A few things came to mind as we watched Keira D’Amato break Deena Kastor‘s American marathon record at the 50th Chevron Houston Marathon last Sunday.
First, the good folks in Houston have been putting on top-notch running events year in and year out for five decades, and deserve more credit than they might otherwise receive due to being tucked away on the January calendar.
Prime marathon seasons come in the spring and fall, and traditionally, that’s when we see records fall. Yet Houston has consistently produced world-class performances, staged Olympic Trials and U.S. championships, while offering high quality individual experiences on par with any event in the more temperate months since they first began. Other events come and go, rise and fall, but Houston has maintained its world-class pace for five decades. It’s a remarkable achievement by two generations of Houston leaders.
Second, and to D’Amato herself, she called her shot! Keira told Women’s Running (I think) in December 2021 that if her training continued to go as well as it had, she would be in line to take a run at Deena‘s American record from London 2006, 2:19:36.
Marathoning is not traditionally a game where people make bold predictions, as the sport is such a capricious, day-to-day experience. Who hasn’t awakened thinking they were in the shape of their lives, only to soil the sheets once the gun went off and the pace quickened? Conversely, remember all the times you thought, “no way”, only to find the wind at your back and your legs pulling you forward seemingly of their own accord? So for Keira to call her record attempt ahead of time reminds me of Alberto Salazar ‘s 1981 New York City Marathon when he made no bones anout what intentions were.
“My goal is to run 2:08 and to win,” he proclaimed when 2:08:33 was the world record. Then he went out and did it!
But what also came to mind was Bill Rodgers’ famous quote from back in the 1970s that, “nobody working 40 hours a week will ever beat me in a marathon.”
Bill made that statement after he quit his job as a special ed school teacher in Everett, Massachusetts, to focus full time on his running as the sport transitioned from purely amateur to semi-professional.
His point was that his total focus on running would now be the deciding factor if he came up against somebody who had to hold down a full-time job.
Bill knew exactly how much energy it took even to do something like teaching compared to just resting when he wasn’t training. And here was Keira, as of a year ago, still being a real estate agent in order to pay for her running expenses because she didn’t have a professional contract until she signed with Nike in January 2021.
And that brings up a third connection from the past. Though she was a four-time Virginia state champion in high school, then an All-American at American University, Keira didn’t come to her success in Houston along a traditional path.
A congenital ankle configuration that kept leading to stress fractures in her left foot meant she would need corrective surgery to continue hard training (and that sounds like the saga of another road legend, New Zealand’s Anne Audain). But when Keira’s insurance company deemed her problem to be pre-existing and denied her the surgery, she packed up her running dreams and got on with her life, because she couldn’t afford the surgery on her own.
She got married, took a full-time job with Freddie Mac, and had two kids before better insurance allowed her to fix her ankle problem. But she was out of running for seven-plus years! Who comes back from that, much less to record form?
Not that Deena’s record wasn’t going to come under increasing pressure, given the new reality of the super shoes revolution. Still, who would’ve picked Keira D’Amato to be the one to break it? Or that it would come in Houston?
The last woman to set the American marathon record who didn’t come up through the traditional high school to college to professional path was Patti Dillon. Patti was the first American woman to go sub-2:30 when she finished second to Grete Waitz at the 1980 New York City Marathon in 2:29:33.
Patti didn’t start running in high school or college, but as a way to quit smoking and hanging out in bars and lose weight. Six months later, she ran 2:53 to win the 1976 Ocean State Marathon in Newport, Rhode Island. Soon, her world-class talent revealed itself as she went on to set American road records from 5 miles to the marathon.
It all just goes to show there’s more than one road to Rome. And even considering how super shoes probably aided Keira’s performance – there seems to be no Wall anymore as she just got stronger from 30K on, going from 2:19:47 pace at 30k to 2:19:42 at 35K to the record, 2:19:12 at the finish – that doesn’t diminish her accomplishment for a second.
Even if we add 2% to her time, which is closer to the real advantage the super-stack shoes provide, you still get a sub-2:22. And this from a 37-year-old woman who trains alone at sea-level, has two young children, who worked to earn $15-$20,000 a year to pay for her nutrition, massage, and chiropractic work so she could keep being a runner?
The results in Houston this past Sunday reinforce all those hoary, cliched quotes expo speakers have been giving to debuting marathoners for as long as I can remember: “one step at a time”; “there’s more inside you than you realize”; and “don’t let anyone tell you what you can do.”
Any sport is in a constant state of reformation, searching for acolytes and heroes to inspire them. Keira D’Amato is a throwback kind of hero who will travel well, the girl next door who any young person will embrace whose path hasn’t been pre-greased for success And she will find fans among the old-guard, as well, to those whose cynicism has only been reinforced in recent times.
So congratulations to both Keira and Houston for magnificent examples of perseverance and excellence. Gives us all a little faith in the future again, doesn’t it? And, boy, isn’t that’s something we all have needed of late?