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Going the Distance: Deena Kastor

As an American long-distance runner, Deena Kastor has few peers. She represented Team USA in three Olympic Games, winning the bronze medal for the marathon in 2004. She holds the women’s American marathon record with a time of 2:19:36. She also holds the women’s American Masters marathon record with an astonishing 2:27:47 race at the 2015 Chicago Marathon. In her new memoir, Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory, Kastor has written a candid account about the self-doubt that enters the mind of an elite athlete and how positive thinking made her a champion both on and off the course. As she was training to compete in this year’s Boston Marathon, we tried to keep pace with her.

Your new memoir is a lot more about the mindset of an athlete. What inspired you to write the memoir and take such a different approach?
When the public sees our performances, they can see records being broken, but they don’t see what it takes to do that. Marathon training isn’t that different across the world.  When I’ve done public speaking, people took more interest in the perspective I provided, and that’s what motivated me to do this book. That being said, I don’t think I would have gone through it, if I understood at the time what it was going to take. (laughs) It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done!

You candidly speak a lot about your vulnerability, especially facing huge amounts of self doubt as an elite college athlete. How hard was it to reveal that side of yourself to people?
Yeah, it was painful! (laughs) There was so much I loved about my college experience—I loved my coach and my team, but I didn’t like myself. That time was hard, because I was so insecure about what running meant in my life. I didn’t understand how in control I was of that at the time. It was enlightening to understand through reflection. When I first talked to my coach after college, I realized that I had been relying on talent for so long. There was just so much that I didn’t know about this sport, and it made me hungry to figure it out.

In the book, we learn that in college, you almost quit running to become a baker.
I did! I often think if I was a baker, would I be in a kitchen somewhere in the country, probably a little heavier. It was such a pivotal decision at the time. We know that there are these big life choices—what job to take, where to move, who to marry—so I knew it was a big deal when it was happening.  But I also knew in the moment that going to Alamosa, Colorado to pursue running felt very right.

And this all happened with a phone conversation with your coach, Joe Vigil?
It was, and it was such a quick turnaround, from feeling frustrated and defeated to feeling hopeful and encouraged, in a very small and pivotal time. Life is about getting inspired and encouraged by the right people at the right time. Coach Vigil inspired me by showing me day in and day out that no matter what we have, whether its money, or time, or food, or knowledge, all of that becomes more valuable the moment its shared. I wanted to share those strengths that I had as well as the weaknesses that I’m working on, so that other people can see that they have it within themselves to work things out for themselves.

Before you moved to Alamosa, you were dialing down the amount of running you were doing. As soon as you moved, you amplified the mileage tremendously, in high altitude. How did you make that transition both mentally and physically? It seemed like you were burned out.
It was buying in to a single moment that I could be better. I moved to Alamosa to work with coach Vigil to do that. It’s about buying into your goals. I was running 40 miles a week, and I was injury prone. What was going to happen if I started running 70 miles or 80 miles a week? How could that possibly leave me feeling invigorated and ready for more? It really is all about your mindset and beliefs. If you’re timid and wary, you are going to go in with tension and the prospect of injury. But if you go in relaxed, open-minded, enthusiastic, and excited, and with joy, that mindset releases the endorphins and chemicals in your body to undertake what you need to do to make it possible. So your mindset is really the driver in everything that you do—physically, emotionally, spiritually. Whether we’re professional athletes, leading companies, running a household, being ahead of your mental game is critical in getting the best out of yourself. And when you are getting the best out of yourself, those around you are also thriving.

As a runner, you get instant performance feedback in results and times. As human beings, without that feedback, are we often selling our performances short because we don’t demand of ourselves what were able to do?
I agree with that 100%! The only way we reach our potential is by being our biggest cheerleaders. It’s not about the fact that we are tired, or struggling to get up a hill. Taking on that hill is a challenge that is making me stronger. We can either think that this hill really sucks, or I’m fading, or we can think that every hill I attack is going to make me stronger, and I’m going to master it. It’s that slight difference in attitude that is going to open us up to conquering those challenges. The only way to reach our potential is to cheerlead and manipulate our thoughts to open us up to that capability.

Is it possible to be an elite athlete without being mentally tough?
The character trait that stands out the most in athletes is resiliency. Some of the best athletes in the world have their greatest performances after their greatest failures. They’re motivated to come back and prove themselves stronger. But I’ve also seen athletes being negative and tough on themselves, thinking that if they lost that angst, they are going to lose that competitive edge. I don’t believe that, and science doesn’t show that. Science shows that if you’re negative, or even neutral, it diminishes the body’s capabilities. But if you’re optimistic and have a positive mindset, it flourishes in a lot of ways. It happens neuromuscularly, histochemically—a lot of which is happening internally in ways we cannot see. We only see it in the performance itself.

Injuries are a reality when you are logging so many hard miles. How does your mindset help you with injury?
I think a positive mindset is responsible for me not being injured very much and pushing my limits—running 140 mile weeks, year after year. I’ve been fortunate to have the length of career that I’ve had without too many injuries. One of my worst injuries was breaking my foot in the middle of the 2008 Olympic Games. It was terrible timing, but all my positivity did its best work in that moment. It was habit for me to twist my story to launch me into greater understanding. I sat on the bus and sobbed in a towel, because it truly sucked at that moment. I thought I was going to be marching my way to a gold medal in Beijing.

How did you deal with that disappointment?
When I wiped my tears, I thought to myself that stress fractures don’t just happen because athletes are pushing their limits I believe we are durable and capable, so something’s wrong here, and I vow to figure it out. Right there, I switched from experiencing pity to feeling optimistic that I was going to figure it out and comeback stronger. Well, I had no vitamin D in my blood stream and an enormous amount of calcium. Because of a bout with skin cancer, it doesn’t allow me to get a lot of sun and vitamin D in my system. I also had come down with giardia that summer. It was a perfect storm of events that had my skeleton in osteoporosis at an early age. With healthy eating, building my bone strength back with exercise and nutrition, I was able to come back in six months feeling stronger than I had in years. We never want to be sidetracked from our goals with injury. But after a short pity party, the faster you get past that, the faster you can build and grow from it.

Is having a positive mindset a skill you developed more on or off the race course?
I first applied it in workouts and seeing an immediate shift in available energy, as soon as I changed my mindset. Even when I changed the words I used from “Don’t lose contact with the runners in front of you,” to “Try to maintain contact.” Just in watching my word choices alone, I felt the energy shift. I was in amazement and awe at how it worked in practices. I then started practicing it in daily life. I called it “strategic joy,” making things part of the day that bring you joy and gratitude and give you an energy source to help you recover. It was mostly for running, but the end result was that I’m joyful and grateful for living a wonderful life. I’m not feeling content where I am. I am still hungry to get the best out of myself but with joy and gratitude at the base of that process, it has been very fulfilling.

We are seeing women have great success in ultramarathons, winning some of them outright. Courtney Dauwalter won the Moab 240 by eight hours. Is that all mindset, or is something else at work?
When I saw Courtney win by so much, I thought what a freak of nature! (laughs) But in a good way! I think mindset is everything. In the ultra distances, women are very good at those races that are fat burning events because of our body compositions. But women are gritty! You are seeing seeing such grit and attitude, it’s beautiful to see them getting the best out of themselves. You see it on the men’s side too, but men have had a much longer opportunity to thrive in sports. I think it’s a really great way to define who we are. It’s inspiring to see the character that athletes show.

When you are an elite athlete, you have to deal with expectations. Everyone is expecting you to set a world record every time out. How do you deal with that?
It’s typical for a pro athlete to face high expectations before a competition. I always thought of that as support. It’s so generous that this group of people—media, family, teammates—think I can rise to this occasion. So I think of those expectations as support as opposed to another athlete maybe interpreting it as something they fear or may fail at pursuing. I can honestly say at the starting line that I’ve never been nervous in over 33 years of racing. But I do get butterflies, and I think if it as excitement, not nerves. It’s a chance to show people what I’ve been working so hard for and it s chance to rise to those expectations from the people around me or the ones I create from within. So often, we just need to name things a little better so that they can work for us. If we twist the meaning and interpret it to enhance us, everything is working to my advantage. High expectations are great. You can work day in and day out to prepare, and on competition day, you can be 100% invested mentally and physically. And if you fall short, can still be super proud of that performance and be grateful for that high goal to strive for. So by no means should you feel disappointment, when you’ve done everything you can to reach your potential that day

At this stage in your life, do you still have high goals?
Always! Even today, we had a really long tempo run. It was a warmer day then we’ve had in a while. I was hurting so badly coming up the hills in the final stretches. Then I thought to myself, isn’t this what I love? Isn’t this the limit that I’m trying to push? How I can get more out of myself in this suffering moment? I smiled and laughed at myself. How sick is this that I love this feeling? The workout is over and I’m dry heaving on the side of the road, and I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else than pushing limits.

What about more specific goals?
I am a realist, I’m certain I will never run 2:19 in a marathon again. But to me, to go into Boston, and run 2:26 would be just as heroic, because it’s going to take that kind of training and commitment. I m going to have to recommit every time I am having a tough time on the course. If I can do that on that day, it would be beautiful.

Of which career accomplishment are you most proud?
I would say in 2015, when I broke the masters’ marathon record. It was a rocky buildup to the race, and it was a really imperfect day on the course. Every mental tool I ever used, I used on that day. From the rough buildup, to the mistakes I made—I missed a water bottle, I got my foot clipped—any one of those issues, I could have made the choice to feel defeated, or that the goal wasn’t worth it. But I kept staying on the pedal and I broke the American masters record. It was such a struggle, and it was all mental. All of it.

What do you hope non-runners can take away from the book?
When my husband was trying to convince me to write the book, I told him I didn’t think it would be interesting. I don’t come from struggle, or from a war torn country. I didn’t have a difficult background. I had been supported my whole life. But what I found in my story was universal. It wasn’t just about mastering running or a sport, it was about mastering yourself. We can all relate to that. Every New Year’s resolution we make, we are striving to be better people. We are going to eat better, serve our families better, serve our communities better. Whatever it is we decide on December 31 when we choose to perfect ourselves, we have that ability every day. Once somebody realizes that they have it within themselves to be that person every day, its really a hook. And it’s beautiful to me it just takes one choice to realize how easy that transition is. Our lives are how we perceive them. We create that perception by twisting our thought and perspective on a daily basis. It is a great gift to have as a human being. When people can realize that, they don’t have to struggle as much. If I can change one person so profoundly, the years I’ve spent writing this book would be worth it.

So is writing a book tougher than running a 2:19 marathon?
It’s much tougher! (laughs) At least I felt that I went into the process as an elite endurance athlete. I committed to it, but I needed a lot more commitment. It was my dabble in the ultramarathon world and I didn’t like it (laughs).

Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory (Crown Archetype) is available at Amazon.com.

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