Choosing to read Des Linden’s Memoir Choosing to Run
We’ve all read self-centered sports memoirs. Athletes who struggle writing (even with help from their editors), hastily craft stories that read like Wikipedia summaries of their superhuman medal-winning moments. Often the “book’s” purpose is to earn a few extra bucks for the athletes and their sponsors or agents who pushed them into writing it in the first place. If the book didn’t promise profit or gratify the athlete’s own ego, they wouldn’t have published it. For these reasons, many of us get turned off from reading sports biographies. However, when these stories are done right, they can be as exceptional and inspirational as the athletes themselves. This is the case with 2018 Boston Marathon Champion, Des Linden’s memoir Choosing To Run.
Linden’s memoir avoids three of the major pitfalls of the sport’s memoir genre: The sport’s figure is too superhuman to be relatable to readers (Linden drinks beer and is a coffee and whiskey aficionado); The sport’s figure is idolized as a goddess or god in the eyes of their respective sport’s community and the book reveals their darker secrets in a way that reader’s wish they wouldn’t have known (Linden isn’t afraid to reveal her humanness. She’s fun and relatable in ways that make readers want to know more about her life outside of running); The athlete can’t stop propping up their own ego (Linden isn’t afraid to give herself, or others, a tough time. She can dish it and take it, giving her an honest voice with a purpose beyond self-gratification). Linden owns her humanity in a way that is relatable to runners and non-runners alike. She is a human capable of superhuman feats. That’s a story worth reading.
Human First, Runner Second
Writing for a trail running audience on ATRA Trail News, I can’t help but make the comparison that Des Linden is the Courtney Dauwalter of the road running world. In the trail running community, Courtney Dauwalter is arguably the most celebrated figure in our sport. In 2022, she made the top of the list as UltraRunning Magazine’s Ultra Runner of the Year and the Freetrail’s Trail Runner of the Year and has been featured in numerous high-profile media including the world’s most streamed podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience.
But, what makes Dauwalter stand out is not just her victories, but how she wins, with a relaxed, bubbly attitude. She eats candy, shares post-race beers, and balances pushing herself deep into her “pain-cave” while also genuinely enjoying the race experience and celebrating with her fellow runners.
Linden is a two-time Olympian, 2018 Boston Marathon Champion, and World 50K record holder, yet in spite of these superhuman achievements, she comes across similar to Dauwalter as completely human. Throughout the memoir, Linden describes herself as a self-proclaimed whiskey and coffee aficionado, she isn’t afraid to have beers to celebrate after a race, complains about and even changes her training schedule when she’s not feeling it. As a runner myself, there were many times while reading this memoir where I found myself saying, “Yep, I’ve been there or felt that way” even if I’ve never crossed the Boston Marathon finish line in first place.
Linden also isn’t afraid to share her struggles in this memoir. She dives into details about a thyroid problem that had her grasping at straws for a cause of her depleted energy and depressive state, even concluding “I was convinced I had to be allergic to our new golden retriever puppy.” It was, in fact, not the fault of the puppy, but it’s moments like these throughout the memoir where readers may find themselves relating to the feeling of doing everything right but somehow life is still a struggle and it seems impossible to pinpoint the cause.
Linden has internal debates with herself about racing the marathon (the distance she’s known for), and how she came to race marathons after being a track athlete who thought her focus would never be longer than 10 kilometers. She describes her toughest losses, sharing a tweet while watching inspiring athletes at the 2018 Winter Olympics: “If you want to learn a thing or two about handling failure, turn on the #Olympics. You’d be hard-pressed to find people who have failed more, but the greats keep showing up. It takes 10 years, and countless setbacks to become an overnight success.” —Twitter Des Linden 2/21/18. As a two-time Olympian, Linden knows that being a winner also means being a loser.
Run Fast, Be Humble
Another interesting part of this memoir is that it isn’t ALL about Linden. There are several times throughout the memoir where she tells stories of key friends, mentors, rivals/training partners, that help bring out her best or push her through lows. Several characters she highlights include Magdalena Boulet, Reid Buchanan, Ryan Linden (husband), Shalane Flanagan, Gabriele Grunewald, Kara Goucher, and Joan Benoit Samuelson.
Linden’s view of herself as a runner is never just about herself. She has a broader perspective that allows her to see and support success from her teammates or find inspiration from the actions of others. Ultimately, that is what helps her be at her best, and in the toughest of times she draws on what she learns from others to find her greatest self. Linden’s story is NOT an “It’s all me, I did it by myself!” kind of success story.
In addition to learning about Linden through this memoir, I also had the pleasure of meeting her this past summer at the inaugural Brooks Trail Summit (read my event recap here.). She struck me as down-to-earth, immersing herself happily among groups of runners (not because the Brooks motto is Run Happy but genuinely because she seemed happy to run with others). Linden didn’t toot her own horn and just like any other attendee, was there to learn about and celebrate trail running in the beautiful Pacific Northwest mountains.
Speak Loudly and With Big Personality
Linden’s personality is to always speak her mind, which lends itself to authentic writing as opposed to painting herself in a certain light for particular audiences. One example of this is the way Linden shows her clash against her former training group, The Hansons Brooks Distance Project, and in particular Dathan Ritzenhein (hint: you won’t like this book if your name is Dathan Ritzenhein). This clash is largely a result of doping violations Ritzenhein was involved with while at Nike and his associations with convicted coach Alberto Salazar.
Linden isn’t afraid to address touchy topics. She engages with issues in our sport that mean something and need to be discussed. Check out my recent article on clean sport in trail running to learn more about the issue here.
Another perk of Linden’s transparent writing style that I enjoyed was that it allows the reader to learn more about her eclectic personality. She has an interesting taste in pre-race pump-up tunes, including Macklemore’s “Glorious,” Lana Del Ray’s “Summertime Sadness” and the punk rock album Maybe I’ll Catch Fire by Alkaline Trio. Linden is also a bookworm who enjoys classics including A Gentleman in Moscow or Joan Didion’s writings. Small details such as these go a long way toward showing her character and are often the kind of overlooked details that bring characters alive on the page.
Boston and Linden 2018: A Story That Will Be Told and Retold in More Books Than Just This One
Another interesting aspect of this book is the way it structures its chapters by flipping back and forth Linden’s running career and specific key moments from her best-known performance (and arguably one of the most exciting races of all time) the 2018 Boston Marathon. The chapters alternate between memories of her running career in a linear fashion and vivid, sensory-driven, heat-of-the-moment writing at key mile marks during her 2018 Boston Marathon race.
Trail runners in particular will connect with her descriptions of this race, largely because of the way that the 2018 Boston Marathon required more of a “trail mentality” than a “road mentality” to finish it. In the majority of road races, courses are smooth, runners focus on consistent pacing and there’s little challenge from the environment or course itself. It is a battle of keeping on pace. In contrast, the 2018 Boston Marathon was a battle of survival, much more like the experience of finishing a challenging trail race such as the Leadville Trail 100. Only several miles into the race, the majority of race favorites either quit or struggled to run anywhere near their predicted pace due to harsh freezing rain and Atlantic coastal storms. The runners at the front of the pack, including Linden, were the ones willing to endure the conditions and push on to the finish. Pace went out the window.
Reading a first-hand account of Linden’s race, how she managed the conditions and her emotions and made herself shine in a moment when so many lost hope or couldn’t handle the challenge, was vastly inspiring. Describing a win is one thing, but surviving the strongest weather in Boston Marathon history (an event which began in 1897) to come out on top despite being a complete underdog where no American had won the race in thirty-three years, that is a story where I want to hear every single detail. I found myself excited each time the memoir returned to these in-race moments and appreciated that it did so throughout the book instead of condensing her entire 2018 Boston Marathon race story into a single chapter.
A human doing superhuman feats is what we all strive to understand and what kept me turning pages in Linden’s memoir.
Choosing to Run will be released on April 4, 2023.