Deena Does Distance

by Tito Morales

A Run to the Beach Changed American Marathon History.

© 2004 42K(+) Press, Inc.

For Deena Kastor, the epiphany struck while she was in the midst of a low-key, off-season trail run.

The Southern California native was visiting her parents’ home in Agoura Hills, and one morning she decided to challenge herself by touching the sand. Kastor, then known as Drossin, set off along some trails in the Santa Monica Mountains, taking care to pace herself so that she could comfortably make the nine-mile trip to the beach.

Before that outing, her longest run had been 15 miles.

After reaching her destination and briefly rewarding herself with an up-close-and-personal encounter with the Pacific Ocean, Kastor cautiously and apprehensively set off back toward the San Fernando Valley. A 5K and 10K specialist at the University of Arkansas and professionally, she had long resisted the notion of ever trying a marathon.

“I had always said that I would never run that distance,” she recalls. “I felt that anything that takes a month to recover from can’t be good for you.”

But something magical happened that Sunday morning. As Kastor wended her way home past oak groves, eucalyptus trees, and chaparral-coated hills, she discovered that she was actually gaining strength instead of losing it. Bend after bend, hill after hill, she was gradually becoming a convert.

“That was the first day I felt my body was strong enough,” Kastor says, enthusiastically describing the run as if it occurred last week. “I felt so good when I got back that I called my coach and told him that I wanted to run a marathon someday.”

Five months later, she captured the U.S. National Marathon Championship in New York while recording the fastest debut ever by an American woman: 2:26:58.

And on April 13, 2003, after just 17 more months, she broke Joan Benoit Samuelson’s long-standing American record with a time of 2:21:16.

The Genesis of a Passion

Kastor’s fondness for running began at a young age. When she was 11, her mother enrolled her in a local club—in part, to help her combat shyness.

“I’ve always loved it,” she says. “Ever since my very first day at track practice.”

To many, distance running is the most solitary of pursuits. For Kastor, though, her long and productive career has been anything but lonely.

“It’s never really been very individual to me,” she explains. “I’ve always had teammates and training partners. That was part of the reason why I took to it so much.”

Her high school years were punctuated by promise: three state cross-country and two track titles. Her collegiate career produced even more success as she earned seven Southeastern Conference titles and was the runner-up at the 1992 NCAA Cross-Country Championships.

But lots of runners show promise in high school and college. And the vast majority wind up calling it a career when they’re confronted with the harsh realization that there are plenty of like-minded dreamers out there and that many possess just as much, if not more, natural ability.

Kastor was good upon her graduation, but she certainly wasn’t great—at least not in the big scheme of things. She didn’t have a resume bulging with national championships or a “can’t-miss” label. Shoe companies did not come calling.

Oftentimes, though, it is those without all the fanfare—and those who face the greatest amount of adversity—who will ultimately prove to be the ones who prevail.

Scaling the Mountain

Kastor admits now that at age 23 she had reached a critical juncture in her running career. She had plateaued somewhat during her junior and senior years, partly because of a loss of focus, and the timetable for making her mark had begun to shrink.

“In retrospect, I don’t think that I lost my passion for running,” she explains. “I think that there were just so many other things distracting me—and so much that I wanted to do.”

An English and Creative Writing double major, Kastor found herself being drawn toward the writing lifestyle. Yes, the love for running was still intact. The issue, though, was whether the same could be said of the drive.

Raising the level of her game, Kastor realized, would require a drastic makeover.

She contacted esteemed coach Joe Vigil, whose success at Adams State College had made him a veritable institution in running circles. At the time, Vigil was living in Alamosa, Colorado, and coaching a group of postcollegians. None of them, however, were women.

“I tried to discourage her because Alamosa is not a California town,” Vigil recalls. “It’s a little secluded, it’s in the mountains, and it gets cold—sometimes 30 degrees below zero. Only the toughest people survive there in terms of running.”

Kastor, however, was already committed to making the pilgrimage. Other things in life could wait. She was determined to see just how far her running could take her.

“She’s the kind of person that once she makes up her mind to do something, there’s no turning back,” says Vigil. “She may not be a total success at it, but she’ll live and breathe it.”

Neither of them realized it at the time, but Kastor’s decision would ultimately prove to be the first step in the long-overdue revitalization of American distance running.

The Ability to Inspire

Some top distance runners seem to log stellar performances through the use of smoke and mirrors. Elbows flair, torsos list, legs flail, and faces contort. Technique just doesn’t jibe with the numbers on the stopwatch.

Kastor’s fluidity, though, is evident even from a distance.

Watching her run, in fact, brings to mind a falcon in flight. Her many years of toil and rehearsal have produced efficiency that has become second nature. There is, quite simply, little or no wasted motion.

Majestic birds don’t soar to appear graceful to human onlookers; they soar because soaring is in their genetic makeup. And so it has become with Kastor, as is readily apparent from the power and ease with which she glides over the ground.

Yes, her form exhibits all the usual telltale signs of expertise—the whisper of the foot strikes, the controlled, compact action of the arm swings, the almost imperceptible breath. . . .

If the truth be known, however, it is the eyes that reveal Kastor’s true gift. They radiate determination, her eyes. They speak of strength and courage and an overwhelming willingness to fight rather than back down. And more than anything else, they have the rare ability to inspire.

Hop onto my back, her eyes invite. Together we can, and will, aspire to great things.

The Alamosa Years

It’s difficult to say why Kastor responded to Vigil’s influence the way she did. Perhaps she realized that she had simply reached the point of no return with her running. It was put up or shut up—step up or step off.

Upon Kastor’s arrival, Vigil, a physiologist who has long incorporated science and technology into his training, immediately put her through a series of tests to gauge her fitness level and potential. The results were anything but stellar.

“She was just mediocre,” Vigil admits. “She’d only been doing about 40 miles a week.”

Vigil patiently went to work preparing a program that would improve his new pupil’s V.O2max.

“She willingly did everything I asked her to do,” Vigil says. “People have the ability to do the work if they allow themselves enough time to adapt to the processes—if they can understand it and see it in their minds.”

Her weekly mileage crept up—first to 70, then to 90.

And, sure enough, as Kastor’s body began to accept the heavier workload, the numbers that spit out of the computer began to dramatically improve.

“But a lot of people have that kind of potential,” says Vigil. “They just don’t think right.”

So, probably even more important than addressing her fitness level, Vigil went to work developing the mental facet of her game as well.

“I think anyone can go out there and go through the motions of doing the work,” Kastor says now, “but I think having a strong mind and a deep drive is really what makes the difference between an average runner and someone on an elite level.”

“There are a lot of things that are so important to being a great distance runner,” says Matt Downin, a teammate with Team USA California. “You can’t miss days emotionally. You have to go out every day and do it. And Deena’s time spent in Alamosa with Coach Vigil has gotten her to the point where she is able to do that better than almost anybody.”

In hindsight, a great many factors surely contributed to Kastor’s rise through the ranks.

There was, of course, her willingness to adopt both a Spartan lifestyle and a single-minded approach to her running. Then again, there was her psychic and physical hardening while training in oftentimes adverse weather conditions at 8,000-foot elevation. And, too, there was the fact that she was thrown into a situation where she was forced to compete with a group of talented male athletes on a daily basis.

Mostly, though, it was the confidence Kastor came to gain in her own abilities. Vigil insisted that she aspire to greatness—not just as a runner, but also as a human being.

“I try to make a complete person,” he explains of his approach to training, “not just an athlete.”

Three months after immersing herself in Vigil’s methodology, Kastor competed at the U.S. Cross-Country Championships and earned a top-20 finish. Perhaps it was then that she began to realize that the peak of the mountain really wasn’t that far off after all. One year later, in 1997, Kastor returned to the meet and blew away the field, earning her first national title.

Afterward, amid all the jubilation—as family and friends embraced the new champion—Vigil approached Kastor and told her, “You know, Deena, I’m not even going to pat you on the back until you can run with the best in the world.”

And Kastor, instead of wilting or feeling reproached, took her coach’s words to heart. When they got back to Colorado, the two of them began to plan for even bigger things.

A Marathon Coming-Out Party

To hear Kastor describe herself, she is not all that competitive a person, at least not against others.

“I just think I’m competitive with myself,” she insists. “I love to push and to see progress. I think it’s more of an internal drive than it is a competitiveness.”

Watching Kastor assume control of a race, however, contradicts her self-assessment. It is her aggressiveness, in fact, that has defined her career. She lays it all on the line from the get-go and challenges others to even attempt to hang with her.

In cross-country, her assertiveness has helped earn seven national titles and two silvers at the World Championships. She has become the most successful U.S. runner in that discipline since Lynn Jennings, and her leadership has contributed to two top-three finishes for Team USA.

With her move into the world of marathoning during the summer of 2001, however, Kastor realized she would need to rethink her entire approach.

“Every day at practice, Coach Vigil would say, ‘Emotional control, Deena,’” Kastor recalls. “And that was my cue to not be so aggressive.”

On a set of six one-mile repeats, for instance, the old Kastor would blast the first one and then tenaciously try to match that standard for the next five. Courageous, yes, but not quite what Vigil was after.

“You have to know what your capacity is and you have to stay with it,” Vigil explains.

“In training for marathons you have to be a little more subdued, controlled, and patient,” she says. “All these little things I had to learn.”

It is clear from her stunning performance at the New York City Marathon—where she was the seventh woman overall and bested the next closest American by nearly eight minutes—that part of her talent lies not only in her athleticism but also in her ability to adapt and make adjustments.

An American in London

When the London Marathon rolled around on April 13, 2003, most of the attention was focused on the remarkable feats of homegrown favorite Paula Radcliffe. Radcliffe, like Kastor, had run two marathons to date, and she seemed to take to the distance even better than her American counterpart.

The year before, Radcliffe debuted in London and came within 9 seconds of equaling Kenyan Catherine Ndereba’s world-best mark of 2:18:47. Six months later, as Kastor was struggling at the Chicago Marathon, Radcliffe became the first woman in history to dip below 2:18.

Now Radcliffe was set to again perform in front of her countrymen, and the expectations were enormous—particularly since the field also included Ndereba.

By the time the gun went off, in fact, Kastor was virtually an afterthought.

But she had come to London for a reason: she had her sights set on Benoit Samuelson’s 17-year-old record of 2:21:21.

“I know what pace I’m supposed to be every mile,” she explains. “And then I had 5K, 10K, 15K, 20K, and so on splits written on my arm to check those points when I passed them. That was really the first race where I ever did that.”

She would have to average 5:23 per mile—a feat only nine women in history had managed to pull off. It was an ambitious undertaking and one that would represent a whopping five-minute PR.

Kastor came into the race supremely confident. Her preparation had been consistent, and she was coming off a nearly flawless silver medal showing at the World Cross-Country Championships two weeks before. Many had openly questioned her decision to run the two disparate and challenging events so close together.

But Kastor has long maintained that cross-country is her life’s greatest passion, and she is a firm believer that preparation for that season helps her achieve a level of fitness that is transferable to all types of running.

“I always seem to be my strongest during cross-country season,” she says simply.

As the television cameras zoomed in on Radcliffe, who again quickly proved herself the class of the field, Kastor quietly went to work clicking off 5:23 miles.

“I was aware of what she was doing,” Kastor says. “But I also had a mission of my own that day, which was to run a consistent race and to try to run fast.”

She hit the first 10K in 32:59 and the halfway point in 1:10:45, almost exactly on pace. So far, so good. But the marathon is notorious for chewing up and spitting out runners who are convinced they’re floating through one of those magical races.

And, sure enough, Kastor began to encounter stomach problems less than two miles later, and her pace began to slide behind schedule.

Legendary Toughness

Perhaps, in retrospect, it should come as no surprise that Kastor has evolved not only into a marathoner but also into one of the most talented on the planet.

Success in distance running isn’t just about putting the miles on the legs. It’s about patience and the discipline and courage to put together body-wrenching and mind-numbing sessions day in and day out.

“I’ve had a lot of other athletes, but none of them have accepted the challenge quite like Deena has,” Vigil says. “She’s the strongest, most focused athlete I’ve ever worked with.”

While Kastor’s range may be stunning—she has proven that she can perform nearly equally well from the 1,500 meters all the way up to the marathon—it is her grit that has become the stuff of legend.

At the 2000 World Cross-Country Championships, for instance, she inadvertently swallowed a bee midrace, momentarily blacked out, and then scraped herself off the course and still went on to capture 12th place. At the Sydney Olympic Games, she gutted out a difficult 10,000-meter heat while still on the mend from a serious Achilles problem. And in 2003, she competed at the World Championships in Paris less than a month after undergoing emergency surgery for melanoma.

“You don’t meet someone with that type of tenacity very often,” says Matt Downin, who was the fastest American at the 2003 New York Marathon. “She’s definitely one of the toughest people I know.”

It may even be argued, in fact, that Kastor’s true marathon birth occurred during the 2002 Chicago Marathon.

When she took the starting line in the Windy City, Kastor was intent on hammering out a sizable PR. She opened strong but faded to a 2:26:53. Her effort was a five-second improvement over New York, but she couldn’t hide her disappointment after the race.

“I had never seen The Wall before,” Kastor says. “To feel that—there is no mental strength that can rise above it. It’s frustrating, because you end up working so hard for that one race and to have it fall apart and not be able to do anything about it was pretty humbling.”

It’s the marathoner’s familiar lament and perhaps what makes the distance so incredibly alluring. It’s like tap dancing blindfolded on the edge of a precipice. Nothing is ever guaranteed. But it’s so damn exhilarating flirting with the danger that you can’t resist the challenge.

Others in Kastor’s position might have scurried back to the safety of shorter distances. She, though, was undeterred. Half a year later she was prepared to do battle once again in England.

“Deena handles both defeat and success very well,” says Downin. “When she does have defeat, I think she learns from it. She’s able to move on very quickly.”

From One Icon to Another

When Kastor hit another bad patch at about mile 15 on the streets of London, she fought hard to keep it all together. She reminded herself, in particular, of the prodigious training she had endured. With 10K to go, though, she was about 40 seconds off goal pace, and she admits that when she saw the numbers her resolve began to crumble.

“For the most part, I’m just internalizing and pushing and trying to mimic things that I’ve done in practice,” she says, describing her mind-set in the heat of battle. “I’m trying to find inspiration somewhere to help me push a little bit harder.”

Her fiancé, Andrew Kastor, would be waiting for her at the finish line. They would be getting married in the fall. If she could at least set a solid PR, it would make for an unforgettable wedding present for both of them.

She forced the issue, reluctant to let things slip away. And when the next mile split showed her that she still possessed strength, she began to regain confidence. Each mile brought her closer back to record pace, but she was running out of distance.

In what she would later describe as some of the ugliest running of her entire career, Kastor put on a sprint when she saw the digital clock atop the finish line and crossed just five seconds beneath Benoit Samuelson’s mark.

Despite the accomplishment, though, Kastor insists that Benoit Samuelson and her tremendous accomplishments will always stand the test of time.

“To have an American record for 18 years is just unbelievable in a sport that so many people do,” Kastor is quick to point out. “It’s an incredible feat. I think that she’s the inspiration to every marathoner. There are so many different terms on which people respect her that it would be stupid to not consider her an icon in the sport.”

It would also be foolish, though, to not consider that Kastor has already become an icon in her own right.

In December 2003, Kastor was awarded USA Track & Field’s highest honor, the Jesse Owens Award. Her selection was the first by a distance athlete since 1990, when Lynn Jennings won the award.

“She’s leading the renaissance of distance running in this country,” says Vigil, who calls his and Kastor’s seven-year coach/athlete relationship very special and unlike any he had experienced before.

What really has the U.S. marathon community buzzing is the fact that Kastor’s American record came after only three attempts at the distance. In contrast, Benoit Samuelson debuted with a 2:35:15, and it took her six years to whittle her way down to a 2:21.

But Kastor’s impact on distance running extends far beyond numbers, records, and proving once and for all that Americans can indeed compete with athletes from the African nations.

In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a better representative for the sport. When Kastor talks shop, which she does with such regularity and with so much conviction that she was awarded the 2002 Visa Humanitarian Athlete of the Year award, the love of running she exudes is infectious.

She enjoys sharing her wisdom with young children, in particular, and she has long been on the front line in the war against the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

“Deena has a tremendous sense of responsibility to the sport,” says Vigil. “She’s at the top of her game now, but she’s still a very giving person.”

The Decision to Go Long in Athens

Kastor’s disappointing performance in the 10,000 meters at Sydney, where she failed to advance to the finals, gave her quite a bit of motivation to make amends at the next Olympic Games. The experience, in fact, has surely been gnawing at the edges of her consciousness ever since.

But a funny thing happened on the road to Athens. The miles, in a sense, changed shape as Kastor took a little detour and wound up becoming one of the best marathoners in the world.

Still, Kastor’s first inclination was to focus on the 10,000 meters for Athens. She had unfinished business to take care of at that distance. And besides, the weather in Greece would certainly not be very conducive to running a fast marathon. Why run that far, she reasoned, if I can’t get a good time out of it? As recently as fall 2003, she was still on the fence as to which direction to go.

“It was probably one of the hardest decisions that I’ve ever made,” she confesses. “I wrote out this pros and cons list, which was ridiculously long.”

In the end, the marathon won out.

“Really, the only pro that I thought with regards to running the marathon was that it’s my best shot at a medal in the Olympic Games. It’s something that I think I can do, and the chances don’t come around that often.”

Kastor will go into the April 3, 2004, U.S. Trials in St. Louis as the prohibitive favorite. And if all goes according to plan, she will line up in Athens as America’s best hope of earning a top-three finish in two decades.

The experience will surely be enthralling, as the course will cover the route over which, according to legend, Pheidippides ran to announce the Greek military victory over the Persians. The locals will surely embrace the marathon as has never been witnessed before, and that outpouring of emotion will play into Kastor’s favor.

“I tend to thrive off the crowds,” she says. “I guess that’s why I choose some of the races I do—because of the spirit and the involvement.”

The Insatiability of a Champion

Many universal qualities go into the makeup of the champion athlete. They include talent, of course, good coaching, perseverance, confidence in one’s abilities, hard work, and a relentless drive to prevail—no matter what.

“I’ve never been satisfied with any of the competitions that I’ve done,” Kastor confides. “I always celebrate reaching a goal, but it always seems that even when you’re at your best there’s something else you can do to get to a higher level. There’s always just something inside my mind that says, ‘There’s more to do here.’ It’s that insatiability that kind of pops me on a day-to-day basis.”

And so she continues to push herself to new extremes.

“I don’t think I’ll ever really understand the distance,” Kastor confesses of the marathon. “Each one is going to be a totally new challenge, whether it’s weather conditions or hitting The Wall or whatever it may be. I think they’re all going to teach me a lesson in some way or another.”

Kastor would love to one day add Boston and Berlin to her marathon book, and she even has her sights set on someday tackling an ultramarathon or two.

“They have a couple of ultra races out here during the year, and it’s exciting,” she says, referring to her home in Mammoth Lakes. “It would be really fun for me. It’s a totally different mentality, though. So I think I need to make sure I’m finished with the shorter distances and the possibilities of marathoning.”

Needless to say, Kastor has come a long, long way since the morning she once set off to touch the sand.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2004 issue of Marathon & Beyond. For information about reprinting or excerpting this article or any other M&B article, contact Jan Seeley via email or at 217-359-9345.

M&B Home | Learn More About M & B | Readers Say | M&B On the Road
Tables of Contents | M&B Sneak Preview | Subscribe | Order Back Issues/Gear | Advertise in M & B | Write Us | Partner Links | Links

Back to M&B home page
Created by: M&B Staff
Last update: March 2004
© Copyright 1998-2004 42K(+), Inc.