HOUSTON, TEXAS, January 16—The Chevron Houston Marathon has carved out a rather effective niche on the competitive calendar attracting runners hoping to start the year with a fast time on its bayou-flat course. When last run in ’20, nine men bettered an hour in the half. This year it was Ladies’ Day as some 70 minutes after Sara Hall set a new American Record in the half-marathon Keira D’Amato crossed the finish in 2:19:12 to win the 26-miler, paring 24 seconds from Deena Kastor’s longstanding American Record.
D’Amato’s remarkable renaissance reached new heights in Houston as the 37-year-old Virginian completed a stunning run on a rather blustery 37–40 degree day with a chilly 10-12mph northern wind.
“We went out at American Record pace, and I really believed in my heart and in my legs, in my soul and in my brain, that I was capable of breaking the American Record today,” she said. “Luckily, I had the two best pacers in the world in Calum Neff and Silas Franz. They were so smooth and that really helped me. I just tried to zone out and lock in and just see how long I could hang on.”
D’Amato, who toed the line with a 2:22:56 PR and an AR 51:23 over 10M, admitted that her training and pacing strategy was firmly focused on Kastor’s 2:19:36 record run in the ’06 London Marathon. “We were thinking 5:18 pace (2:18:58), that would give us a little bit of a cushion. So we just went out at 5:18 and see how long we could click that. I wasn’t feeling awesome today, but I was feeling good enough to get it done, which is great.”
Got it done indeed. Despite alternating headwind and tailwind stretches she managed a steady 69:40/69:32 negative-split effort culminating in a fast closing push that sent her across the finish line, into the recordbooks and arms of her children.
Fully committed to the record and in defiance of the cold and windy conditions, D’Amato and her pacing duo got right after it, zipping through a 16:25 opening 5K into the wind — 2:18:32 pace. The tempo quickened with a tailwind as D’Amato crossed 10K in 32:45 (2:18:11 pace). Meanwhile, 3-time Houston champ Biruktayit Defefa ran lock-step a stride behind D’Amato.
The torrid splits continued as D’Amato & company reached 15K in 49:14 (2:18:30 pace), but as they headed back into the wind, the pace slowed and halfway was passed in 69:40. Fortunately for D’Amato, Defefa slowed even more and fell 21 seconds back and would not finish.
For local course knowledge D’Amato placed her trust in Neff, a lanky Canadian who had paced Sara Hall to her 2:20:32 PR in ’20. Employed in the energy industry, Neff was transferred into Houston 7 years ago and has become an accomplished runner and local coach who admittedly “knows every turn and pebble on the course.”
If D’Amato had a bad patch it came between 15 and 30K as she toured a rather exposed stretch of the course heading into the wind and her projected pace slipped from 2:18:30 to 2:19:34. “We started out on pace and it never really felt that good,” D’Amato admitted. “I started worrying but I just tried to hang in there. On the Houston course after 18M is a long straight path to the finish so I was just thinking, ‘If I can make it to 18…’
“The wind was pretty intense out there, there were points where you just got blasted which led to the slower pace. The good thing is Calum is so tall, the wind would come and I’d see him puff out to try to block it. After 18M, through the residential areas it was a little more blocked from the wind and naturally we picked it up. I wasn’t checking my watch, I wasn’t even looking at the lead pace vehicle, I was just thinking to lock on to Calum and Silas.”
For his part, Neff was keenly tracking the projected-pace display which after a 5:25 for kilo 19 peaked at 2:19:40 pace. “I saw it getting closer, closer to the 2:18:36 record, and actually went a little bit over, and then we started chipping away at it.”
The chipping began with a 5:20 for mile 20, and then they attacked the final 10K with subsequent 5:14 and 5:16 miles that dropped the projected pace to 2:19:28 at 22M. All the while D’Amato juggled her physical efforts with the marathon’s mind games, revealing, “There was that big question mark: ‘Am I going to be able to get this done today?’ I was fit enough to run that time, but I didn’t know if today was going to be the day.
“So going into the last 10K I thought that I have a shot to do this. I just kept thinking, ‘Keep pushing, keep pushing, this is what you have been training for, this is the moment that pushing through this hard point is what is going to turn a good race into a great race for me,’ but it hurt a lot.”
As is often the case, finishing off a marathon all comes back to coaching and training. “I did the Richmond Marathon in 2017,” D’Amato recalled, “and was hoping to break 3:00 and ran 2:47 that day and directly after the race called my coach Scott Raczko and told him that I think I can qualify for the Trials. That’s when we started getting really intentional and he was able to construct my training to get me to here. I want to really thank Scott, we make a good team.”
Raczko, a Virginia coaching guru known for guiding Alan Webb to his HS miling success, set up a training program for D’Amato latched onto the desired 5:18 pace. She affirmed, “In the last month I’ve done a couple long tempo runs that were within long runs and that gave me a lot of confidence. I did a 22M run with about 13M of tempo and I think I averaged in the low 5-teens for that. Two weeks ago, I did a 24M run with 14M of tempo and averaged 5:20 for that. I ran those workouts feeling very relaxed and hopefully going into today 5:18 would feel relaxed.”
Drilling in the muscle memory of that 5:18 pace served her well as she pounded out 5:17, 5:19 and 5:18 miles to reach 25M in 2:12:56 — 2:19:25 pace. Pushing past Neff, D’Amato attacked the finishing stretch running 5:07 pace over the final 1.2 M to stop the clock at 2:19:12.
D’Amato was hard pressed to grasp her achievement: “I don’t think I’m going to be able to find the right words to describe what I’m feeling right now; I’ll try!” she said. “I’ve had a very unique running career and my running has evolved throughout my life, and has been part of my life in so many ways. I have experienced high school running and college running, I tried post-collegiate running a little bit and got injured. Then I quit running for a while and came in as a hobby jogger, a recreational runner, and somehow I got this second opportunity.
“I just can’t believe I’m sitting here as the American Recordholder in the marathon; it is just pretty wild.”
Raczko admitted that D’Amato’s preparation for Houston benefited from some issues she encountered during her buildup for last year’s Chicago Marathon, explaining, “She had a few hiccups that delayed our prep for a fall marathon so when she ran Chicago, she was probably 6 weeks away from really running well.” Rather than having the marathon ending a training cycle this proved to be a springboard for better things.
“Sure enough that proved to be true,” said Raczko. “By November she was really clicking well. Ran a good Manchester race, then ran a good US Half and many good workouts. The leadup has been great since Chicago, very consistent and very effective with too many good workouts to count.”
D’Amato’s manager Ray Flynn offered some perspective as he also guided Kastor’s career and remembers her record run in London very well: “It’s definitely a changing of the guard. Deena just called Keira to say 16 years ago Joanie [Samuelson] called her when she broke Joanie’s record, and it brought Keira to tears. It was very appropriate and classy for Deena to call her. I’m sure it was a little bittersweet as she lost a record today.”
Such it is that two telephone calls can span some 36 years of U.S. women’s marathon history.
1. Keira D’Amato (unattached) 2:19:12 AR (old AR 2:19:36 Deena Kastor [Asics] ’06) (WL) (16:25, 16:20 [32:45], 16:29 [49:14], 16:39 [65:53], 16:42 [1:22:35], 16:39 [1:39:14], 16:28 [1:55:42], 16:26 [2:12:08], 7:04) (69:40/69:32);
2. Alice Wright (GB) 2:29:08 PR;
3. Maggie Montoya (US) 2:29:08 PR;
4. Roberta Groner (US) 2:32:02;
5. Atsede Tesema (Eth) 2:32:38;
6. Brittney Feivor (US) 2:32:39 PR;
7. Katia Garcia (Mex) 2:32:54 PR;
8. Christina Welsh (US) 2:33:00 PR;
9. Molly Bookmyer (US) 2:33:19 PR;
10. Andrea Pomaranski (US) 2:33:35 PR.
1. James Ngandu (Ken) 2:11:03 PR;
2. Abdi Abdo (Bhr) 2:11:11;
3. Elisha Barno (Ken) 2:11:16;
4. Kenta Uchida (Jpn) 2:11:19;
5. Kelkile Gezahegn (Eth) 2:11:20;
6. Frank Lara (US) 2:11:32 PR;
7. Luke Caldwell (GB) 2:11:33 PR;
8. Josh Izewski (US) 2:12:45;
9. Augustus Maiyo (US) 2:13:17;
10. Rodgers Gesabwa (Ken) 2:14:46.