see friends in Sub-30 who are runners like me doing things I wouldn’t have imagined doing before. And then I see it happen and think “If she can do it, so can I.”

Really, that’s the heart of Sub-30. When Ted Spiker started the club with his column about his quest for a Sub-30 5K, he tapped into an element of what makes running goals possible — our need for example.

In a group of more than 6,350 runners, there are no shortage of examples for any goal any of us want to reach. Every day there are discussions about how we train, how we reached goals, how we found that place in us that we didn’t know was there until we chased something bigger.

Ted dubbed that BEAST mode, for Be Epic And Strong Together. That’s exactly how Des approached Boston on Monday, and the way she tells it, it’s a big part of the reason she won.

I’ve wanted to run a marathon at least since high school, but it was only after watching my Sub-30 friends run NYC in 2016 that I committed to the training to run the race this fall. Why? Because if they could do it, so could I.

Example will power the future of running

At the Boston Marathon expo Sunday, Kathrine Switzer spoke about women’s running, and she made a point that can’t be emphasized enough. She started running because her father encouraged her to when she was 12, about 1960. Because of that, she began running in school, and then trained with the men’s track team at Syracuse, where she met the coach who would inspire her to run Boston for the first time, a run that opened doors for women across the country to do what had previously been thought impossible.

As a child, I played several sports, and my mother was always willing to play basketball or softball with me. Why? Because her hometown of Quincy had a giant recreation program where boys and girls could play pretty much any sport they wanted starting at age 6 — in the 1950s, decades before Title IX.

My mom played more sports than I can count. She wasn’t necessarily a star at all of them, though she did win the city archery championship. She wasn’t able to make her high school’s basketball team, back when they still played “girl’s rules,” but she worked for the rec department’s playground program and led her playground’s softball team to the city title a couple of times.

For her, sports were something girls and boys played, and so my sister and I played sports starting as soon we were old enough. In one way, my mother had more advantages than I did — my hometown didn’t allow girls to play softball until fourth grade when I was a kid, although they added a younger league that year, allowing my sister to start in first grade.

But track? Running? That was only available when I got to high school. And I didn’t know any runners, so I never thought about it. Until, that is, the owner of the local market suggested I run indoor track to get in shape for softball. Our softball team was a perennial state title contender, and I knew I was going to have a tough time making the team, so I figured I should take any advantage I could. I signed up for indoor track. I never did try out for softball.

Still, track wasn’t something we grew up aspiring to run in high school. Our indoor team was the best in the league, but that’s partially because the coach also coached JV soccer and recruited players from the soccer teams for track.

Crystal and I after Team Hoyt spoke at the Boston Marathon expo the day before the race.

Monday, one of the runners I was cheering for was a track teammate and neighbor growing up. Back when she first mentioned she was running Boston, she texted “I don’t think I would ever have started running if you didn’t make me go to XC with you.”

I don’t remember that, but I’m glad I did. She was an amazing runner in high school, managed a 3:46 Boston amid Monday’s miserable conditions and runs for one of the Team Hoyt chapters.

Now? Every town has a 5K or three. The Sub-30 ranks include several “Junior Subbers,” children of Sub-30 members who also run. Not just kids races or 5Ks, either. One recently ran his first 15K just before he turned 13, and another ran Broad Street with us last year and is in her second year of middle school track.

Shalane herself had that kind of introduction to running. Her parents are both runners, and her mom, Cheryl Treworgy, was the first woman to break 2:50 in the marathon, in 1971. She talks about how she was 14 and watching her dad make the left on Boyleston when she first decided she wanted to run marathons.

As more of us run, more of the next generation finds out about running and sees it as something they can do.

NYRR and the Rising New York Road Runners

At the Abbott World Marathon Majors panel at the Boston expo, four of the race directors were talking about their different races, with friendly jibes tossed around. Peter Ciaccia, race director for the TCS NYC Marathon and president of events for New York Road Runners, was asked about NYRR’s inclusion of disabled runners, and that led to a digression from WMM races to the running community.

NYRR has long had programs for children and teens, now known as Rising New York Road Runners.  About three years ago, Ciaccia said they started the Youth Wheelchair Training Program for disabled children and teens to help them get active, with the help of the wheelchair racing community.  He framed it as part of NYRR’s commitment to helping people of all ages, paces and abilities throughout New York City get more active. The Rising New York Road Runners program includes 135,000 students in the city. That lack of exposure to running when I was growing up? NYRR is making sure that’s not the case for as many kids as possible in New York.

BAA Executive Director Tom Grilk, one of the other panelists, jumped in to note that for all the grief Bostonians normally give New Yorkers, he had to give NYRR props because of its role in the NYC community far beyond organizing the marathon each year. Again, another way running is reaching more people earlier.

The future of running

I’m a little jealous of kids today. So many more of them have the opportunity to find running on purpose, and to start this sport that we can continue for a lifetime early enough that high school isn’t their first time running a race. They have more chances than ever to see U.S. runners achieving great goals on the national and international stage, and more reasons to say “I want to be like her” or “I want to be like him.”

The first women’s Olympic marathon was in 1984. Kathrine Switzer ran Boston for the first time 51 years ago. Especially for women, distance running is just now hitting its stride, and girls today have amazing women to look to for inspiration. My older niece has a “Run, Molly, Run” shirt I gave her the year Molly ran Rio, from her hometown’s Chamber of Commerce. Her parents don’t run, but I’m hoping to run Falmouth in 2019, and hoping she and her little sister are among the family there to cheer. Neither one of them might become a runner, but they’ll know it’s something they can do.

This is happening in family after family around the country as more and more people begin to run. That drives a culture and a visibility for a sport that has typically lacked it outside of a two-week period every fourth summer.

The more kids who start running, the better the pool of U.S. runners becomes and the more likely it is that distance running, like so many other sports, becomes a strength and a place where American runners are mentioned among the great names in the sport. When that happens, we’ll likely look back and point to Shalane and Des as the spark that ignited the change. Because if they can do it, so can other U.S. women.