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ATHENS 2004

Kastor's in It for the Long Run

The Mammoth Lakes resident has won four U.S. championships in the 10,000 meters, but she figures she has a better chance at winning an Olympic medal in the marathon

August 08, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

Deena Kastor's future crystallized one summer day when she was 11, as she sat on the floor of her living room and cried for joy while she watched Joan Benoit run into the Los Angeles Coliseum in solitary splendor.

Benoit, now Benoit Samuelson, decisively won the first women's Olympic marathon at the 1984 Games, instantly expanding the horizons of female athletes on every field of play. Her triumph was a revelation to countless girls and women who began to see themselves as capable and strong, unbound by old stereotypes.

"It was an inspiration," said Kastor, who grew up in Agoura Hills and was known as Deena Drossin until her marriage last year to Andrew Kastor.

"That had a lot to do with my Olympic dream. For any athlete, the epitome of sports is the Olympic Games. It's something you're exposed to at a young age, the patriotism, enthusiasm and glory."

Kastor, who broke Benoit's U.S. women's marathon record by finishing the 2003 London Marathon in 2 hours 21 minutes 16 seconds, will chase Olympic glory herself on Aug. 22 when she runs the 26-mile, 385-yard race at the Athens Games.

That she was upset by Colleen De Reuck and finished second at the Olympic trials at St. Louis in April is almost irrelevant. Nutritionally depleted and slowed by two stops to free rocks from her shoe, she couldn't respond when De Reuck passed her just beyond the 24-mile point. Even De Reuck considered the outcome an aberration.

"Deena's our hope at the Olympics," said De Reuck, a three-time Olympian for South Africa who will compete for the first time as a U.S. citizen.

Kastor could have chosen to run the 10,000 meters at Athens and might have been a medal contender. She has four U.S. 10,000 titles and set an Olympic trials record last month at Sacramento with a time of 31:09.65. She ran the 10,000 at the Sydney Games but Achilles' tendon soreness that had struck three weeks earlier hampered her enough that she was eliminated in her opening heat.

The Achilles' problem "really dampened my spirit," she said. "I said, 'I'll just lay it on the line and give it my best,' but I knew the best I could do wasn't going to get me far at the world level."

This time, she decided to follow in the footsteps of Benoit in a race that will follow the route the messenger Philippides is said to have run from Marathon to Athens to bring news of a Greek victory in its war against Persia. In no sense has she chosen an easy path.

Looking at recent history, no American woman has won a marathon medal since Benoit, and the only Olympic medals won by U.S. women since then in a race longer than 400 meters were Kim Gallagher's silver in the 800 meters in 1984 and Lynn Jennings' bronze in the 10,000 in 1992. As for repeating ancient history, the route will be hot, humid and toughened by a difficult climb up to the 21-mile point, conditions Kastor and U.S. men's marathoner Meb Keflezighi tried to anticipate by running in long-sleeve shirts and long pants as they charged the hills near Kastor's home in Mammoth Lakes.

Kastor, who ran 31:44 to win the Circle of Friends Mini 10K in New York on June 12 and won the U.S. half marathon title a week later at Duluth, Minn., in 1:10:30, isn't among the marathon favorites. Paula Radcliffe of Britain might have the best chance, based on the world record of 2:15:25 she set at London last year, and Margaret Okayo of Kenya has this year's top time, 2:22:35, at London.

Kastor is undeterred. As she was inspired to begin running by Benoit 20 years ago, she's inspired by what lies ahead and believes the marathon affords her a better chance at a medal than the 10,000. She couldn't do both because the 10,000 follows the marathon by only five days.

"This race would be meaningful regardless, but the fact we're able to run this course and retrace the steps of history is intoxicating," she said. "I hope we can harness that energy.

"I'm in the best shape of my life and I'm going to a place that's so incredible. It's going to be pretty spectacular."

Pushed by friends who sacrificed their summer vacations to grind out miles with her, she trained for a 2:18 or 2:19 pace. However, she expects the winning time to be closer to 2:28 or 2:29 because of the challenging course and because heat, stress and other factors usually conspire against fast times at the Olympics.

"I'm training the hardest I ever have in my life, but I'm feeling great and having the most fun I've ever had in training sessions," she said. "I feel confident in my training and very excited."

Her husband, Andrew, a college miler turned physiotherapist, will accompany her to the marathon team's pre-Olympic camp in Crete and to Athens. They met in Colorado four years ago and were married in Mammoth Lakes last September. "He's a wonderful asset in everything I do," she said.

Andrew Kastor still runs occasionally, and he'll get a chance to carry the family's honor. During the pre-Olympic camp he will race against the spouses of the other U.S. women marathoners, Darren De Reuck and Terrence Mahon, who's married to Jen Rhines. "He feels a lot of pressure," Deena Kastor said, laughing.

If he's anything like his wife, he will meet the challenge with aplomb.

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