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Keira D’Amato On Breaking The American Women’s Marathon Record, 2:19:12 For The Win At The Houston Marathon

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“I didn’t feel like I had it. I had no idea. With a mile to go, I looked at my watch and I think I saw 2:12. It’s hard to do math when you’re so tired. So I was like, ‘What does that mean? I think I can do this but I need to keep going.’ It’s funny because when I get in really good shape, my husband calls me The Buzzsaw. Don’t stand in my way because Keira is just coming through. In the last mile, I don’t know what it was but I was clinging to that. I was physically saying aloud to myself, “Buzzsaw. Buzzsaw. Buzzsaw.” as ‘Keep going! Keep hanging on!’…I kept looking for the banner. I knew I was going to be able to see it. I was a little like, ‘Please just make this soon because I don’t know how much further I can go.’ When I made the turn and seeing the banner, that’s when I was like. ‘This is going to happen for me today.'”

Keira D’Amato is a friend of the podcast and just this past weekend set the American record for the marathon with her win at the Houston Marathon in 2:19:12. She took 24 seconds off Deena Kastor’s previous mark which had stood since 2006. At 37 years old, she’s one of the most inspiring stories in the sport. If you haven’t heard her episode with me from November 2020, she talks in detail about her decade of hobby jogging after running at American University. She got married. Got into Real Estate. Had two kids. Started competing well on the national level at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials and her Cinderella story continues to this day. She went on the Today Show on Tuesday morning and then joined me for this longer conversation where we basically are processing her run in real-time.

Listen to her previous episode on the CITIUS MAG Podcast from Nov. 2020.

Listen to her Dec. 2020 appearance on More Than Running.

Catch the latest episode of the podcast on Apple Podcasts. We are also on Stitcher, Google Play and Spotify.

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SHOW NOTES AND NOTABLE QUOTES

How’s it feel to have the American record holder title before your name from now on?

“I can’t wrap my head around it. It’s just so beautiful and exciting and surprising. I still haven’t found the words. This podcast is going to be just one big mumble of words so I apologize in advance.”

When did you start to think about Deena Kastor’s American record as something that might be possible?

“I don’t know. It was about three weeks before the marathon. I just smashed a tempo run. That’s when I thought, ‘Holy cow. This could happen for me. That was the moment when I thought I think I’m in shape to do it. And then workouts just kept progressing. On the starting line, I really believed. I didn’t know if it was going to happen on Sunday, but I believe that I was capable of running that pace. On the starting line, I’m like, “This is going to happen today or it’s not going to happen today. I’m OK. Let’s see what happens.”

How are you building the confidence to believe in yourself being able to do something of this magnitude?

“Yeah, I’m a pretty confident person, but I definitely was not born with the confidence to think that I could set the American record in anything. So it’s definitely come just a step at a time. And every time I hit that goal that gave me confidence it’s like, ‘OK, what else can I do? What’s next? What if?’ I kept stacking it and just kept climbing up the mountain in a way that finally I got here. I have no idea. Like in the weeks leading up to the race, even seeing those workouts where I knew my body was in shape to run 2:19 or possibly faster. But when I would step back and think, ‘What does that mean?’ Well, that would mean I’d run faster than any American woman ever. That I could never wrap my head around. I asked my husband, ‘Why do I think I can be that person.’  He’s like, ‘Yeah, let’s not think that way. Just think about what you think you can do physically. What do you think you can do?’ I’m like, ‘Well, I think I can run the time.’ And he goes, ‘OK, let’s just focus on that.’ So when I step back and look at it on a big page, I just can’t. I can’t process that at all.”

That’s one of the big questions that some people are still scratching their heads about. This American record has withstood the test of time against the likes of Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan and Des Linden. The question so many people have is why did it take you to get it done? Do you have any thoughts about that? 

Part of it from me and Kyle Merber trading text messages about it, we theorized so many top-end marathoners shift their focus to world marathon majors. The appearance fee is great. The prize money is awesome. For you, you’re not as focused on the financial side of the sport and you chose to run Houston for the chance to run fast. Part of it is the flexibility you have as a professional runner but don’t operate like the typical professional runner.

“I think everything you just said is spot on and I definitely don’t have the answer to that question. Like what you said, I do things a lot differently than I think every other person that I compete against in that list of names. I do things differently. Could it be that women peak endurance-wise in their thirties, right? But, I didn’t put a decade of professional running on my legs. I was sitting on the couch just cheering for everyone for a decade. So maybe that really helped just bring freshness to my legs, to my mind and just to the sport for me. Having kids – I don’t know if there’s a science behind that. But just my perspective with the sport changed. I don’t really feel that pressure because in my family I’m just so concerned about the well-being, health and happiness of my family. That is so important that it takes all sorts of pressure off of running. Coming into running, this isn’t financial for me. It’s just to see how fast I can run. 

When I think: Why am I doing this? I am trying to find my limit. I’m testing my potential. I’m trying to find that answer to the what if. What if I do everything right? What could become? That’s all that my coach and I care about. That gives us the flexibility to not fold into your typical professional running schedule and to race when we’re fit. And that wasn’t one of the world marathon majors. The Chevron Houston Marathon is a heck of a race – a gold label race. It feels like a world marathon major. Just being able to find that right race at the right time and the right course on the right day gives us a lot of flexibility. 

I think my training is a little bit different too. In this build-up, I wasn’t crushing all the high miles at altitude. I am a little bit older and I was coming off an injury, so my mileage was a little bit lower. So what we lacked in volume, we made up for in intensity in the workouts. We train for a marathon but we focus on speed work a lot too – so working so hard to get my top-end speed as fast as possible. So running 5:18/mile, I can hopefully feel kind of relaxed. I think that’s a big part of the puzzle, too. 

So I don’t know. I think if just me being that person to set the record tells you anything it’s that there’s no one path. There’s no one right way. My way may not work for everyone. I’m sure Deena and Joanie did it their way that worked for them. But I think it’s just beautiful that running you can find what works, what’s fun, what just feels right for you and just take that path.

What was fun about this particular training block?

The whole D’Amato. At this point, I feel like there were really high stakes and to see everyone on Team D’Amato from my parents, my family, my community and Richmond as a whole – for everyone to feel like they had skin in the game and to get involved, that was so encouraging. My family life didn’t really change. We still kept doing our wacky family challenges. My husband was as big of a knucklehead as ever. He just keeps life so fun, so fresh and so interesting. While I’m going out for three-hour runs, he’s holding down the fort and everything. 

It’s also fun to win, you know. I didn’t think I’d ever really care about winning that but it’s just been really fun.

You’re going to need a Team D’Amato logo for everyone to officially get behind you and rep it.

“I can’t even tell you how special it is. I’m running down the streets of Richmond and I’ll be going by someone walking their dog and they’ll say, “Keira, you’ve got this! Way to make Richmond proud!’ That is such a powerful thing. I don’t feel pressure from that. I just feel so much support and so much love. They don’t know my goal to set the American record. They just see me working my tail off day-in and day-out down the mean streets of Richmond, you know? That’s what they’re rooting for and that just feels really good.

What do you hope some of the mothers watching The Today Show got from watching your segment?

“I think the thing that I’m most proud of is that I had the courage to try again. I had the courage to go to see ‘What if’. For a decade of my life, I sat there just as a fan of running. Watching the Olympic Trials or the Olympics or the Boston Marathon or New York City Marathon or whatever it was – just as a fan. But I’d always have a little, ‘What if?’ I know everyone has that little what if and not necessarily in running. It could be whatever it is. But just having the courage to find out ‘What if’ I think that’s something that really resonates. 

I just think as a parent too, it’s chaotic. Your life for the most part revolves around the most beautiful thing in your life, your children, right? But it’s hard sometimes to find that sliver of time for yourself. It’s hard to prioritize that. There’s a lot of guilt around that. So I hope that I’ve allowed people maybe to feel less guilty, to go out to pursue something that makes them happy. I think it’s OK to have that. There obviously needs to be a balance but hopefully, people can take something away. It’s OK because I think for me with running, it makes me a better person, more confident and happier. That confident, happy person I think can be a better mother.

What inspiration do you think you conveyed to the 2:44-2:38 runners who are on the outside of the Olympic Marathon Trials picture for now?

When I heard that got pushed down from 2:45 to 2:37, I felt exactly what I’m sure a lot of people felt like – a gut punch. I hope I’d be sitting here today if that standard was 2:37, but I don’t know if I would’ve had the confidence with the carrot being that much further away to keep going for it. 

I just hope that people see the improvement I made. The marathon is really a long game. It takes time. If you just look at my PR path, I’ve just slowly broken it down and I keep breaking it down. And after years and years and years, I got here. I hope that people have the patience to be able to work it down and still aim for that 2:45. Go for that 2:45. And then when you get there, think, ‘OK, what’s next? OK, 2:41 or let’s break 2:40.’ And then when you get there, then think, what’s next? But be patient and be kind with yourself. And then also: Anything is possible. There’s no ceiling here. The sky’s the limit, man.

Let’s get into the actual race. Take us through that morning and how you were feeling?

I got up and I thought: Legs are feelin’ good. 

I woke up and everything was feeling good. That doesn’t always happen with a marathon. Just the training itself is so rigorous that just being able to stand on the starting line healthy is a victory within itself. I go up and was like, ‘Wow. I couldn’t have asked to feel any better. I feel really lucky. This is great.’ In a way, feeling good puts a whole new pressure because it’s like, well, no excuses. No excuses, Keira. You made it here. 

I got up, got dressed and went down to breakfast. I had coffee and some oatmeal and like a little sports drink or whatever just to start preloading it. I started chugging my Maurten drink just trying to get as many electrolytes in the morning. I was feeling eerily relaxed. Definitely nervous, but just wanted to get to the starting line. I rode the bus over and was feeling the nerves and the jitters but I was feeling good.

I go to warm up and it’s super cold, super windy. I wasn’t one to really check the weather. People were checking it for me and telling me. I brought everything for it to be a 10-degree day to like an 80-degree day in my suitcase. 

I knew I was fit enough that it didn’t have to be perfect, it just needed to be good enough. I felt that it was cold and a little windy, so I think, ‘OK, this is good. You’ve trained through this, I’ve trained through the wind. I’ve trained through the cold. This is good enough.’ Did my warm-up and I’m standing on the starting line and I’m just thinking like, ‘It’s either going to happen or it’s not. Let’s see.’

I’ve come up short with so many goals in my life. The fact that I’m 37 – I’ve had a lot. I’ve had wins, but I’ve had far more losses in my life. I’m OK with losing. It sucks and it hurts…It starts a fire under me. I hate losing but I pick myself up, I make myself stronger and I come back out. Standing on the starting line being like: This is going to happen or it’s not and I’m going to be OK and I’m going to be happy, whichever way. But I did know I was going to give it my all. I was going to leave everything out on the course that day. 

I got a lot of strength from having my two pacers, Callum Neff and Silas Frantz with me. And they are both such smooth, zen-like runners. I can be kind of an anxious, fidgety person. And they both are just really relaxing people. Having them by my side just brought me a lot of confidence too. Just knowing that I trusted their ability, especially Callum because he’s run that course so many times. He lives just right outside of Houston. He said he knows every single pebble on the way. He’s talking tangents and as a math major, I just love that. Talk tangents to me. That’s awesome. 

When the gun went off…Actually, this is a really cool moment. The gun went off and I think I’m decently quick off the line for a marathoner. Put me in 100m and I look like I’m reading a book but for marathoner, I feel like I’m pretty quick off the line. So I got out pretty good. Sara Hall runs by me and says, ‘Keira, go crush it!’ I’m like, ‘You too!’  That was such a sweet moment there in the race. For her just to take that little time to wish me good luck on that race and then finding out afterward it was such an amazing, beautiful day for her. That was a really cool moment.

The pace slipped a little bit with about 10K to go but then you managed to get back on the train. What happened there?

“Oh, man, a lot was happening. First off, it was really windy. So there is a point, I think from like Mile 11 to 18 that was just a headwind. So it’s just windy and it was a little bit more technical then. I was falling off the pacers. So at a couple of points, I was one or two steps behind and I was thinking, ‘Oh man. This isn’t going to happen.’ I never said it, but I was thinking, ‘Maybe I should just tell them to slow down?’ and maybe we just slow down for a little bit. But I knew, as soon as I said that, that goal was over. I didn’t say it and I just tried to reconnect. I just tried to hang on for dear life. 

I think they sensed it a little bit too that I was falling off and that I wasn’t feeling as smooth But, they stuck right on the pace. I think if Callum or Silas were racing me that day, I think that would have been the point that if they would have put in a surge right there, they would have just broke me and I don’t think I would have gotten the American record. But I’m just so grateful that they were on my team and part of my squad. They saw that so they helped me through and there were really encouraging. 

In that stretch, I was getting pretty negative. You tell yourself anything just to keep going. And what I told myself was: ‘You know what? I want to get this record. Once I get the record, I don’t ever have to run again. So Keira, if you just stay on the pace and finish this marathon, you never have to do this again!’ Then I was thinking, ‘Well, maybe today is not my day. But if today’s not the day then I’m going to have to do this again. I’m going to have to go out like this and feel this awful and figure out how to push through this. Just get it done today! It’s just a crazy mental game during that race. 

But in the last 10L, we thought we’d have the wind at our back. So the whole time I’m like: If I can make it to Mile 18 and we turn that corner hopefully we’ll get a tailwind. We didn’t get a tailwind, but it was OK because it was enough of a mental thing. I was close by and thought, ‘I can do this for another 30 minutes. I can hang on.’

That’s not how you feel about marathoning though. You’ll do another one, right?

“I definitely will….I know there are so many women or girls watching that and they’re like, ‘I can do that!’ I really believe that other women can. So I know I’m going to have to beat my own American record and keep pushing that down faster than people can catch it or else it’s not going to be my American record for very long.”

When did you know you had the American record?

“I didn’t feel like I had it. I had no idea. With a mile to go, I looked at my watch and I think I saw 2:12. It’s hard to do math when you’re so tired. So I was like, ‘What does that mean? I think I can do this but I need to keep going.’ It’s funny because when I get in really good shape, my husband calls me The Buzzsaw. Don’t stand in my way because Keira is just coming through. In the last mile, I don’t know what it was but I was clinging to that. I was physically saying aloud to myself, “Buzzsaw. Buzzsaw. Buzzsaw.” as ‘Keep going! Keep hanging on!’…I kept looking for the banner. I knew I was going to be able to see it. I was a little like, ‘Please just make this soon because I don’t know how much further I can go.’ When I made the turn and saw the banner, that’s when I was like. ‘This is going to happen for me today.’

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