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The thick, obscuring fog of a COVID-19 pandemic made it nearly impossible for any runner to have a break-out year in 2020. But Keira D’Amato defied the long odds.
Essentially unknown before the year began, D’Amato ran a marathon PR 2:34:24 (15th place) in late February at the Olympic Trials. Since then, she has far exceeded that effort in a number of other eye-popping performances.
The 36-year-old married, working (real estate) mother-of-two ran a track 5000 PR of 15:04 in June, a 68:57 half-marathon best in October, and an American record women-only race 10-mile best of 51:23 in November. (Molly Huddle has run 50:52 in a mixed gender race.)
Now she’s preparing for Sunday morning’s The Marathon Project in Chandler, Arizona, where she may prove competitive with co-favorites Sara Hall and Kellyn Taylor. All have fascinating “motherhood” back stories: Hall and husband have adopted four Ethiopian-born children; Taylor and husband are frequent foster parents even when called into duty just before major races; and D’Amato is much faster now than she was in her younger, childless years.
D’Amato and family live in Midlothian, Virginia, about 15 miles west of Richmond. She’s coached by Scott Raczko, best known for training Alan Webb to a high school 1-mile record in 2001. Her marathon PR ranks her just 20th in the strong women’s field expected at The Marathon Project. All entrants are North America–based.
D’Amato says that her track 5000 ranks as her Best Race (free, full-length video here). In it, she ran more than a minute faster than her previous best set 14 years earlier. We asked her how she achieved this breakthrough.
D’Amato’s training buildup to her Best Race
After the Marathon Trials in February, D’Amato dropped her mileage significantly while increasing intensity. She trains in four-week cycles, with the first three weeks increasing in volume and speed, while the fourth week is a “regeneration” week that includes her one day off per month: “Woo hoo!”
During this buildup, D’Amato’s weekly mileage ranged from about 70 per week to about 100. “Each week, I have one track workout of shorter intervals, one of longer intervals or a tempo run, and one long run,” she says. “The rest is a lot of fun runs when I get to listen to whatever music or podcast I want.”
D’Amato recalls two “fun-memorable” workouts that she did prior to her 5000-meter time trial. (She says “fun” a lot in conversation.)
The first of these was 41 x 200-meters with a 45-second walk-jog between repeats. She started at 35 seconds per 200 and gradually dropped to about 30 seconds. Why 41? She thought it would be a good joke to play on the coach, Raczko, who had assigned her such a hellacious effort. “During my recoveries, I was giggling while gasping for air. It seemed in the moment like the world’s best prank.”
When she had finished number 41, and informed Raczko, he didn’t react or seem to care. “I guess the joke was on me,” says D’Amato.
Just four days before the time trial, D’Amato ran 20 x 400 with 60-second walk-jog recoveries. She started at 68 seconds per 400, and finished at 64. “That’s when I thought I should be able to lock in low 70s during the 5000,” she notes.
What taper? She ran the 5000 at the end of a 100-mile training week—one of her biggest. She also had that 20 x 400 session on Wednesday, followed by an 18-mile long run on Thursday. She ran easy on Friday and Saturday ahead of the Sunday morning time trial. “I’ve always felt that I perform well when training through a race,” D’Amato notes. “So mentally I was feeling pretty confident about nailing the 5000.”
D’Amato’s focus going into her Best Race
She didn’t overthink it. After all, this was just a time trial. No pressure, no Olympic Trials TV coverage or anything like that. She told herself: “This is just a test to see how hard you can push yourself. I kept it a fun thing—easy to get excited about. Since I had a previous PR of 16:09 from college, the thought of Mom Keira beating College Keira seemed just hilarious to me.”
A key moment in the race
D’Amato says she’s usually hyper aware of what’s going on around her in races. This time, she wasn’t. The time trial was just her and a training partner, Silas Frantz, who paced her through the 5000. So she had just one simple goal: “Stay on Silas. Stay on Silas.”
She didn’t even count laps, and had to ask Silas, “Is this the last lap?” When he said yes, she was pumped enough to pick up the pace and finish with a strong 65-seconds. “Woo! This marathon mom is working on her wheels!” she thought.
What helped her achieve this Best Race
Desperation! D’Amato felt that her training was going well, and she was feeling good. But, as a performance athlete, how exactly do you express your fitness during a pandemic? There were no races being held during early summer. “My coach knew I needed something to help me keep my eye on the prize, so we came up with the time-trial idea” she says. “It was a fabulous way for me to show all the work I’d been doing, give myself a pat on the back, and then move on to the next thing.”
Moving on… and up
The last several months, D’Amato has prepared for Sunday’s marathon mainly through strength training geared to a fast track season next year. That would presumably climax with a 5000 and/or 10,000-meter push at the Olympic Track Trials. “The whole goal this fall was to do some great base training for the 2021 track season,” she says. “It’s been fun to do that with a marathon at the end of the cycle.”
Raczko offers this view into one of D’Amato’s recent 22-mile long runs. She covered: 6 miles @ 6:25 pace; 8 @ 5:28; 2 @ 6:23; 4 @ 5:27; and 2 @ 6:25. “Keira has progressed well over the last several months, and is a pleasure to work with,” he adds.
D’Amato’s advice on running your own Best Race
“Be passionate about reaching your goal,” D’Amato advises. She got excited about attacking the 5000 because she had run few since college, and saw the chance to achieve a lifetime PR. “I had to train my butt off, but I’m really proud of myself that I went for it.”
She also believes that you often have to shut out the negative chatter all around. Friends told her it was silly or wasteful to aim high during a time where there were no normal races. She had to tune out those voices. “I told myself, ‘Heck, no, this is my dream, and I’m going to keep the pedal to the metal because that’s what makes me really happy.’”
She also used a technique advocated by many psychologists: share your goal with others who will support you. “Tell a friend, your spouse, your coach, or the postman,” she says. “Telling others holds you accountable and gives you more reason to work through the ‘suck spot’ in your race. You’ll think of that other person, and how you want to share the good news with them after you hit your goal.”
A naturally high-spirited individual, D’Amato uses humor and her upbeat personality to motivate both her training and racing. “You’ve got to find your own special way to make the journey fun and the race a celebration that you’re looking forward to,” she notes. “You don’t want it to be something you’re dreading.”
Lastly, just “Go for it!” urges D’Amato. “You’ve got nothing to lose.”