At Olympic Marathon Trials, the Agony of Fourth Place

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ATLANTA — The moments that Des Linden wants back came with about three and a half miles left in the race on Saturday as she battled wind gusts and the punishing hills at the U.S. Olympic marathon team trials.

Doubt crept in, as it often does at some point in a 26.2-mile race, and that’s when the leaders started to pull away.

“I got a little soft,” said Linden, who overcame brutal conditions of rain, wind and cold to win the Boston Marathon in 2018.

Her mental darkness lasted only a few minutes. A few miles later, it appeared she just might reel in Sally Kipyego for third place and a third trip to the Olympics.

But then Kipyego no longer seemed to be getting closer. Not only that, but Linden was running out of real estate. All that pain, all those miles in training, and then, on a cold, blustery day, there was Kipyego, on the final straightaway, running away with the last spot on the plane to the Tokyo Games this summer. Linden watched from 11 seconds back.

“I still thought I had a chance,” she said shortly after the race, her jaw quivering in the cold. “I wasn’t going to give up until I finished. Well, when she finished. Then I gave up.”

Every four years, there are athletes who just miss out on a spot on the Olympic team. But there may be nothing crueler than just missing one of the six spots on the U.S. marathon team, which are decided in one make-or-break race.

The top three men and the top three women are in; everyone else is out. Few events require so much lonely, painful training; then the pain-filled, hit-or-miss qualifying competition leaves the entire field limping away and in need of weeks of recovery.

Consider how close Leonard Korir, 33, a Kenyan-born member of the U.S. Army, came to making the team. He spent most of the last 10 miles of the race in perfect position to use his speed to book his ticket to the Olympics. He left the finish area without making the team or speaking to reporters. Who could blame him? In his debut marathon in October, Korir blazed a course in Amsterdam with a time of 2 hours 7 minutes 56 seconds, making him the second fastest qualifier in Saturday’s field.

But when he needed a final burst in the last quarter-mile, he came up short, closing a 20-meter gap between him and Abdi Abdirahman to two or three strides, only to finish three seconds out. Korir’s time was 2:10:06, Abdirahman’s 2:10:03.

So it was left to Linden, 36, a two-time Olympian, to explain what it felt like to be so close. “Bummer,’’ she said, still processing it.

She has experienced this kind of heartbreak: In 2011 at the Boston Marathon, she was right there down the final stretch on Boylston Street. She had never been faster. She ran the race she had dreamed of winning more than any other in 2:22:38, but was outkicked by Caroline Kilel of Kenya by two seconds.

Linden named her dog Boston because the race meant so much to her, and in 2018, on a day when the bone-chilling rain came sideways, it all went right for her.

She has been trying to get back to something like that place ever since, and on Saturday, it seemed as if she was going to.

She took her turn leading a deep group of elite women into the second half of the race, also making sure to tuck in and protect herself from the wind and let some of the others do some of the hardest work. She had shown twice before that she knows how to get on the podium in this race, where third is as good as first, and fourth can hurt way more than 27th.

Linden knew this course was going to be hard for everyone. It was new and no one had run it. The locale was out of the comfort zone of elite racers used to running the marquee races in New York and Boston and the like. In those races, Linden knows where the tough parts are, where the pack will surge, where she will hurt. In Atlanta, the day before the race, she did not even know where she was going to get her usual prerace bowl of rice.

As expected, the race started slowly and tactically, with six-minute miles, then slowly gained steam. Still, 14 women crossed the halfway mark at once, in 1:14:38, and at Mile 20, there were as many as 10 runners with a shot at the podium. Linden, right there among the leaders, seemed solid.

Then, around Mile 22, she felt the pace quicken, as Molly Seidel and Aliphine Tuliamuk pushed to a 5:17 mile.

“A big jump for me,” Linden said.

She didn’t have an answer.

For a moment, she thought of Boston, just seven weeks away. Maybe she ought to jog in, save her legs and come back strong for that race? She dismissed the thought. Stay out here and fight. And so she did, into the wind, up the hills of the final miles, getting just one spot away from a seat on the plane.

And that’s where she finished.

“You learn,” she said while the memory was fresh and goose bumps were rising in the cold wind of the finish area. “You think: Next time. And then: Oh, yeah, no next time.”

Linden will be 40 in four years. She has been at this for more than a decade. So much pain, so many miles.

But Boston beckons. That’s where all the miles lead, as she has said, especially on a day like Saturday, when she was forced to try hard to believe that sometimes a race isn’t about the results but the effort and the process. Believing in anything else might lead to madness. Plus, a new generation is rising.

“Finishing fourth is a bummer,” she said. “But it means it’s a really good group of women out there in front of me.”

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