How marathon runner Des Linden ventured into the ‘unknown’ to break the 50km record

Des Linden knows how to celebrate — whether that’s slurping champagne out of a running shoe or sipping a glass of well-aged bourbon.

Those were two of her tipples of choice as she toasted becoming the first woman to run 50 kilometers in under three hours on April 13, her time of 2:59:54 on a course near Eugene, Oregon, besting the previous record by almost seven-and-a-half minutes.

“The best thing that’s ever happened with talking about bourbon publicly is there’s a ton of bourbon fans out there and they all want to share it with you,” Linden, a self-professed connoisseur of the spirit, tells CNN Sport.

“I did get gifted a ton of bourbon and whiskey and we had this really nice one that was aged like 66 months or something — it was beautiful.”

The celebrations were well-earned. A seasoned marathon runner who had never previously raced beyond 26.2 miles, Linden clocked an average pace of five minutes, 47 seconds per mile over 31 miles to dip under the three-hour mark and take the record from Britain’s Alyson Dixon.

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Racing beyond the marathon

The 37-year-old Linden decided to take on the 50km record to fill a hole in her racing calendar that would usually have been occupied by a spring marathon.

Last October, she completed a unique feat — dubbed “Destober” — that involved running a distance corresponding to each day of the month: one mile on the first day, two on the second, before eventually finishing with a 31-mile run on October 31.

That proved a catalyst for attempting the 50km in April, the build-up to which involved running between 110 and 115 miles each week with grueling speed sessions incorporated into her long runs of 20, 22, 24 and 26 miles.

The training was designed to prepare Linden for racing beyond the distance of a marathon.

“I was going through 25, 26 miles and you start feeling that marathon fatigue where your feet are kind of sticking to the ground, your energy levels are low and you still have a long way to go,” she says, reflecting on last month’s event.

“What was very specifically challenging on this course is that we came through that 26.2-mile mark and then you head away from the start/finish line.

“You’re getting further away from home to a degree, even though you’re actually getting closer; that was a big mental challenge.”

With no fans lining the route and only a pacemaker for company, it proved to be a new racing experience for Linden. Sticking to the target pace on the out-and-back course, which wound along a deserted bike path near Dorena Lake, required a focused mindset.

“It was these long stretches of absolutely beautiful scenery,” says Linden.

“There are horses on the side of the road galloping along at the same pace as us and it’s beautiful, but you could easily just fall asleep … because there was no real energy around it.

“Physically, I just felt super locked in and very well prepared … the main challenge was that last five, six miles where it was like, ‘I’ve never been here before and I got to keep my head on to make sure I get the record and the sub three.'”

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‘Shooting big’ in Boston

With the 50km distance not recognized by World Athletics, Linden’s time doesn’t count as an official world record — instead described as a “world best” by the sport’s governing body.

But as far as she’s concerned, it all means the same.

“It’s just words, right?” says Linden. “When you simplify it to the general public, no one in the world has done this before, and that’s still pretty special.

“If we can make the event more popular and more people start to do it, maybe World Athletics will rethink their stance on it.”

Having competed at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, Linden narrowly missed out on a spot in the US marathon team for Tokyo, finishing fourth at last year’s trials in Atlanta where the top three qualified.

An alternate for this year’s Olympics if a member of the team has to withdraw, Linden is also setting her sights on the Boston Marathon in October.

In 2018, she battled through wind, rain and biting cold to become the first American woman to win Boston since 1985 — a performance she’s hoping to repeat later this year.

“Win Boston is always the goal when I sign up and it’ll be interesting to see how the fields come together and what it feels like in the fall,” she says, with the race moved from its usual April date amid the pandemic.

“I’m excited to be able to train at home in Charlevoix, Michigan, because I think that area is just perfect for preparing for a Boston-type course. I’m definitely shooting for a big one in October.”

And when it comes to ultra-running — defined as any race further than a marathon — the 50km record might just have been the start for Linden.

“It is intriguing getting into that unknown and going like, ‘I’ve never been here before,'” she says.

“It was all so foreign and fresh and new, and I think it made me excited about the further and the longer distances … it’s all about challenging myself and testing those unknowns.

“There’s obviously a ton of distance left to go there. I think I could see myself going a little bit longer and flirting with that stuff for a while.”

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