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Davila took long road to Boston

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By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / April 11, 2011

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On a winter day with windchill readings in the teens, Desiree Davila runs the Boston Marathon course with surprising ease. She squeezes between snowbanks and parked cars, looking very much at home. As her coach shouts mile splits, Davila makes mental notes. She pays attention to how her body feels climbing hills, the effort required to sustain a certain pace.

It is all part of the learning process for one of America’s most promising female marathon runners. And one who is ready for a career breakthrough, possibly a victory, in the 115th Boston Marathon.

“I don’t think anyone in the field is good enough where they’re going to run away with it without having that perfect day,’’ said Davila. “It could be me that has that perfect day. I’m doing everything during training to make sure that I come out here as fit as I’ve ever been. If it comes together right, I’ve got a shot.’’

While Davila lacks the name recognition and medal collection of Marblehead’s Shalane Flanagan (2008 Olympic bronze medal and American record-holder in the 10,000 meters), Deena Kastor (2004 Olympic marathon bronze medal), and fellow 2011 Boston Marathon entrant Kara Goucher (2007 World Championship bronze medal in the 10,000), she owns impressive marathon credentials.

Davila finished fourth in the 2010 Chicago Marathon, running a personal-best 2 hours 26 minutes 20 seconds and the fastest time by an American woman last year. The Chicago time also ranks her as the fourth-fastest US female marathoner behind American Kastor, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and Goucher.

Davila, 27, is still young by marathon-running standards. To illustrate her potential career trajectory, Davila’s coach, Kevin Hanson, refers back to Samuelson. He mentions that Davila and Samuelson are the only two American women to break 2:28 by age 26.

“Desi is still on a huge upward swing,’’ said Hanson. “She will catch everyone that’s out there. It’s just a matter of when.’’

When asked how that upward swing might translate to Davila’s performance a week from today, Hanson said, “She’s capable of running under 2:24 on this course. History tells us one thing, and that is sub-2:24 has won in all but a handful of years. So, we know that. We’re also not going to be dependent upon somebody else doing the job for us. We understand that we may have to do the work to make it be sub-2:24. That’s OK. We like that.’’

And that kind of performance certainly would draw more attention and make Davila central to any conversation about the future of US women in the marathon. Hoping to celebrate a career breakthrough on Boylston Street, Davila has trained in relative anonymity on the Boston Marathon course or at home in suburban Detroit. She embraces what Hanson described as Davila’s “under-the-radar’’ status and uses it as motivation.

“The Deenas, the Karas, the Shalanes, they’ve earned all the attention,’’ said Davila. “They have Olympic medals, World Championship medals, American records. You name it, they have it. I don’t feel bad at all being left out of that because I don’t have that to my name. If you place top three in Boston, if you win Boston, OK, then you say, ‘Well, start talking about me.’ You’ve got to do something notable first. One step at a time.’’

But recognition doesn’t drive Davila. She took an unlikely path from Southern California to Arizona State to suburban Detroit because she “always felt on the bubble of being pretty good.’’ She broke five minutes in the mile as a high school freshman, but the talent pool in California was so deep the accomplishment didn’t set her apart. In workouts at Arizona State, Davila kept pace with teammates who won national championships, and she earned All-America honors in cross-country and track, but she never put together a great race. Davila turned to the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project after college because she believed her talent could take her faster and farther.

The Hansons-Brooks club in Rochester Hills, Mich., provides an opportunity for runners to continue training and competing at an elite level in a team setting after college. Its growing reputation stems from the ability of brothers and coaches Keith and Kevin Hanson to tap the potential of promising, yet under-the-radar, runners. Still, while Davila is proof that the Hansons’ selection of athletes and methods work, she wasn’t initially considered a good candidate for the program.

“When we heard from her, it was like this is somebody who’s just fishing,’’ said Kevin Hanson. “I can’t talk to a person from San Diego because normally those are people who think, ‘Is it going to get below 50 at all?’ She has no idea who we are or where we’re from or blah, blah, blah. She’s just sending scattered mail to all the post-collegiate clubs. We thought, ‘She’s very talented, but this is not a good fit for her.’ We were 100 percent wrong.’’

One year after Davila joined Hansons-Brooks, she watched several teammates train for 26.2 miles and make their marathon debuts at the 2006 Chicago Marathon. That experience excited Davila about the event and she started preparations for the 2007 Boston Marathon.

But the buildup to her marathon debut was as stormy as the race itself, which infamously took place during a nor’easter. Davila said she “butted heads the whole way’’ with the Hansons over training and race goals. The Hansons took a conservative approach. Davila believed she was capable of running much faster. She finished in 2:44:56, placed 18th in the women’s field, and accomplished her primary goal of qualifying for the 2008 Olympic marathon trials.

Equally significant, she developed an affinity and appreciation for the distance. She also came to understand and trust the Hansons’ training and racing methods.

While Davila crossed the finish line on Boylston Street believing she could’ve run faster, her marathon debut was an overwhelmingly positive experience that built confidence for future races. And that was precisely what the Hansons wanted to happen. If all goes as expected, Kevin Hanson sees multiple Olympics and potentially an Olympic medal in Davila’s future.

“The marathon is a process,’’ said Kevin Hanson. “So often, people don’t learn the process. When they don’t learn the process, they can’t steadily improve. We wanted Desi to get her qualifier in, then work on other aspects, then get ready for the trials the following year.

“She was thinking, ‘Why do I train for three months to run this one marathon and you’re not going to let me run it at 100 percent?’ I appreciate that mind-set in an athlete, that they want to do more. But we thought in the long run, it didn’t make sense. We thought it was very important for her to get the trials experience and not get it under tired legs.’’

From a development standpoint, the trials experience on a course that looped through Back Bay and Cambridge was everything Davila and the Hansons hoped for — another positive race, improved time, and more lessons learned. At mile 22, Davila found herself within seven seconds of third place and a spot on the Olympic team. But she didn’t have enough experience to finish strong and secure the spot. Davila faded to 13th place in 2:37:50.

As soon as she crossed the finish line in 2008, Davila started thinking about the 2012 Olympic trials. Her training and race selection has been geared toward earning a place on the US women’s marathon team for the 2012 London Games. Her fast time in Chicago last fall was a big step toward that goal, demonstrating Davila possessed the speed to compete with any US runner. She also overcame less-than-ideal training leading into Chicago with early symptoms of a stress reaction altering plans for roughly two weeks.

This year’s Boston Marathon will be about strategy as much as speed. As Davila knows from her 2007 race and training runs, the Boston course leads elite runners to carefully consider tactics.

“Getting used to racing the marathon, instead of just coming out and clicking off a pace, is another thing,’’ said Davila. “In the trials, I’m going to have to be comfortable with mixing it up in the front and possibly leading and having people there with 6, 4 miles to go. I think that’s how Boston will play out. It should be a good simulator of the trials.’’

Knowing the importance of course familiarity and sound strategy, Davila hopes her series of long runs on the Boston course this winter will provide a competitive advantage. For her, the race will start with the last 6 miles. Davila believes smart running up to that point will allow her to capitalize on all she has learned about the course from training.

“The 2008 trials experience was good because it gave me a goal for the next four years,’’ said Davila. “It made me realize I really needed to figure out the event and learn it, so that I could finish off the last 6 miles. It was kind of a sting, too, because I wanted to come to Boston and just really have that magic day. But that’s kind of why I’m back here, just to see if I can put it all together here this time.’’

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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