What Can We Learn from Keira D’Amato’s New American Marathon Record?
A new marathon record is, first and foremost, a time to applaud great achievement. Records don’t come easily in established sports like athletics, and particularly not in a long, tough, mass-participation event like the marathon. Keira D’Amato didn’t get lucky, didn’t catch a tailwind, and didn’t simply have a good day. She earned her record through years of hard training and 2 hours, 19 minutes, and 12 seconds of gritty, sometimes-painful racing.
Deena Kastor set the previous record, 2:19:36 in 2006–two years after her bronze medal in the Athens Olympic Marathon. D’Amato ran her 2:19:12 at the Houston Marathon on January 16 of this year.
It feels like I have known Kastor forever, since I’ve been reporting on her career for more than two decades. Beyond that, I first met her coach, Joe Vigil, more than 50 years ago.
I first interviewed and wrote about D’Amato, who recently turned 37, a little more than a year ago. She had a long dry spell in her career, and told me she faced plenty of naysayers. When she chose to chase her goals during Covid, some told her she was wasting her time. Her reply? “I told myself, ‘Heck, no, this is my dream, and I’m going to keep the pedal to the metal because that’s what makes me really happy.’”
You recognize a champion in part by listening to her language, and D’Amato’s comment proved she has the right stuff. Kastor and D’Amato are similar in a few ways, and of course different in others. The only absolute truth in running is: “We are all an experiment of one.” The smartest, most successful runners are those who figure out the path that works best for them.
Here are some of the parallels I’ve observed between Kastor and D’Amato. Most of us will never run as fast as they did. However, by following their strategies, we can become our own best runners.
Develop your character as well as your physiology
You might say, be a good sport. This was probably the best story to emerge from D’Amato’s new record. Shortly after she finished, she received a phone call from Kastor, who wanted to be one of the first to congratulate her on the new record–the record that supplanted Kastor’s.
It turned out Kastor had received the same kind of call in 2006 from the previous record holder, Joan Samuelson.
Great champions encourage each other. In so doing, they build the sort of generous spirit that contributes to athletic greatness. You can’t go it alone; everyone needs a big support system. To grow support, you must give support. I have no doubt that D’Amato will be quick to phone the next record-holder to offer her congratulations.
After Houston, D’Amato was asked how she had set the new record. She couldn’t come up with any magic bullets or secret sauces. In fact, she sounded downright apologetic when she said that “patience” was the most important ingredient in her running career.
But of course it is. Patience and its twin, consistency, are the absolute necessities of every great distance runner. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Eliud Kipchoge has been steadfast in his training program for nearly two decades now. Same for Kastor, D’Amato and all other great runners.
There are no shortcuts to marathon success: There is only consistency and patience. Sometimes you don’t know when you’ll pop the best race. But you can be sure such races will never happen if you abandon the quest. No one breaks the finish-line tape without first standing on the start line. In training, and in racing. And you must go to the start again and again and again.
Expect many ups and downs, but don’t let them stop you
I don’t mean hills. I mean disappointments. It’s not easy to be a top runner. Basically, you hope to win or to make the podium every time you enter a new competition. But it doesn’t work that way. The better you become, the better the other athletes you’re racing against. They’re so good, in fact, that they’ll beat you as often as you beat them. Especially when you are racing against 10 or 20 or more elites on any given day.
Kastor was successful enough at an early age to go to the U.S. high school cross-country championship when just a ninth grader. And she finished 11th–a great performance for such a youngster. She knew she’d have three more chances to win this race in the coming years, and felt certain that she’d have a gold medal around her neck one of those years. But it never happened. And her college career didn’t live up to expectations either.
It was almost as if she were sliding downhill rather than improving. No wonder she considered quitting the sport after college. When she looked out at the horizon, it was blurry. She couldn’t see a clear road forward. She was filled with doubt, and might never have continued with running if not for a fateful phone call to Joe Vigil. He didn’t promise her anything, certainly not a guaranteed future. He simply said that if she’d commit to his methods and visions, he’d commit to her. The next day she packed her car and drove from Arkansas to Colorado.
D’Amato smacked into an absolute deadend at one point. She had a leg injury that required surgery, but no health insurance to pay for it. So she scaled back, had two children, and built her real-estate career. When family finances allowed the surgery, she finally had it, and returned to running. At that time, she had mostly given up any serious goals, having finished her first marathon in 3:49:49–which gave little indication of what might come.
Stick with the program
This is another form of consistency. Far too many runners, frustrated by failing to meet their high expectations, look around for someone or something to blame. Someone outside themselves. Often the finger points at a coach.
Not all coach changes are a bad thing, but switching coaches to find new and better workouts amounts to delusional thinking. It’s not real. Kastor, once she gravitated to Joe Vigil right out of college, stuck with Vigil (and vice versa) for the rest of her career. Kastor’s friend and sometimes training partner, Meb Keflezighi, has also had one coach since college–Bob Larsen. Both Vigil and Larsen are nationally and internationally known endurance running experts. They’ve earned their stripes
D’Amato’s coach is not. But she has stuck with him since returning to serious training, and the results speak for themselves. Not that Scott Raczko is an unknown. Quite the opposite. Two decades ago he coached Alan Webb to Webb’s high school mile record and his still-standing American record in the mile. Raczko knows his stuff and D’Amato is smart to stick with him. Just as Kastor stuck with Vigil.
Age is just a number
There’s so much we don’t understand about aging and performance, whether an athlete is 13 or 73. The only thing we know for sure is that more runners of different ages–especially “older” age–are pushing back boundaries. They’re proving that age means less than we thought.
At 37, D’Amato is now running faster at every distance than she ran earlier in her life. I’m not sure any other athlete at her level can say the same.
But others of a similar age are nearly as fast. The same day that D’Amato set her marathon record in Houston, Sara Hall broke the American half marathon record with her 1:07:15. And Hall is 38–a year older than D’Amato– with a long and spectacular history of national-class racing behind her. She was the best in the country in high school, and is the best half marathoner now more than 20 years later. That speaks worlds about how a runner can maintain top performance birthday after birthday.
Despite her literally hundreds of fabulous races through several decades, Hall has yet to make an Olympic team. Neither has D’Amato. If they stay strong and healthy, they’ll both have a lot of aging runners cheering for them at the 2024 Olympic Trials.
The mind matters
We used to think that great running was based on an incredible physiology–heart, lungs, and muscle. Way back in the 1950s when Roger Bannister was taking aim on a sub-4-minute mile, eminent physicians and other scientists wrote articles claiming that the body would almost literally explode if pushed to run a mile in 3:59. Bannister, a medical student himself, didn’t buy these arguments, planned meticulously for his epic sub 4:00 in 1954, and showed all that the body was more capable than many thought.
D’Amato didn’t let the naysayers get her down in 2020 when she was laying the groundwork for what she has achieved ever since. And Kastor, slow on the uptake at first, eventually came to understand that Vigil, even with his PhD in exercise physiology, believed as much in the mind as he did in the muscles.
In her memoir, appropriately titled Let Your Mind Run, Kastor wrote: “I thought the hardest part would be the physical running.” It didn’t take long before she recognized that coach Vigil “kept emphasizing a good attitude.”
She thought maybe he wanted her to smile more and act more upbeat. But Vigil asked her to search deeper, to find positive emotions that “infused me with energy and offered a boost in motivation.” Over time Kastor began to realize how powerful a tool her mind offered her. She found she could “change the outcome of a workout, drawing out more strength and speed from my body.”
Find your fun zone
D’Amato has quickly gained a reputation as a fun-loving runner. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t train her butt off. Of course she does. There’s no other way to rise to the top. So she focuses on one or two challenging workouts per week and regards the rest as “a lot of fun runs when I get to listen to whatever music or podcast I want”
She likes to add whimsy to even the most grueling workouts. One day, coach Razcko asked her to run 40 repeats of 200 meters. Around and around the track she flew. Razcko relied on her to keep count, while he timed each. “How many is that?” he asked at one point. “That was my 41st,” D’Amato responded. And it was. She figured her coach would throw a fit. Instead he barely responded. “I guess the joke was on me,” D’Amato admitted.
Kastor believed that lightening the load was so important she titled one chapter of her book “Strategic Joy.” She tried to figure out how to make her long runs less burdensome. She decided to reflect more and appreciate every small act before her long run. The warm, wonderful cup of coffee. The muffin and jam. The relaxing music in the background. Instead of worrying about what might go wrong on her long run, she focused on how lucky she was to be enjoying so many sweet moments even before the run started.
This process worked so well that Kastor expanded it. She practiced noticing other wonderful items and moments–the lemon wedge in her water, the pajamas she napped in, the fresh scent of lavender from the garden. “There was a spiraling effect to strategic joy,” she wrote. “One enjoyable task propelled me into the next.”
In other words, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. That’s the way it is with running. No single piece of your training and racing is all important, but every piece plays a role. Put them together, and you can build something that’s both impressive and highly rewarding.