After an Up-and-Down 2021, Keira D’Amato Is Ready to Run Fast at the Houston Marathon
By Jonathan Gault
January 13, 2022
On Sunday, Keira D’Amato will head to the start line of the Houston Marathon with the expectation that she will run under two hours and twenty-two minutes. Her current personal best sits at 2:22:56, achieved at the Marathon Project in Arizona, but D’Amato knows, based on her workouts and performances like her 67:55 to win the US Half Marathon Championships in December, that she is fitter than when she ran that 2:22:56 in December 2020. In fact, things are going so well that on December 28, she told Women’s Running that, if she had a strong final month of training, she might even go for Deena Kastor‘s 2:19:36 American record.
That the 37-year-old D’Amato is in a position to even discuss the American record is one of the unlikelier stories in US distance running history. This was a woman who started out as an 800/1500 runner, took seven years away from the sport as she got married, became a mom of two and a full-time realtor, and as recently as 2019 had never run faster than 2:40 in the marathon.
“It seriously blows my mind,” D’Amato told LetsRun on Wednesday. “On my warmup before my workout today, I was thinking that in my second marathon back on my comeback tour [in Richmond in 2017], I went into the marathon thinking that I didn’t think I could break 3:00 that day.”
D’Amato wound up running 2:47 and hasn’t stopped improving.
“It’s so hard to wrap my head around it because there’s 50% of my brain that is like, ‘What in the world is going on, how did I get there?’ And there’s 50% that is like really confident, that’s like, ‘Keira, you’ve worked your tail off, you’ve been putting in the miles for years and years and years, and you have, in my opinion, the best coach in the nation, Scott Raczko.'”
(Editor’s note: Young LRCers, if you don’t know who Raczko is, he coached Alan Webb to his 3:53 mile in HS).
A number of fast Americans will descend on Houston this weekend for the half and full marathons on Sunday. Sara Hall, Nell Rojas, and Annie Frisbie are all set to feature in the half, while 61:00 half marathoner Frank Lara will make his marathon debut. But the most fascinating storyline is D’Amato, who will look to start 2022 with a bang after an up-and-down 2021 season.
Following a 2020 campaign featuring personal best after personal best, D’Amato spent the first half of 2021 battling a hamstring injury. She tried to fight through it but ultimately had to take time off to treat the underlying muscle imbalance, realigning her hips and strengthening her glutes. That recovery knocked her out of the biggest meet of the year, the US Olympic Trials, where D’Amato had planned on running the 5,000 and 10,000 meters.
“It sucked, man,” D’Amato said.
D’Amato started working out again in August and ran the Chicago Marathon in October, finishing 4th in 2:28:22. But she knew she wasn’t at 100%. Under Raczko, D’Amato trains in four-week cycles, building up for those four weeks before taking a down week to reset. Usually, she likes to have four of those cycles under her belt for a marathon; her late start meant she only had two of them before Chicago.
But D’Amato had seen glimpses of her 2020 form during those workouts and decided to quickly return to racing following Chicago. She finished second at the Manchester Road Race on Thanksgiving, where her 23:49 for the 4.784-mile course would have set the course record had Weini Kelati not beaten her to the punch. D’Amato’s plan for 2022 had been to focus on the track and try to make the World Championship team, but ahead of the US Half Champs in South Carolina on December 5, she made a suggestion to Raczko.
“If this goes well, and I have to take a break anyways [before track], what if we got another marathon race in before I had to take a break?” D’Amato said. “And I think he was thinking the same thing.”
The half marathon went well. Very well, in fact: D’Amato’s time of 67:55 puts her behind only Molly Huddle, Emily Sisson, and Kastor on the all-time US list. D’Amato and Raczko decided to tack on one more four-week cycle and looked for a race that would fit. Houston was the obvious choice.
This last, post-US Half block is the only one in which D’Amato has logged true marathon training, but she still feels prepared to run a significant personal best.
“This weekend, if you told me on the line of the marathon it was a 10k race, I know I’d be able to PR in the 10k,” D’Amato said. “I think he trains me very dynamically anyways to be ready for a range of distances.”
Thumb through D’Amato’s Strava account and you’ll find some scary workouts. On January 2, she logged a 14-mile tempo at 5:22 pace — the equivalent of a 70:30 half marathon plus an extra mile — as part of a 24-mile long run (she averaged 5:52 for the whole thing), completely solo. Four days later, D’Amato ran two miles in 9:59, followed by 4 x mile in 4:53, 4:49, 4:47, and 4:42, all with 2-3 minutes’ rest.
When the latter workout appeared on Twitter, recently retired marathoner Scott Smith chimed in, tweeting, “In all seriousness, I would have taken this workout a number of times in my marathon career.”
Smith’s marathon personal best is 2:09:46.
D’Amato doesn’t have an exact goal time yet for Houston — she and Raczko will decide the day before the race — but she has enlisted two male pacers, Silas Frantz and Calum Neff, to take her as far as they can on Sunday.
“Silas, he used to live in Virginia and he used to do some workouts with me. He since has moved to California, but when he moved he said if I ever need pacing duties…” D’Amato said. “So for Houston, not knowing how the field was going to be or what the conditions were going to be, I asked him. And he said, sure, I’m in. And Calum also similarly, when I met him, he said the same thing to me. He’s such a generous runner.”
D’Amato will face three-time Houston champion Biruktayit Eshetu Degefa (2:22:40 pb) and 2016 Boston Marathon champion Atsede Baysa (2:22:03) in the women’s race, and while she’d like to earn her first career marathon victory, her focus is squarely on running fast.
Leading into the race, D’Amato has done everything she can to maximize her chance of success. She has still been working her job as a realtor in Virginia, but in recent weeks she has scaled back her hours and not taken on any new clients. She even took her kids out of school this week to limit her exposure to COVID — cases have been on the rise in her area and the last thing she wanted was to withdraw at the eleventh hour because of a positive test (they will return to school after the race). It’s not a decision D’Amato feels completely comfortable with — “I’m definitely not up for any mom of the year awards,” she said — but she hopes she can make it worth it with a special performance on Sunday.
“We’ve been working really hard to make sure that they’re continuing their studies, but they’re also in kindergarten and first grade, so it’s a little bit more flexible,” said D’Amato, adding that she has been picking up the kids’ homework during their absence. “The whole family has made a whole lot of sacrifices and I just appreciate all of their support.”
There is one thing, however, that D’Amato can’t control — Mother Nature. The weather forecast isn’t ideal as it looks like it will be colder (33-37 degrees) and windier (13-14 mph winds) than ideal. Remember, colder air is denser than warmer air as well so the wind impacts you more.