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January 17, 2022

What Keira D’Amato’s Story Tells Us About Elite Running

Picture a generic “pro runner.” Now tell me their story. They were probably a standout high school recruit who signed with a Power 5 university, racked up a trophy shelf filled with All-American honors and national titles, signed a contract minutes after finishing their last NCAA race and then shipped off to Portland, Boulder or Flagstaff to join an elite training group.

There, they will chase an Olympic spot on the track for a cycle or two before moving up in distance from the 5,000m to the 10,000m, eventually hit the road circuit and then make a highly-anticipated marathon debut in Chicago, Boston or New York. The lucky ones will have a few more years of success at the marathon before retiring in their early- to mid-30s.

Keira D’Amato is not that runner. She ran for American University in Washington D.C. and then left the sport of running in 2009. In her own words, she was “hobby jogging” for the better part of the next decade. Her marathon debut came at the 2017 Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach, where she ran 3 hours and 14 minutes. Five years later, at the age of 37, she ran nearly an hour faster and broke Deena Kastor’s 15-year-old American Record in the marathon with a 2:19:12 at the Houston Marathon this past weekend.

How did we get here? Most diehard fans of the sport now know D’Amato’s story: A mom of two living in Virginia, working full-time as a realtor while being coached by Scott Raczko (Alan Webb’s former coach). She burst onto the scene in 2020 and quickly became the top dog on the American road-running scene. After finishing the 2020 Marathon Project in 2:22:56 for the 7th-fastest marathon ever by an American woman at the time, she signed her first professional running contract at the age of 36 with a little-known sportswear startup called Nike.

I distinctly remember when I first heard of Keira D’Amato. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, someone uploaded a cell-phone video of a high-school track in Virginia, where a random lady wearing a Tracksmith sports bra and a high bun ran a 5000-meter time trial in 15:04 with the help of a single male pacer. I follow the sport of track and field about as closely as anyone, but this random person I’d never heard of had just run the Olympic standard. 

I honestly figured it must be a fluke or maybe it wasn’t a regulation track. Surely nobody could run that fast if they weren’t on a team like the Nike Bowerman Track Club or Team New Balance Boston. Qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials is one thing, but nabbing the Olympic standard in a track event is supposed to be only attainable for “real pros.”

I didn’t have a frame of reference that fit this new kind of runner. In the 18 months since, in an ever-evolving sport where shoe contracts are supplemented by social media endorsements, we’re still struggling to understand as more elites athletes are keeping their day jobs.

Former Syracuse All-American Marty Hehir won the Marathon Project in 2:08:58 while in medical school and sponsored by Reebok. Longtime middle distance vet Sara Vaughn ran a 2:26 marathon debut while working full-time as a realtor in Boulder, Colo. More and more women runners are taking years off to have children and coming back better than ever.

The problem isn’t with these amazing athletes or their choices. The problem isn’t even with the “conventional” path that many take toward elite running. The problem is that we’ve focused our norms too narrowly. Everyone loves a comeback story. Everybody wants to root for the underdog. We need to make space in the sport for more unconventional runners to thrive.

Elite running should not be unidirectional. NCAA running is hard on many young runners. The prevalence of chronic injuries, disordered eating and other physical/mental health challenges can fragment or even permanently destroy collegiate runners’ relationship with the sport of running. And most of us, once we stop training seriously, never start again. But, as the cliche saying goes, “Talent never goes away,” and creating on-ramps for our most talented athletes to re-enter the sport they left at 22 years old makes the American talent pool deeper.

We need to normalize taking breaks. Olympic bronze medalist Molly Seidel was honest and open about her need to take a break from running after college to receive treatment for disordered eating rather than throwing her fragile body straight into the ranks of professional running. We all know how that turned out. It can be hard to re-focus and re-motivate after a long break, but here we can again turn to D’Amato to set the example: Run for fun, run with a partner, run for root beer floats, and see if the competitive fire returns.

It also needs to be easier to work a job and raise a family while running. For starters, there are far too many professional track meets on weekdays. Not everyone has the luxury to take time off and travel across the country because some pro coach decided to host a well-paced qualifying race on a Thursday.

Contract flexibility is key, too. D’Amato had the luxury of being in an extremely favorable bargaining position when negotiating her contract with Nike, and one of the provisions of that contract was that she was allowed to continue training with her coach at home in Virginia. Many brands either implicitly or explicitly steer potential signees to specific coaches or training groups, which is a great resource for many runners, but not every runner. A happy runner is a fast runner. Giving athletes the leeway to train where and how they thrive personally will, in turn, reward sponsors with results.

Keira D’Amato’s story and accomplishments are remarkable, but runners like her don’t have to be as rare as they are currently. Rather than seeing the working-mom elite runners of the world as unicorns to be placed on a pedestal and marveled at, let’s create a system that makes them commonplace. If this weekend taught us anything, it’s that the sport of running will be better off with more Keiras.

Photos by Johnny Zhang/@jzsnapz

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