The invisible woman: Desiree Davila’s perfect run in Boston

For once, I called something correctly in a marathon. While I didn’t predict that Desiree Davila would come in second, I did say to Jonathan, right before the gun went off for the women’s race, “I think Davila is going to wipe the floor with Goucher today.”

I will not go into why I thought this, although I think some of it has to do with the way Goucher races marathons, and by that I mean in a way that reflects a narrative that she seems to have internalized, but a narrative that reflects a racing strategy that does not favor beating Africans. Davila, by contrast, was still relatively under the radar going into Boston (despite having run the fourth fastest marathon for an American woman recently) — and, of course, that’s all changed now. But she has not had dramatic expectations foisted upon her. Yet. Let’s hope that now that she’s effectively secured her spot as the top American female marathoner that she keeps her head. Because her head is what got her second place today in a race that I don’t think she could have executed more flawlessly.

So, let’s look at that race (my mile markers are approximate, since there was no mention of them in coverage). In a marathon weekend that saw spectacular performances in both London and Boston, Davila’s run is the one that I cannot stop thinking about. We can learn a lot from it.

Note: Runners’ pre-Boston personal bests are shown in parentheses after the first mention of their names. This should give you a better idea of the calibre of the women Davila was up against in this race.

At the start: Davila (2:26:20) is not even in the front row. Where is she? Hmm.

Mile 1: So much of the women’s race was about Kim Smith (2:25:21). Smith shot out to the front within the first 30 seconds. She was like a woman on fire. I thought she had a shot at winning today anyway, but with this move I believed it even more. So immediately it’s Smith followed by a huge pack. Davila is in the front of that pack, which I will refer to as “the pack.” I notice Davila is being careful to hit the tangents. “Smart girl,” I think to myself. It’s the little things.

Mile 2: Davila is still motoring away in front of the pack, or at least in the first two rows. After Smith, the commentary is still all about Kara Goucher (2:25:53) at this point, as it will be for the next 19 miles.

Mile 3: Smith’s lead is now about 30 seconds. You can’t even see the pack.

Mile 4: Lost to ads and coverage of the wheelchair races.

Mile 5: Now Goucher’s in front of Davila. The pack has now split into two packs. You can just make out Davila hovering between them, just ahead of the trailing, second pack. The first pack is taking off in pursuit of Smith. Davila stays cool, checking her watch. She is running her own race for the time being. I am getting excited, mostly because she looks so relaxed and unflustered.

Mile 6: Again, we miss most of this mile.

Mile 7: Smith’s lead has opened up to about 40 seconds now. She looks strong. Now Davila is positioned midway through packs one and two. She’s slowly working her way up to the lead pack. She casually sips water. She looks like she’s jogging. I am getting more excited.

Mile 8: Now the pack behind Smith consists of [I think] a Japanese runner, Goucher and a large collection of Africans. But who’s that woman who’s just about caught up? It’s Davila. She’s still hitting those tangents.

Mile 9/10: Smith’s lead is now huge. You can’t even seen the pack behind her as she runs along the long straightaway in Natick. She’s on 2:21:20 pace. Incredible. Leaves are blowing up the road in the same direction as the runners. It’s a strong tailwind.

Approaching the halfway point: Smith’s lead is shrinking. It’s 38 seconds. While Larry Rawson has spiralled off into a floridly incomprehensible soliloquy on the history of the marathon [“Just give me water for my village!”], he and Al Trautwig have managed to totally miss the fact that Smith has hit the halfway point in a shorts-shitting 1:10:52. Had they noticed this, they also would have noticed Smith’s pace dropping off. I think this is where she started to have problems, because she doesn’t look quite right.

Mile 14: Smith is valiantly fighting off whatever ails her, because her lead is up to a minute now. The camera cuts away to Goucher, who is running without anyone around her. She’s fallen off the back of the pack. Which pack? Maybe both. Meanwhile, Smith’s balloon has sprung a leak, because the lead pack is closing the gap. Now her lead has shrunk to 36 seconds. There’s a shot of the pack behind her. Davila is either not there or she’d hiding her 5’2″ frame somewhere. I briefly panic. Wait! There she is, way off to the left of the screen. She’s catching up to that pack. Or maybe she’s parallel. Anyway, she’s in the game.

Miles 15/16: No idea what happened. There was a huge gap in coverage.

Miles 17/18: Smith is now clearly in big trouble. Her stride has a big hiccup coming down a hill. At the bottom of that hill, at 1:38:00, she pulls off to the side, clutching her right calf. Might be a cramp, might be a torn soleus. Who knows. But she takes off again. But now she’s running with gritted teeth, her lead eroding with each stride. She is effectively fucked. Her race is over.

There’s another shot of the trailing pack. I see a non-African way off to the left and I momentarily think it’s Davila, but then I can see by the height that it’s Goucher. Dammit. Where’s Davila?!

19/20: Smith has another stumble. Her pace has dropped to 6:00. I feel bad for her. At 1:41:00, everyone’s passing her. Now I can see Davila again. Goucher is now behind her. Trautwig and Rawson are still talking about Goucher’s status. At this point Caroline Kilel (2:23:25) has taken the lead and is running assertively.

[There’s coverage of the invitational mile races. More opinions from me: Lukas Verzbicas should have been disqualified for shoving Andy Baddeley at the finish. What an asshole.]

Mile 21: We’ve come back from a commercial and something big has happened in the meantime. At 1:51:00 the lead pack consists of four Africans: Kilel, Sharon Cherop (2:22:42), Dire Tune (2:23:44) and Alice Timbilili (2:25:03). A fifth runner is running up to join them: Davila!!! Davila gets right to work and at 1:52:30 she’s taken the lead with complete and utter confidence. She does not care that these are Africans, and Africans always win. Trautwig and Rawson can’t believe it. This Davila chick must be nuts! She is running with, and passing, Dire Tune! Now she’s solidly in front, challenging the whole lot.

Mile 22: Davila continues to look incredibly relaxed and unfazed. There is no tension in her body and no sign of strain on her face. The pack has dropped Tune. Timbilili is dropping off the back.

And then there were three.

Davila has a shot at third!!! No, screw that. She has a shot at winning. She can win this thing if she’s smart about it.

Kilel goes to the front. Davila looks unconcerned. She sticks to the tangents, moving inside the group on a slight curve. I believe that this is where the race took on a new dimension. Here is where Davila took the opportunity to evaluate what state her competitors were in. Mere inches away from them, she could sense how tired they were and gauge their tiredness against her own. Why do I think this is what was going on? Because at this point Davila moves to the lead again and shortly after this she starts throwing in little surges. She is going to start wearing these ladies down.

Mile 23: Davila’s leading by a metre, asserting herself. But she’s also enjoying the moment. She’s checking out the crowds. Jesus. She looks totally cool, like she’s on a training run. Timbilili is dead meat now, a distant fourth. The game is officially on for win, place or show. Davila stays in front. Trautwig starts calling her “Desiree De Silva.” I become apoplectic.

Mile 24: Kilel and Cherop move to the front. Davila sticks with them. She throws in another surge. She is totally fucking with their heads! Kilel responds and retakes the lead. Davila eases off on a downhill, when again Kilel and Cherop go to the front. Actually, she falls back a good three metres, in a scary way. We are starting to groan. But then Davila opts out of the water stop and regains some ground that way. Remember all that water she was drinking earlier? She’s back with the Kenyans. Then she’s in front again. Kilel keeps challenging Davila, whereas at this point Cherop is out of that battle, content to stay in contact. I theorize that Cherop will be third based on this behavior.

Mile 25: Davila’s lead is now about two metres. People all over the country are screaming at their televisions right now, including us. They’re at 5:17 pace. Davila is still trying to wear down those Kenyans. Not just with her legs, but with her attitude too. She’s still trading Kilel for the lead spot. Then Davila slips to third again. But she looks fine. I have to believe she’s doing this on purpose.

Mile 26: Davila is trying to catch Kilel, but Cherop keeps cutting her off. 2:19:50 — after hanging out in third, Davila throws in a huge surge on a turn. This takes both Kilel and Cherop by surprise. Whereas Kilel is straining, Davila has broken Cherop with this move. I say that I hope to hell she’s running the Mini 10K because I want to interview this woman more than any other marathoner now.

Kilel shoots to the front at 2:20:20. Is Davila cooked? No!!! She’s not giving up. She makes an effort to close on Kilel. Universal Sports manages to turn off the onscreen clock, so I have no idea where they are on Boylston Street, but I think it’s about 300m out from the finish. Trautwig and Rawson are calling Kilel as the winner, but Davila starts motoring and — holy fuck! — she catches Kilel and passes her. We are screaming and clapping. The cat has run down into the basement. But Kilel has just a little bit more speed in her legs and she pulls away again, finishing just two seconds ahead of Davila in 2:22:36.

The finish line: Leg speed is what won this race today, not endurance. Why do I say that? Because Kilel collapses to the ground after breaking the tape. By contrast, Davila stops, rests her hands on her knees for a few seconds, reflexively turns off her watch and then starts walking around. She looks like she’s just finished a fun run. Had that race been a mile longer, with a few more minutes of wearing Kilel down, I think she would have won. But a marathon is 26.2 miles. Today, Desiree Davila covered that distance in 2:22:38 by running one of the smartest races I’ve ever seen.

Edited: Here’s an interview that Peter Gambaccini of Runner’s World did with Davila a few weeks before Boston. In it, she talks about the “simulator workout” she did, a 26.2K run over an exaggerated version of the Boston course. There’s another lesson: prepare for your goal race’s course and conditions. Here’s some video of that workout. I love the little pieces of visualization the Hansons use.

And here’s a nice post-race interview with Roger Robinson.

30 Responses

  1. Nice call, Julie. I’m impressed that you were able to track Davila’s movements, as my only recollection of her from the coverage, until the last few miles, was that she had fallen behind one of the packs early in the race.

    Davila looked real smooth. Perhaps she had more strength or better form than her competitors, but she didn’t look like those miles had taken a toll until the very last straightaway when she was unable to hold her surge. She has a likable lack of drama about her.

  2. Love the post! Awesome race, though the announcers were maddening at times. Desiree de Silva? Gah!

    Because of another botched announcing job at a T&F event last fall, I tweeted a couple days ago: “@UniversalSports Please don’t pronounce Desiree’s last name as ‘Deville’ again. Cruella & the 101 Dalmations aren’t racing Boston this year.”
    Guess they figured out another way to butcher it.

    Des looked impressive even back in the 2009 World championships in Berlin finishing a step behind Goucher for 11th with a sub 2:28. Smart, level-headed, and steadily improving. 2012 Olympic marathon team… Shalane, Desiree and Kara?

    • Yes, I remember wondering why Davila was so overlooked at the world champs, especially given how much better she looked than so many other women in that race. As for 2012, don’t rule out Amy Hastings.

  3. You got that out early! I’m looking forward to finding some video of the final miles of both races. Davila is from the Steve Spence school of marathoning, but version 2 — run your own race to a point. She just has to sort out the final kick and/or surge to the finish for the Olympics. Don’t think we’ll see a “Kim Smith” in that one.

    • When I am obsessed enough, I work quickly! I don’t think Davila would do well running a Kim Smith race either, but I do wonder what she could have done had she started to apply the thumbscrews at, say, mile 21 instead of mile 22.

  4. I loved her immediate post-race interview. No crying, no whooping, just an honest recap of her remarkable day.

    Thanks, Julie, for another great post.
    Knowledge+passion for the subject = great writing.

  5. This was just wonderful to read. Totally thrilling, with an eye for racing as a sport that most writers miss. Davila is a little punk, not the traditional runner-beauty queen, and I hope she’ll reveling in her win.

    • Thanks, Marilyn and Sarah. What always galls me about the televised marathon coverage isn’t just the usual outrageous mistakes — names gotten wrong, failure to note where people are or how fast they’re moving — but their total inability to translate to viewers why the marathon is so exciting. It’s not just a bunch of people running. There is strategy, there is luck, there is bravery and there is sheer will.

      The women’s race yesterday was a drama in two acts. It was one of the best marathons I can remember in recent memory — a thrillride the whole way through.

      • Great post, Julie. I was very thrilled reading it. It’s hard to get not-runners excited about watching a marathon. Runners get it because we can relate to the immense effort that it takes to race and to surge like that at the end.

        Again, fantastic coverage. I’m a “maybe” at this point but I hope to see you at the Brooklyn Half next month.

  6. Great post, great analysis! I was trying to read the RW blog updates at work, no universal sports here. Is it okay if I link to here on my blog?

    And now news of Grete Waitz – what a week in running.

  7. I love this… even if, as a piece of sportswriting, it betrays maybe just a little bit of bias ;). But I think you’re right in that the world of running commentary could stand to take a few giant steps in the direction of passionate fandom.

    • I figure that as long as no one’s paying me, I can be as biased as I like. I’m not a Goucher hater, by the way. I just think that Davila is, by virtue of her non-star status, a little more interesting. And I think she is running marathons with a confidence that Goucher is still developing.

  8. Wow, awesome post! This recap had me almost as gripped as I was when I was initially watching the race.

    That performance is something I won’t soon forget. Davila is a new inspiration for us all!!

  9. PHENOMENAL coverage! I was watching using CBS Boston and they cut away from the women so many times that I missed a lot of the nuances you saw. How wonderful to get to relive the race through your post – thank you!!!

  10. Another fine job.

    I watched the local feed, with Tony Reavis, Katherine Switzer, and a local. In the latter stages Switzer kept insisting that Davila’s only chance was to surge, but it struck me that Davila was so locked-in at her pace that to do anything drastic to up the tempo could have been disaster. She was doing the smart thing.

    I was surprised, then, when she started throwing in surges towards the end, and quite impressed. I think you glossed over what I thought was one of the most impressive, and educational, things Davila did. After what turned out to be her penultimate challenge, she slowed dramatically after Kilel responded and passed her. This is where “Kilel has just a little bit more speed in her legs and she pulls away again.” She at least seemed to (at 3:07 here.) Although the video doesn’t show it, she then picked it up again and made one last, if unsuccessful run at Kilel.

    • Wish I could see it! All official videos of this year’s Boston from Youtube seem to have this:

      “The uploader has not made this video available in your country”

      What’s the go with that? Is Australia a third-world country or something?

      • Ewen, try At the very least there are some highlights. We really need to stop treating Australians like second class citizens in this country. 😛

  11. Thanks for posting this – it’s given the best run down of the women’s race so far.

    And I had the same sense about things. I couldn’t see a situation where Desiree WOULDN’T beat Kara. And this kind of thing is EXACTLY why: she’s a smart smart racer and her performances reflect that. I also think this is exactly how you have to race a course like Boston because those early rollers are a bigger challenge than most think. (I’m kind of boggled my Kim Smith’s ridiculous early pace for that reason.)

  12. Oh man, what an incredible morning. I was with you guys in scaring the cats and probably neighbors with my cheering. That was such a beautiful race to watch from start to finish. The completely useless commentary I could have done without, at one point the sound cut out and I enjoyed simply watching the race. They acted like Davila was a numbered bib who joined the pack for a bit, and she sure showed them. I’m still excited just thinking about the last few miles. Great post, thanks for letting me relive that.

  13. This is a great analysis!! From the bleachers at the finish line, I was going berserk, too. I couldn’t see the performance with the detail you could, plus I was too busy educating the masses–no one in the bleachers knew Desiree was an AMERICAN RUNNER. I was so annoyed–I mean, she debuted in Boston, she raced in the OTs here in 2008. I was saying to everyone around me, I have never seen her so fit! She looks so relaxed! Love this post. Love Desi. I am so glad she changed the story on Monday.

  14. That analysis was about as good as watching it! Loved it! Thank you because I didn’t have access to watch the whole race. I couldn’t believe the announcers acting so shocked that she was pushing the pace. I love how she ran her own race and threw in those crazy surges at the end. I definitely think she would have won had there been 1 more mile. Kilel was done. Can’t wait to see what she does next year! I love her cool attitude and humility. She doesn’t seem to get caught up in the spotlight.

  15. In the race, she looks strong and experienced.

    In her interview afterwards she looks 12, underfed, and underslept. Kind of eep.

  16. Quero parabenizar a Desirré Davila pela excelente corrida na maratona de Boston 2011, ela estava ótima, maravilhosa absoluta na pista, que estilo particular de correr hem, um charme nunca vi coisa igual, nos ultimos 500 metros achei que a Desirre iria levar que pena não foi dessa vez, mais tambem atrás de você hem estava uma fera das pista a Caroline Killel ganhou com méritos. Desirré Davila voce ganhou um fã de carterinha vou torcer de agora em diante pra você nas olímpiadas 2012 e Boston o ano que vem o caneco é seu, continue assim.

    • This is how Google translated this comment:
      Quero parabenizar to Desirré Davila na corrida pela excellent Boston Marathon 2011, ela estava sure perfect, absolute maravilhosa na track that particular style of running hem, um charme coisa never saw the same, we achei last 500 meters that weigh that sentence Desirre não iria foi dessa turn back mais você tambem estava uma fera das hem track ganhou com Killel Caroline merits. Davila Desirré voce ganhou um fã of carterinha twisting vou pra você agora em by means nas 2012 Olympics and Boston or anus or Decanter vin é seu, continue assim.
      Someone who speaks Spanish, please translate. 🙂

  17. Quero parabenizar a Desirré Davila pela excelente corrida na maratona de Boston 2011, ela estava ótima, maravilhosa absoluta na pista, que estilo particular de correr hem, um charme nunca vi coisa igual, nos ultimos 500 metros achei que a Desirre iria levar que pena não foi dessa vez, mais tambem atrás de você hem estava uma fera das pista a Caroline Killel, ganhou com méritos. Desirré Davila voce ganhou um fã de carterinha vou torcer de agora em diante pra você nas olímpiadas 2012 e Boston o ano que vem o caneco é seu, continue assim. Gostaria de receber um email seu, que Deus ti abençoe e ti guarde.

    • I sure wish I spoke Spanish.

      • So much for Google translation algorithms, eh? Julie, I speak Spanish but I think the comment above is in Portuguese. Either that or my native tongue has changed radically overnight.

  18. Gosh, I’m ignorant. Well, now it makes much more sense! Thanks, Joni. I think I’ll run it by someone I’m working with who’s from Brazil, to get refinements.

    “I want to congratulate the excellent Desirré Davila race in Boston Marathon 2011, she was great, absolutely wonderful on the track, that particular style of running hem, a charm never seen anything like it, in the last 500 meters I thought I would take the Desirre not too bad was it this time, most also behind you hem was a beast of a track Caroline Killelea, won with merit. Desirré Davila won you a fan of carterinha I hope from now on for you in the Olympics in 2012 and Boston next year the cup is yours, keep it up. I would like to receive your email, God bless thee and keep thee.”

    By the way, I like your photos…at least these:

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