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Deena Kastor’s Best Race and How She Achieved It

Kastor ran a masters marathon record by using “roller coaster” training, using a smart taper, and practicing mental toughness and positivity.

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Deena Kastor holds a place at the very pinnacle of American distance running—a rarified position she shares with just four or five others. And she stands virtually alone when it comes to introspection and self-awareness. Kastor thinks before she runs.

She revealed this quality on nearly every page of her best-selling book, Let Your Mind Run. For example: “Every aspect of a run, from the pain it produced to the weather conditions, offered me a choice: Is this a thought that will slow me down? Or can I find a perspective that will speed me up?”

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a big surprise, then, that Kastor doesn’t make an obvious choice for her “Best Race.” She doesn’t pick her bronze-medal performance in the 2004 Athens Olympic Marathon. Or her Chicago Marathon victory in 2005. Or even her still-standing American record marathon, 2:19:36, from 2006.

No, Kastor doesn’t assess her races according to the stopwatch or even her medal collection. She picks races where she faced down many hurdles. Those throw “character” into the mix, and that’s a key factor for Kastor. It’s also why she ranks the 2015 Chicago Marathon as her personal Best Race.

“I finished seventh that day,” she says, “but I consider it my best effort because it came after the prime of my career, and I had a rocky buildup due to terrible sage allergies, an onslaught of California fires, and a long bout of flu.” She was 42 at the time, and her finish in 2:27:47 set an American masters record that hasn’t been beaten.

Kastor, who also starred in high school, on the track, and especially in cross-country (with eight national championship wins) says her second-best race was her 2001 NYC Marathon, where she finished 7th in 2:26:58. Why? “It was my first marathon and the experience allowed me to fall deeper in love with the sport of distance running,” she says with typical reflection: “It felt like I had found a vast community to belong to, but also a place where a lot of lessons waited to be learned.”

Photo Credit: Holly Andres

Why the 2015 Chicago Marathon was Kastor’s Best Race:

Kastor says the 2015 Chicago was her Best Race because two weeks beforehand, she told Andrew she wasn’t going to run. “Why not?” he asked. She listed all her reasons: the allergies, the fires, the flu.

“That’s weird to hear you say,” he responded, “because despite those excuses, I’ve seen you run your longest long runs in over a decade. I’ve seen you do the longest tempo runs of your life. And you can still hit sub-5s when you run mile repeats on the road. I’d say you’re damn well ready.”

Deena had a one-word reaction: “Wow!” Andrew was right on all counts. Of course, her excuses were real too. “But only one of our stories was going to support my goal of getting the American record,” she notes. “So that’s the one I began focusing on.”

Kastor’s training for Chicago:

Kastor let her training-buildups “ebb and flow” to stimulate new endurance and muscle growth, and then allow time to adapt to the growth. She describes this system, visually, as a “roller coaster.” Her weekly mileage might go: 70, 80, 75, 90, 80, 100. At the peak of her career, the high-mileage weeks soared all the way to 140. “I liked to apply a high mileage window, maybe a one-month period, to get in the extra miles when I feel good,” she says.

Kastor’s taper and peaking for Chicago:

Kastor followed a 10-day taper period, letting her miles slide downward to 50 percent of what she was running in her biggest week. But she didn’t let go of the occasional harder session. Early in her career, she realized that she suffered from migraine headaches if she let both distance and intensity decrease together. So she used high-intensity workouts during her taper “to keep my endorphin level up while giving my body a big decrease in miles.”

Kastor didn’t rely on a special go-to workout when testing her peak. “I just tried to put together a good combination of tempo runs and speed sessions,” she says. “It’s important to tax your many energy systems a little, but also to give them the recovery they need before the marathon.”

How Kastor established her pre-race goals:

Kastor believes in the multiple-plan approach to goal-setting for major races. In other words, she always had a plan A, a plan B, and a plan C. Plan A is for a race when things go exactly the way you want, and you can race to your potential and highest goals. “Races rarely happen that way,” she admits. “But be ready to seize the moment when they do; don’t hesitate to go all in.”

On the other end of the spectrum, she acknowledges, “I’ve had days when even plan C went all to sh__, and I was left trying to figure out why I should keep going. When I get to that headspace, I focus on character rather than outcome. This is when I practice the good virtues I’ve tried hard to embody: grit, strength, persistence, resiliency, endurance, and gratitude.” 

How she responded to obstacles: 

Kastor says she had a tendency to “self-sabotage” the evening before a big competition. It’s so easy to think, if only you had another month to get ready … if only you had done one more long run … if only you did more set of hill repeats. These almost-inevitable thoughts need to be stopped quickly. Kastor’s approach: “I would find three reasons why I should have a good race. I put my mind to work thinking about why I should reach my goal. Then the negativity had no room to come along for the ride.”

Chicago wasn’t necessarily pretty, but she made it work. “During the race, I missed a water bottle, got tripped, and hit the Wall,” she remembers. “I commanded myself to run just one more mile. When that seemed impossible, I focused on the next street. When that felt intimidating, I focused on a spectator just ahead. There was no fanfare to setting the record while I was out there. I could have used any of my excuses to throw in the towel. Instead, I chose to dig down and continue. When we persist, we gain immense satisfaction, whether we actually reach our goal or not. I was proud to make decisions that kept me moving forward.”

What enabled her to run her Best Race at Chicago in 2015:

Kastor credits her years of experience and hard training for the American masters record at Chicago. Those years, and especially the mental skills she had developed, are what helped her keep pressing ahead when she faced challenges in her training and the race. “I was not afraid of the pain and fatigue that come with pushing yourself to the limit,” she says.

Deena Kastor racing on the road in blue during the U.S. Women's Marathon Trials in Boston.
Deena Kastor racing in the U.S. Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo: Getty Images

How you can achieve your Best Race the Deena Kastor way: 

Deena has had great coaches, including Joe Vigil, Terrence Mahon, and her husband Andrew Kastor. All believed that success in running depends as much on the mind as the body. Deena recalls a lesson she learned from Andrew that’s crucial to anyone aiming high: “You don’t need a perfect buildup or a perfect race to meet your goals.” You only need good enough.

This means doing the prescribed training at the prescribed time, except for illness or injury of course. “A lot of runners postpone their important workouts until they’re feeling really good,” she notes. “But champions show up ready to push through whatever the day brings. That’s how you develop both body and brain to accomplish a lot even on an imperfect day. We train when we’re feeling 90 percent, 70 percent or whatever, so that we know we can succeed on race day no matter what the odds stacked against us.”