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A conversation with Keira D’Amato

Keira D'Amato celebrates her finish at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials as spectators cheer her to the finish.
Keira D’Amato finishes 15th at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2:34:24. (Photo courtesy of Credit Union Cherry Blossom Run.)

Two days before her breakthrough 1:08:57 half marathon performance last week, Keira D’Amato announced that she’ll go after the American 10-mile record for a women’s-only race on Monday, November 23. The current record is 52:12, set by Janet Cherobon-Bawcom in 2014. Coincidentally, D’Amato, pregnant with her first child, held the finish line tape as Cherobon-Bawcom broke the record. 

After a long hiatus from competitive running, D’Amato has worked her way back to the elite level over the past several years. This year in particular has been a good one for her. In February, she finished 15th at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2:34:24. In June, D’Amato made headlines when she ran a 15:04 5,000m time trial on the track, which, if official, would have shaved 65 seconds off her personal best. 

D’Amato, who turned 36 in October, works full time as a realtor in Midlothian, Virginia, and has two children: Tommy, 5, and Quin, 4. After her post-race cooldown on Wednesday, D’Amato had to rush back to her hotel to meet a work deadline before catching her flight home. She takes pride in her unconventional path to success, and she is currently unsponsored, though Tracksmith and CEP provide her with apparel, and Potomac River Running has helped her out with shoes in the past.

After the November 10-mile race, which is at an undisclosed location, D’Amato is scheduled to run the Marathon Project on December 20, and she is considering doubling in the 5,000m and 10,000m at June’s Olympic Track & Field Trials. I caught up with her last week, two days after her win in Michigan. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Fast Women: What kind of time were you thinking you could run heading into Wednesday’s race? Did your performance surprise you at all?
Keira D’Amato: We were kind of using the race as a good tempo/tuneup towards marathon training. When I was chatting with my coach (Scott Raczko), the time wasn’t really a focus, it was just the effort to make sure I was running smooth, locked in, strong, comfortable, and the goal was just to run the second loop faster than the first loop. So when Emma took it out, I was like, “Okay, we’re doing this!” I wasn’t surprised that I ran that time, but I wasn’t expecting that I’d run that time that day, because the time wasn’t even the goal of that race.

Were there specific workouts you did that gave you the confidence you could run in that time range?

I’ve done a lot of work under 4:40 per mile for shorter intervals, and I’m very comfortable running mile repeats under 5:00. I’ve also done a handful of longer tempos right around marathon pace or a little under. So I thought 5:20s would feel pretty comfortable. I was pleasantly surprised that running 5:15s felt pretty darn good, too.

When you run marathon pace in training, is that your past marathon pace, or a theoretical marathon pace that you think you can run in the future?
It’s theoretical. After the Olympic Trials, I knew, in my head, that I was ready to break 2:30, it just didn’t happen that day. I moved past the Trials thinking, “Okay, now you’re a sub-2:30 marathoner, let’s work on improving that.” So even though the time wasn’t there, I knew I was in that kind of shape. Now I’m working on faster than that and aiming for around 5:30 per mile for the marathon (which would put her in the 2:24 range).

As I look at your official personal bests on the World Athletics website, it says 16:09 for 5,000m, even though you’ve run 15:04 in a time trial. Is there any one particular personal best you really think has to go, or do they just all have to go?
I think I’ve had workouts where I’ve run faster than all of my PRs, including that time trial 5K, which was a glorified workout for me. I kind of look at all of it and know that I’m so much fitter than anything I’ve ever done in a race, so I think that all of my PRs need to be rewritten.

You have the 10 miler and the Marathon Project coming up. In the longer term, are you still thinking about running the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials as well?
I’m definitely going for the track trials, but I feel really patient about that. I know I’m capable of hitting the Olympic standard for both the 5K and 10K, I feel very confident about that, so I’m not in a huge rush to shove it in where it doesn’t belong. Right now I’m in marathon base mode and I’ll be doing races that fit toward that end goal of running a really fast marathon in December.

I’m hoping that there will be a number of opportunities, come 2021, that will allow me to get into a race and hit those standards. I feel like when you’re trying to force things in, that’s when things can get a little crazy and you get stressed or tired and run your body down. I’m trying to focus on base training right now and then I’ll focus on that in the spring.

I appreciate your laid-back attitude that the opportunities will come as well as your confidence that you can do it.
I feel very confident in what I’m capable of, but I’ve kind of fallen into this journey in a backwards way. I’ve had an untraditional path, so I don’t have any set way that’s worked for me in the past. I’m not on a team, I’m doing this by myself, kind of bushwhacking my own way here. I have really great direction from my coach. He’s been there and he’s done it before, but we’re also kind of in no-man’s land here, which has been really fun. I have a whole village of people who support me, so I’m not alone, but in a way, I feel like I’ve done it alone, and I’m pretty proud about that. It may be a little unconventional, but so far it’s working for me.

Do you have training partners right now?

Not really. I do the majority of my runs and workouts alone. The guy that I liked to work out with leading into the Olympic Marathon Trials moved about an hour away, to Charlottesville, so for hard efforts, I sometimes just drive there and beg him to work out with me. I’ll do that maybe a couple times a month, and then I have a girlfriend who I like to do my long runs with. But I do everything else on my own. I did get my husband a bike for Christmas, so now maybe once a week, he’ll bike with me.

I also really relish in that solo time. I’m kind of an introverted extrovert or extroverted introvert, so I really enjoy that time to recenter, refocus, and regather myself on those solo runs.

Once you dropped everyone in Wednesday’s race, did it feel like you were out on a training run with your husband, as you chased the lead bike?
I thought about that, too. The lead biker was staying 10 meters ahead of me. I was thinking, “Okay, this is my husband trying to drop me on this run.”

Was it at all hard to push yourself in a race that didn’t feel very race-like, especially once you were alone?
I’ve gotten really good at running solo. I’ve kind of considered myself the time trial queen this summer, because I’ve done so much on my own. But I will say that knowing that Emma Bates is right behind you is terrifying (laughs). I was thinking, “This girl is so tough and so strong, if I let off the gas pedal, she is just going to eat me up.” That created a whole ’nother fire for me that I do not experience in time trials and running by myself.

If the right sponsor approached you, would you accept an offer?
I would. There have been some rumblings, so we’ll see if anything comes together. At the same time, I don’t think I’m what most brands are looking for. I think a lot of sponsors like sponsoring a team or that NCAA champion right out of college, with a lot of potential. I’m neither one, but I do think it is a little close-minded. I think I’m unique and relatable to a lot of people that have ambitions or dreams that they didn’t chase, or those who didn’t quite reach their goal and decide to give it a second chance. But I get why I’m not sponsored.

That’s precisely why I’d love to see you at least have sponsorship options. You have the ability to reach and inspire a different segment of the running population. It seems short-sighted of companies not to consider or value that.
Yeah, and I think that I reach beyond running in a way. Virginia as a whole has been very, very supportive because they’ve seen my journey from being out there just trying to get back into running after becoming a parent to, “Wow, look, she’s competing in these local races,” to “Oh my gosh, we’re supporting someone who just qualified for the Olympic Trials.” Even outside of the running space, people have seen my journey and have been part of it. I hope it does inspire other people to say, “You know what? I have a goal, too, and I’m just going to go for it. What have I got to lose?” That’s what I’ve been saying this whole time. I have absolutely nothing to lose in this running space.

When you were holding the finish tape for Janet Cherobon-Bawcom, while pregnant, in 2014, were you ever imagining that that could be you someday?
No, definitely not. But there was a part of me holding the tape—and I don’t want to take anything away from what she did, because she’s a phenomenal runner and I’ve always looked up to her—but there was always a part of me watching runners or holding the tape thinking, “Why wasn’t that me?” I had a lot of unfinished business that I didn’t quite know how to resolve within myself. When I was holding the tape, I never thought that I would come back at this level. I never thought I’d ever have an opportunity or be able to say with a straight face that I’m going to try to break that record in a month, so it’s pretty wild how far I’ve come.

You sometimes think, “If I would have known then what I know now.” And I have the luxury now of knowing what I know now and getting this second chance, so I feel like this time, I’m doing it right, which I’m really proud of.

What have you learned from your past experiences, and what are some of the things you’re doing differently?
I think the biggest thing is patience, and knowing it’s not going to happen overnight. I understand the importance of consistency and the long game, and I didn’t then. I also think I’m much better at dealing with pressure now. There’s just a perspective change. It was my whole world then. Everything revolved around me being Keira the runner, and now I’m Keira the mom, the wife, the realtor who runs, and that’s really liberating and gives me a lot of room to take risks.

What did you go through 10 miles in during your half marathon on Wednesday?
I think it was 52:37, so about 25 seconds slower than the record.

Did that give you confidence?
Oh yeah, when I saw that I was that close, I was like, “Yeah, I got this.”

Do you expect to have other people in the 10-mile record attempt who can keep up with you at that pace?
Bill Orr, who is the elite athlete coordinator for the Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10 Miler, has graciously taken the lead on inviting some other athletes that we feel like could potentially get the record, too. At first, I was thinking I would just time trial it and get the record, but seeing everything that goes into making this USATF-certified and a record-eligible course, it felt a little selfish to do it by myself. And also, it doesn’t feel like a true record attempt if I’m not racing people. I feel like I’d be doing a disservice to the running community if we didn’t open it up. There are going to be a handful of people who I think can also break the record, so it’s going to be a pretty exciting race. That’s another way in which my mentality has changed a little bit. On November 23rd, I hope somebody gets that record. I’m going to work my butt off to make sure it’s me, but I know that as a group, the women’s American distance running community, I feel confident that somebody is going to get it that day.

I know that you and Matthew Centrowitz go way back (his father was D’Amato’s college coach), but what’s the backstory of him trying to get you more Instagram followers?
Probably at the beginning of Covid, I mentioned something to him—I don’t know if someone told me this or where I heard this—that I need at least 5,000 followers to even be considered for a sponsorship. I said something about it to him, and he offered to help. He posted maybe six months ago, saying he’d send out some swag to my followers, once I hit 5,000. Someone was following and noticed that I passed 5,000 followers after Wednesday’s race, so he’s following through. 

(D’Amato is a great follow on Instagram, both for the running content and for her children’s amazing Halloween costumes.)