20 Years Ago Today, Deena Kastor Launched Her Storied Marathon Career In New York
By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2021 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
NEW YORK (04-Nov) — Twenty years ago today, as acrid smoke still rose from the site of the World Trade Center from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the nation remained on edge, Deena Kastor stood on the starting line of the New York City Marathon for her first try at the 42.195-kilometer distance. Wearing a black cap and bib “F9” on her Asics uniform, she was dealing with the usual pre-race nerves, but she also felt the weight of a city and a nation still in mourning.
Like the other elite athletes who ran in the race that day, Kastor rode a special bus from her hotel in Manhattan to the Staten Island start over the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge. As the bus ascended the bridge’s towering superstructure, the athletes stared out of the right-side bus windows to see the smoking rubble of Ground Zero. Nobody spoke.
“It was such a reality check moment, that here the race is going on and the city is healing,” Kastor told Race Results Weekly in a telephone interview before arriving here to work on the race‘s television coverage and perform other race-related duties. She continued: “To see that huge vacancy in the New York City skyline and to see smoke still rising from that vacancy was a real eerie experience, somber to say the least.”
But there would be great joy that day for the then-28 year-old who still ran under her birth name, Deena Drossin (she married Andrew Kastor in 2003). Carried by thunderous cheers along the Five-Borough course, Kastor ran with an extra sense of purpose. She had “USA” imprinted on the left side of her bib to denote she was competing in the USATF Marathon Championships and was channeling the emotions of a wounded, but still combative, city.
“Just the unity, everywhere,” Kastor recalled. “People were so excited to be back.” She continued: “It felt like a necessary healing… for people to come together and unite. The entire weekend was centered around unity.”
Kastor set out at a strong but sensible pace, hitting 10-kilometers in 34:41 with the other race leaders, including eventual winner Margaret Okayo of Kenya. She held steady through halfway (1:13:12), and at the 20 mile mark (1:51:00) was still running at about a 2:26 pace. However, things were starting to get difficult.
“It hurt, significantly,” Kastor said after drawing a deep breath. “It was a suffer-fest, but I love to put myself in that position and then get myself to keep going.”
She would run the second half only 34 seconds slower than the first, and finished in 2:26:58, good for seventh place and first in the USATF Championships. That was the fastest debut marathon ever by an American woman, a mark which would stand for seven years until Kara Goucher broke it in New York in her debut in 2008 (2:25:53). Kastor, and her coach Joe Vigil, were satisfied but they immediately realized that this was just the beginning. She wanted so much more.
“I felt like I had so much room to improve,” Kastor said. “I had so much to learn and to develop as an athlete that I felt like I found the right place to keep going.”
The race was life-changing for Kastor. She earned over $80,000 including her appearance fee, prize money and bonuses, and she won a measure of fame not usually enjoyed by distance runners, including her photo in the New York Times. Asics executives realized that Kastor was a great long-term investment, and 20 years later she still represents the brand.
But despite her success in New York, Kastor didn’t rush back to the marathon distance and dismissed offers to run a spring marathon the following year. She still had high aspirations in cross country, road racing and the track, and used the massive fitness base she built up in her marathon training as a springboard toward achieving those goals.
“It’s what I was looking for in the marathon,” Kastor explained. “I wasn’t quite ready to call myself a marathoner yet because I was so far from mastering it. But, it had made me such a stronger athlete.”
In the first five months of 2002, she won national titles in cross country and 15-K on the road (setting an American record of 48:12), won a silver medal at the World Cross Country Championships (beaten only by Paula Radcliffe), set a world record for 5 kilometers on the road (14:54), set a national record for 10,000m (30:50.32), and won the Bolder Boulder 10-K for the second consecutive year. She didn’t run another marathon until Chicago in October, 2002. Ironically, despite Chicago’s flat course, she ran just five seconds faster than in New York: 2:26:53. She gained valuable experience, however, and the New York and Chicago races set the stage for her first truly big marathon performance.
In April, 2003, Kastor competed in the London Marathon, a race made famous by Paula Radcliffe who ran a jaw-dropping 2:15:25 to smash the world record. At the 30-K mark, Kastor was in fifth place and was gaining on Romania’s Constantina Dita and Kenya’s Susan Chepkemei ahead of her. Something special was happening.
“It wasn’t a concerted effort to chase them down,” Kastor told Race Results Weekly that day. “At one point I was hoping they would come back to me. That’s the nature of racing; you’re the hunter or the hunted.”
Kastor was able to overtake Dita and Chepkemei, finished third in 2:21:16, and broke Joan Samuelson’s 1985 American record by six seconds in only her third marathon.
“I didn’t think I would get it so soon, but I was trying soon,” Kastor said with a laugh. “I think because in New York I broke the American debut record and that felt like, OK, this might be my event. I’m still going to use it to gain strength at the shorter distances, but this feels good and I have so much growing to do. I really felt like I was growing quickly that even when I went to Chicago and didn’t run much better than New York despite being a much faster course, I felt like I was a much stronger athlete.”
From there, Kastor amassed one of the best overall records of any American marathoner. Through 2019, Kastor had started 21 marathons, finished 18, achieved podium finishes seven times, and earned three victories. She won the bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics and broke the American record again in London three years later (2:19:36). She won the Chicago Marathon in 2005, then the London Marathon in 2006. She remains the only American woman to break 2:20, and her record is 56 seconds faster than the next best mark (2:20:32 by Sara Hall) despite the recent introduction of the new “super shoes” which use space-age elastomers and carbon plates (or rods) to enhance energy return. She is the only American, male of female, to win the Chicago and London marathons and also win an Olympic medal.
But Kastor’s career was not without setbacks. After wining the 2008 Olympic Trials Marathon at age 35, she didn’t even make it to the 5-K mark in the Beijing Olympics when a bone in her foot snapped. Her third and final Olympics was over.
“It was an all time low, career-wise for sure,” Kastor said.
Kastor would run New York four times in her career. After winning her bronze medal in Athens, she was unable to finish in New York, stopping around 16 miles and jogging back to Central Park where race organizers were relieved to see her because she hadn’t gotten into the official sweep van. She finished sixth in 2006 (2:27:54), and tenth in 2014 (2:33:18) when as a 41 year-old she won the race‘s masters’ title. Ironically, she would never run faster in New York than that first performance 20 years ago.
“Still to this day I don’t know why that I was always off in some way,” Kastor said. “I don’t have reasons. I look at my build-up and I was like, oh that was good, that was a good build-up. I don’t know if the course was too hard for me, but it shouldn’t be; I live and train in the mountains. I felt beat up every time I ran on the New York City course, whether or not I made it to the finish line.”
But the feeling, the emotions, of that first run 20 years ago is what brought Kastor to embrace the marathon and make it then focus of her career.
“Everything was very patriotic and very Big Apple,” Kastor recalled. “That type of synergy, connectedness I felt that day to all the people on the starting line, but also all the millions of spectators on the side of the road, is what hooked me on the marathon distance.”
Deena Kastor’s Complete Marathon Record:
2:26:58 DB (7) New York 04-Nov-2001
2:26:53 (6) Chicago 13-Oct-2002
2:21:16 AR (3) London 13-Apr-2003
2:29:38 (2) Olympic Trials – St. Louis 03-Apr-2004
2:27:20 (3) Olympic Games – Athens 22-Aug-2004
DNF New York 07-Nov-2004
2:21:25 (1) Chicago 09-Oct-2005
2:19:36 AR (1) London 23-Apr-2006
2:27:54 (6) New York 05-Nov-2006
2:35:09 (5) Boston 16-Apr-2007
2:29:35 (1) Boston 20-Apr-2008
DNF Olympic Games – Beijing 17-Aug-2008
2:28:50 (4) Chicago 11-Oct-2009
2:36:20 (15) London 25-Apr-2010
2:30:40 (6) Olympic Trials – Houston 14-Jan-2012
2:32:39 (3) Los Angeles 17-Mar-2013
2:36:12 (9) World Championships – Moscow 10-Aug-2013
2:33:18 (10) New York 02-Nov-2014
2:27:47 (7) Chicago 11-Oct-2015
DNF Boston 16-Apr-2018
2:51:58 (48) Tokyo 03-Mar-2019