For nearly two hours, as she watched Kenya’s Ruth Chepngetich get away with the Chicago Marathon last month from the broadcast analyst’s motorbike, Keira D’Amato had a big thought spiraling into her head.
“I sat there thinking, ‘I’m not here. How can I compete with that? D’Amato said of Chepngetich, who crossed the finish line in 2 hours 14 minutes 18 seconds, just 14 seconds off the women’s world record. “It was disheartening.”
D’Amato, who is very fast, had good reason to be discouraged. In January, she set the American marathon record, slicing 24 seconds off Deena Kastor’s 16-year time of 2:19:36. It was a remarkable accomplishment for anyone, but especially for a 37-year-old mother of two who took nearly a decade off her professional racing career.
D’Amato’s record time at the Houston Marathon stood for nine months, until that day in Chicago, where Emily Sisson lowered it by 43 seconds, to 2:18:29.
D’Amato, who is scheduled to race in the New York City Marathon on Sunday, was happy for Sisson. She didn’t expect her record to be as long as Kastor’s, not in this age of “great shoes” and depth in American distance running. There was, however, this gaping gap between the best Americans and the best in the world, which was nearly a mile in Chicago.
“It can bring me down,” said D’Amato, who turned 38 last month.
American distance running has shown significant improvement and achieved much over the past two decades. But sometimes it feels like the United States is back to where it was at the start of the 21st century, when the country that spawned the so-called running boom of the 1970s struggled. to qualify runners for the Olympic marathon. The idea of competing head to head with East African athletes over 26.2 miles seemed absurd.
A handful of runners – Kastor, Meb Keflezighi, Galen Rupp, Shalane Flanagan and Des Linden – changed that narrative, winning Olympic medals and victories in marathons in New York, Boston, Chicago and London. And now Americans, especially women, are running faster than they ever have. Molly Seidel won the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympic marathon last year.
At the Chicago Marathon, Conner Mantz, a 25-year-old marathon rookie from Utah, posted the second-fastest time for an American making his marathon debut, finishing in 2:08:16. Unfortunately for him, that time is nearly two miles, or just over seven minutes, behind Eliud Kipchoge’s world record, and, like Sisson, he was nearly a mile off the winning pace.
Linden, 39, has seen the goal posts move further and further away from her. For most of Linden’s career, any time under 2:20 put a woman at or near the front of the pack. Now she knows that benchmark probably won’t be enough, especially on flatter, faster courses.
“It’s a mental shift,” she said.
She figures that the latest shoe technology can help her compete with the best. She’s also looking for other equalizers, like “going on tough courses and praying for bad weather,” she said.
Linden knows this better than anyone. Her major triumph came in the frozen deluge of the 2018 Boston Marathon, although she missed that race in 2011 by just two seconds in perfect time. For better or worse, Sunday’s forecast for New York calls for partly cloudy skies and a high above 70 degrees, a little warmer than most runners like.
Perhaps more than any other major marathon, the New York City Marathon is a race rather than a time trial. The hilly course brings the steep slopes of suspension bridges and long hills in the last kilometers on Fifth Avenue and Central Park South. There are no trailblazers, and the changing terrain makes it the kind of 26.2-mile chess match that has allowed American runners to thrive from time to time, if, that is, ‘they’re quick enough to keep up with the leading pack and make sure they have enough left in the tank for the final push.
Moreover, in New York, Americans don’t need to win to “win”. The race awards $25,000 to the top American. Organizers say it’s not a consolation prize but a way to promote and support American long-distance running.
“The American mindset is that we can be the best, but that means we can be the best any day,” said Ben Rosario, executive director of Hoka NAZ Elite, the racing team of remotely based in Flagstaff, Arizona
Rosario said focusing on the gap between the best US marathon times and the best international times is to misunderstand the essence of the sport and how runners approach it. Male golfers weren’t packing up and going home in the early 2000s when Tiger Woods was better than everyone else. They tried to get as good as they could, played the course and hoped to be good enough when Woods’ game slipped enough to let them be on the hunt.
“The focus should be on yourself,” Rosario said.
Ever since Sisson set an American record, Ray Treacy, his coach, told him not to worry about trying to squeeze four minutes off his time. On the contrary, they need to figure out how Sisson, who is 31, can keep going a bit faster in his practices and races.
“It has to be a gradual progression,” Treacy said. “You can’t think about what other people are doing.”
This was Sisson’s approach to Chicago. She wanted to go under 2:20 and hoped that would put her in the top three. She saw Chepngetich come out quickly. Several runners accompanied her. Sisson didn’t, and she assumed a lot of them would come back to her, maybe even Chepngetich, who didn’t finish at the World Championships in Athletics in July.
They all did, except Chepngetich. Sisson was happy with the second place finish and her American record.
“I feel like I’m close to maximizing my potential,” said Sisson, who wants to lower his U.S. record to the half marathon next. “My body will decide what I am capable of.”
D’Amato doesn’t know what she’s capable of, but she’s pretty sure she’ll never run 2:14. She said she was done thinking about records for now. She went to Berlin in September, focused on lowering her American record and all but forgot about the competition. She finished sixth, in 2:21:48, more than six minutes behind the winner. It won’t happen on Sunday, she said.
“New York is all about competition,” she said. “I want to get in there and run.”