A Prank Gift Propels an Underdog to New Heights in the Marathon

Keira D’Amato had let her running dreams go.

D’Amato, 36, who was a four-time all-American at American University, had her hopes for a post-collegiate racing career ended abruptly by injuries. She hung up her shoes in 2009.

“I mourned the goals I didn’t hit, I forgave myself and I moved on,” D’Amato, a real estate agent and mother of two, said last week.

For the next eight years, she ran for different reasons. She thought of running as a way to network, build community and carve out some time for herself when her husband, Anthony, was deployed with the Air National Guard. Could she finish five kilometers without walking? What about a half-marathon?

Those questions have completely changed in the past few years, D’Amato explained with a sense of disbelief. She isn’t trying to finish local races anymore; now she is trying to reach the podium of the Chicago Marathon next Sunday.

She signed a professional contract with Nike in February under a strict condition: She would not change a thing about her life. She would remain with her coach, continue as a real estate agent and stay in Virginia, where she has built a home with her husband and her children, Tommy, 6, and Quin, 5.

As a woman in her mid-30s, as a mother and as someone with a separate career, D’Amato is part of a group of marathoners who are shattering expectations of what it means to be a professional distance runner.

None of this was part of a plan. Her journey back to the sport’s highest level was circuitous, and it began with a gift.

“I signed my husband up for a marathon for Christmas in 2016,” she said, laughing. “As a prank. And I felt bad for that prank gift, so I said we could train together.”

She set a modest goal: Run that race, the 2017 Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach, in under 3 hours 30 minutes. She finished in 3:14:54, faster than she had dared to imagine.

“I was like, dang, if I ran a 3:14 and wanted to run 3:30, maybe I can train harder and break three hours,” she said. A self-coached runner, D’Amato started what she called a root beer float training plan. (It’s a plan, she was quick to say, that she would not recommend under any circumstances.)

If she ran 10 miles in a day, she would earn a root beer float, something she had been craving as she nursed Quin. The miles — and ice cream soda glasses — started adding up.

D’Amato will run the Chicago Marathon next Sunday.Credit…Linda D’Amato

She would transition into what she called the 21-mile plan: Run 21 miles in three days, divided in whatever way made sense with her schedule. “I do not recommend any of these training techniques,” she emphasized with a newfound understanding that runners are looking to her for advice.

It made the training — however untraditional — fun. She ran on feel every day, and finished the Richmond Marathon in November 2017 in 2:47:00.

Her husband was at the finish line, mouth agape. “I crossed the finish line and just waved two fingers at him,” D’Amato said. “I was two minutes off the Olympic qualifying time. I didn’t think I would break three hours that day. The fact that I was two minutes off that standard? That’s when everything came back.”

She returned to a coach, Scott Raczko, with whom she had worked after college, to see just how far she could go.

D’Amato was in good company: among more than 450 women who qualified for the Olympic trials marathon in February 2020 in a show of the deep amateur talent among American female distance runners. They included an aeronautical engineer, an Air Force first lieutenant, a teacher, an occupational therapist and an academic adviser. She was also once again racing against professional athletes like Des Linden and Molly Huddle, runners she had faced in her collegiate days.

D’Amato finished in 15th place — with a time of 2:34:24. She did not make the Olympic team, but it was within the realm of possibility again.

“I never thought those would be my goals again,” she said. “In 2016, when I was pregnant with Quin, a friend asked if I ever thought I’d run competitively again. I was eight months pregnant, feeling the most out of shape I ever had, and laughed and said, ‘No, no, I can guarantee you I’ll never run competitively again.’”

In the next few months, she surpassed her college 5-kilometer time by a minute, set a 10-mile American record and lowered her marathon time by more than 11 minutes, finishing the Marathon Project in Chandler, Ariz., in second place behind Sara Hall with a 2:22:56.

While her times dipped and her profile rose as the newest underdog on the podium, she was supported by runners like Molly Seidel and Emma Bates, who, she said, had helped her through what she described as impostor syndrome.

“The American women distance running community is really amazing,” she said. “We are all competing for similar things and competing against each other, but outside the roads it’s a very supportive community.”

In Chicago next weekend, she will be in a stacked professional field along with Hall, Bates and Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya. Hall has announced that she will attempt to break the American record, Deena Kastor’s 2:19:36, set in London in 2006.

D’Amato initially hoped she could be stride for stride in that record attempt, but she became less certain she was ready for that. She speaks with the confidence of someone who understands she has not yet reached her potential. “It’s consistency, it’s patience, it’s building up over time,” she said.

“I still have a lot of improvement in the marathon,” she added, “and I don’t think I’m that far off from the American record. Realistically, I know I’m not there now, but I don’t know — crazier things have happened.”

Crazier things, like a prank gift yielding a renewed dream.

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