(When Runner’s World cut me loose as a columnist in 2004, I wasn’t ready to stop magazine work. This year I post the continuing columns from Marathon & Beyond. Much of that material now appears in the book Miles to Go.)
2004. My viewing of the latest Olympics peaked on the third day of the running events. Nothing that would come after that Sunday could top one woman marathoner’s race. Nothing in at least the last 20 years had topped it.
Deena Drossin Kastor did everything perfectly. Her training peaked at the right time, she paced herself the right way, and her first emotional and verbal reactions to what she had done were just right.
A friend of mine said on that Sunday night, “If she had gone out faster, think of what she might have done.” My guess is that a faster start would have handed Kastor the same fate as Paula Radcliffe. The world record-holder dictated much of the pace before dropping out, overheated and exhausted, four miles short of the finish.
Two other runners finished ahead of Kastor. None ran smarter.
The scheduling of this race (along with the men’s marathon a week later) was almost criminal. Everyone knew that Athens in August would be hot, and the late afternoon hottest of all.
So when did the marathon start? At six P.M., in the heat of the day, on a day when the official Athens temperature peaked at 103.
And why this hour? For the convenience of officials and the prime-timing of television. If the safety and performance of the athletes had been of any concern to schedulers, the race would have started at six o’clock that morning.
Kastor, more than anyone else, took what she was given and made the most of it. She simulated the expected heat by seriously overdressing in training. She planned her race as if the faster starters would come back to her.
And they did. At 5K she stood 28th. At halfway she was 12th.
I don’t have midway times for the other women but can’t imagine many of them running negative splits. Kastor did, by four minutes.
Her U.S. teammates, Jen Rhines and Colleen DeReuck, lagged 14 and 19 minutes behind the Trials times they’d run in near-perfect weather. Kastor bettered hers by 2:18, which showed both the wisdom of her Olympic pacing and of her training between April and August.
Now she was the first American marathoner (woman or man) to medal since 1984. In fact, she was the first with a single-digit finish since Joan Benoit Samuelson won at the Los Angeles Games.
These facts are impressive enough. But they alone don’t explain why Deena Kastor’s finish was my peak moment of these Olympics.
The stoic look of her running on the roads broke down into a tearful lap of the track as she learned from the stadium announcer that her place was third, not fourth as she’d thought. Those tears were contagious to viewers everywhere, including one watching TV in Oregon.
Her post-race comments were uncommonly gracious and articulate. These interviews too often fall somewhere between “God is great” and “God, I’m great.”
Kastor’s words echoed those of Benoit 20 years earlier. Joan had given credit to the pioneers of women’s marathoning who’d opened up this opportunity for her.
Deena said, “We might look like we’re alone out there, but we aren’t. Many people made our race possible.” Then she thanked some of them by name – her coach Joe Vigil, her husband Andrew.
Three months earlier I’d heard similar remarks from her. We sat at neighboring tables during the banquet that ended the Road Runners Club of America’s convention at Lake Tahoe.
The Kastors had driven several hours from their training base at Mammoth Lakes, California. “I really wanted to be here,” she said, “to thank the RRCA in person for supporting me when I was a struggling young runner. Your Roads Scholar grant allowed me to do the training necessary to reach the next level.”
Deena spoke first on the program. I came last, two hours later. Afterward a crowd surrounded her, wishing her well on the road to Athens.
I missed meeting her that night and telling her good luck at the Games. She wouldn’t need luck, only a plan that could and did work.
Later. A week later Kastor’s U.S. teammate Meb Keflezighi did her one better by taking the men’s marathon silver medal. Like Deena, Meb trained in the Running USA program at Mammoth, formed after the nation’s Olympic marathoning hit bottom in 2000. Only one man and one woman qualified for the Sydney Games, and they finished far out of the medals.
In Athens just four years later, no other country had both a woman and a man medal. The U.S. never before had scored such a double at an Olympics or World Championships.
A decade further on, these two still ran inspiringly. Deena, now the mother of a daughter, set masters records. Meb, at almost 39, won the 2014 Boston Marathon.
(Photo: Deena Kastor’s tears flow when learning she’s an Olympic bronze medalist.)
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Running With Class, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]