For nearly two hours, as she watched Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya run away with the Chicago Marathon last month from the broadcast analyst’s motorcycle, Keira D’Amato had one big thought spiraling through her head.
“I sat there thinking, ‘I am not there. How do I compete with this?’” D’Amato said of Chepngetich, who crossed the finish line in 2 hours 14 minutes 18 seconds, just 14 seconds behind the women’s world record. “That was discouraging.”
D’Amato, who is very fast, had good reason to feel discouraged. In January, she set the American record in the marathon, shaving 24 seconds off Deena Kastor’s 2:19:36, which had stood for 16 years. That was a remarkable accomplishment for anyone, but especially for a 37-year-old mother of two who took nearly a decade off from her professional running 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 set to race in the New York City Marathon Sunday, was happy for Sisson. She never expected her record would stand as long as Kastor’s, not in this era of “supershoes” and depth in American distance running. There was, though, that yawning gap between America’s best and the best in the world, which was nearly a mile in Chicago.
“That can send me into a tailspin,” said D’Amato, who turned 38 last month.
American long-distance running has shown significant improvement and accomplished plenty in the past two decades. But at times it can feel like the U.S. is back where it was at the beginning of the 21st century, when the country that birthed the so-called running boom in the 1970s struggled to qualify runners for the Olympic marathon. The idea of competing head to head with athletes from East Africa over 26.2 miles seemed preposterous.
A handful of runners — Kastor, Meb Keflezighi, Galen Rupp, Shalane Flanagan and Des Linden — changed that narrative, capturing 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 in the Tokyo Olympic marathon last year.
At the Chicago Marathon, Conner Mantz, a 25-year-old marathon rookie from Utah, ran the second-fastest time for an American making a 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 watched the goal posts move farther and farther 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 likely will not cut it, especially on the flatter, faster courses.
“It’s a mental shift,” she said.
She tells herself the latest shoe technology can help her compete with the best. She also hunts for other equalizers, like “going to hard courses and praying for bad weather,” she said.
Linden knows that better than anyone. Her major triumph came in the frozen deluge of the 2018 Boston Marathon, though she missed winning that race in 2011 by a mere two seconds in perfect weather. For better or for worse, Sunday’s forecast in New York calls for partly cloudy skies and a high exceeding 70 degrees, a little warmer than most runners like.
More than any of the other major marathons perhaps, the New York City Marathon is a race rather than a time trial. The rolling course brings the stiff inclines of the suspension bridges and long hills in the final miles on Fifth Avenue and Central Park South. There are no pacesetters, and the shifting terrain makes it the kind of 26.2-mile chess match that has allowed American runners to thrive occasionally, if, that is, they are fast enough to keep up with the lead pack and make sure they have enough left in the tank for the final surge.
Also, in New York, Americans don’t actually have 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 distance running.
“The American mind-set is that we can be the best, but what that means is we can be the best on any given day,” said Ben Rosario, the executive director of Hoka NAZ Elite, the distance racing team based in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Rosario said to focus on the gulf between the best American times in the marathon and the best international times is to misunderstand the essence of the sport and how runners approach it. Male golfers didn’t pack up and go home in the early 2000s when Tiger Woods was better than everyone else. They tried to make themselves as good as they could be, played the course and hoped to be good enough when Woods’s play slipped enough to let them be in the hunt.
“The focus has to be on yourself,” Rosario said.
Since Sisson set an American record, Ray Treacy, her coach, has told her not to be concerned with trying to shave four minutes off her time. Rather, they need to figure out how Sisson, who is 31, can keep getting a little bit faster in her workouts and her races.
“It has to be a gradual progression,” Treacy said. “You can’t be thinking about what other people are doing.”
That was Sisson’s approach in Chicago. She wanted to get under 2:20, and hoped that would put her in the top three. She saw Chepngetich go out fast. A number of runners went with her. Sisson didn’t, and she assumed many of them would come back to her, maybe even Chepngetich, who failed to finish at the World Athletics Championships in July.
They all did, except Chepngetich. Sisson was happy to place second and for her American record.
“I feel like I am coming close to maximizing my potential,” said Sisson, who wants to lower her American record in the half-marathon next. “My body will decide what I am capable of.”
D’Amato does not know what she is capable of, but she is fairly certain she will never run 2:14. She said she is done thinking about records for now, though. She went to Berlin in September focused on lowering her American record and practically forgot about the competition. She ended up finishing sixth, in 2:21:48, more than six minutes behind the winner. That will not happen Sunday, she said.
“New York is all about competing,” she said. “I want to put myself in there and race.”