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Deena Kastor, RNR Philly Half Marathon, photo by PhotoRun.net

When a runner is in love with our sport, you can tell. There is a sparkle in their eyes, there is enthusiasm in their voice, and there is joy in their heart. They know and accept the physical, mental, and emotional roller coaster that periodically accompanies their pursuit of road racing in general and the marathon in particular. They know the marathon is a cruel mistress who can reward you in one race and punish you in the next. They know there are no runners who forever evade disappointment, that it strikes everyone. They don't lament the inevitable and often unpredictable setbacks that are engrained in competitive running. They recognize and react positively to the occasional disappointment and embrace it as part of the challenge and irresistible allure of our sport.

Deena Kastor is in the midst of a 30+ year love affair with running. Spend any time with the Olympic medalist and you will quickly learn that she is an upbeat personality who adores her life and her pursuit of running at the highest level. A key ingredient to the positive attitude she brings to her world class career is a peaceful acceptance of the unanticipated humbling moments which can rise up to test the mettle of any road racing athlete.Over an elite running journey which has spanned over three decades, Kastor has experienced the exhilaration of pinnacle performances as well as the despair of unexpected failures - even on the biggest stage in our sport. Leading into the 2004 Games in Athens, Kastor enjoyed a flawless training run up to the Olympic marathon. She spent a month before the Games on Crete with her husband Andrew, prepared in a relaxed setting, and even utilized an ice vest on race day to reduce her core body temperature to battle the race day heat. Her gallant come-from-behind performance earned her the bronze medal. She still calls her epic Athens performance "the perfect race." 4 years later, following another catastrophe-free build up, Kastor - by then the American record holder in the marathon at 2:19:36 - felt ready to ascend to the Olympic podium's top step in Beijing. "I could see that gold medal being draped around my neck," she recalls. Instead disaster struck. Barely three miles in to the race, the defending bronze medalist sustained an osteoporosis-induced broken foot that sent her sobbing to the sag wagon.

Kastor has come back strong after her broken foot healed. She has continued to build an impressive career record - not yet completed - which sports 18 national championships, 1 Olympic and 2 World XC medals, 2 victories in marathons which are now part of the World Marathon Majors, and 8 current American records ranging from 5K to the marathon.

But as is the case for all road racing athletes, not every moment has been rosy. A critical competition of character development for the California native was Moscow's 2013 World Championship marathon - staged on a steaming, newly black-topped roadway under sweltering conditions. "In a marathon, you plan to push hard for that last 10K and really dig down for 30-something minutes of work," she explains. "On that day, I felt like I was working for it mentally from the very beginning. It was just a really hard day for me," Kastor confesses. But she adds, "In hindsight, I grew a lot from it. I now know that I can dig down to get the best out of myself for quite a long time. So it definitely extended my threshold of hurting, because it was probably 20 miles of wanting to drop out of that race and finding every reason to continue on. The reward was at 40 years of age I got 9th place in the world. And I was able to stay in the top 10 in a race where I suffered greatly. So I am very proud of that accomplishment."

Bouncing back from the Moscow steam bath, Kastor found herself healthier, more inspired, and - at age 41 - running at an exceptionally high level as 2014 unfolded. Late winter races revealed her elevated fitness level. "I ran the Dallas Rock 'n Roll Half Marathon on a cool, blustery, windy day and broke a couple of masters' records in route. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, if I can do this on a hard course against the wind for 9 miles, I am really in good shape,'" reveals Kastor. Further affirmation came in the New York More Fitness Women's Half Marathon where she broke the American masters' record. "I said to my husband Andrew when he had his coaching hat on, 'Man, I really should get in a fast half marathon and see how fast I can run.' We kind of targeted the world masters record. I like to have a goal when I'm out there training every day," Kastor reveals. "The goal may have been far-fetched at the time. But it got me excited. And I started training really well this summer. So I was able to get into really good fitness and feel good on long runs for the first time in years."

Kastor rode the traditional training triad of track work, tempo runs, and long runs into Philadelphia for an assault on the world masters' record in the half. "I felt like I was in 2:18 shape, so I was going to run 5:15 miles. But the gun went off and my competitiveness took over. So I had some pretty aggressive and reckless first miles in that race," she confesses. "Instead of running 5:15's, I was running 5:05, 5:07, then 5:06. Those few miles at a hot pace certainly made those last few miles a little more challenging." And with a laugh she adds, "After 30 years of running and racing, I should know better." Mid race, Kastor stayed focused on closing the gap on two young African women ahead of her, Ethiopia's Aberu Kebede and Kenya's Caroline Rotich. "I loved that my competitive instinct was still there, that it wasn't just going to be a time trial, that it was about going out and trying to work for the win as well as trying to run fast."

The three-time Olympian was able to work through a mid-race stitch and find strength over the final miles of the race. "It was pretty hard to dig down," Kastor admits. But she was able to draw upon a reservoir of energy to over the final minutes to finish third overall with a 1:09:37 clocking - good enough to trim 19 seconds off the 2008 world masters' record of 1:09:56 held by Russia's Irina Permitina. For good measure, Kastor also set new world masters' marks for 15K [49:03], 10 miles [52:41], and 20K [1:05:52] along the way.

The new masters' world record holder admits that the mental and emotional challenge of running intrigues her. It is that allure which keeps drawing her back. "It is why I am not retired," she reveals. "Physically, I have probably reached my peak. But I feel like mentally and emotionally that this sport keeps offering me so much that I just can't step away from it."

Far from stepping way, Kastor is looking to future challenges that lie ahead. "There is still another year of training and racing to put in before the Olympic Trials. But it definitely appeals to me. I tried so hard after having my daughter Piper to rush coming back for the [2012] Olympic Trials and fell short with a 6th place performance. That would have been my 4th Olympic team. I definitely feel that if I am going to run a marathon or if I still want to go that distance, I will certainly be on the starting line at the 2016 Olympic Trials."

But first there is some business to attend to in New York. 'It was about a month before Philadelphia that I had a couple of really long workouts back to back. And so I said, 'You know, I think I can run really well in New York,'" Kastor explains. "And it was exciting to me to think about getting back out there and redeeming myself at the marathon distance."
One of Deena Kastor's strengths is her ability to extract a positive "teachable moment" from a disappointing performance that others would simply cast aside or - worse yet - let dominate their psyche to their detriment. "I really feel that the Moscow race and other disappointing races in general have really offered me a lot - a big opportunity to grow in this sport, knowing that there's always an opportunity to dig down one more time even when you want to give up," Kastor explains. "The fact that in Moscow I could find a reason for 20 miles to keep going, when all I wanted to do is stop, I am pretty proud of that moment. So in probably one of my worst and most dreadful performances, I learned so much. And I'm actually very proud of it."

Kastor - a USATF Board member - has found a graceful way to get comfortable with her Masters status in manner that hasn't tamped down her competitive fire. "In Philadelphia, I kinda had the philosophy that I had nothing to lose, my training's been great, let's go for it. And so I went for it even faster than I was supposed to. The sport is still fun. I like competing. I like having goals to chase - even if the goals are slightly slower than my goals a decade ago. I am just having fun with the sport. And I feel it is my obligation as a professional runner and as a mom to show how you can continue to pursue something joyfully. So I want to be a good role model for my daughter as well as sharing with so many people that are involved with this sport - no matter what their motivations, their ability, their gender, their age, their socio-economic status, or their race. It's wonderful that a sport can be so relatable across so many fields of people. And I feel honored to be a part of it." And in declaration that neatly sums up her view of running, Kastor smiles and adds, "I've finally realized that this distance running, this road racing is not a sport you retire from. It's a lifestyle."

Deena Kastor has come a long way over the last 14 months since that sizzling August day in Moscow when she thought that the 2013 World Championship marathon might be her last. Rejuvenated by a recent string of strong road racing and capped off by her world masters record in the Philadelphia Rock 'n Roll Half Marathon, America's marathon record holder is set to tackle that distance once again. "New York will give me chance to get another good taste of the marathon in my mouth again instead of ending on a Moscow note," Kastor offers. To be sure, the competitive fire of Deena Kastor has never been in question. But the recent racing successes of the 3-time U.S. marathon champion has now armed her with a renewed racing serenity which should give her an added dimension of mental durability to cope with the varied challenges of racing 26 miles 385 yards. It likely will serve her well early next month in New York City where she has yet another date to dance with the cruel mistress that is the marathon.

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Dunaway AwardAt the 2019 annual meeting of the Track and Field Writers of America, Dave was presented with the James Dunaway Memorial Award “for track & field journalism excellence.”

Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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