U.S. Has High Hopes for N.Y. Marathon

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 4, 2006

She usually channels her adrenaline, but tomorrow Deena Kastor will try hard to ignore it. At the starting line for the New York City Marathon, she'll close her eyes. She'll ignore the massive crowd, the 37,000 other runners and the helicopters flying overhead.

Kastor knows all too well that the New York starting line is distance running's most exhilarating environment, which makes it the most dangerous. Two years ago, in the biggest disappointment of her career, Kastor feasted on that energy, started her race too fast and then dropped out, exhausted, 10 miles short of the finish line. "I couldn't stay calm," Kastor said. "You have to stay composed under the pressure."

That challenge is daunting for Kastor this year. After setting an American record at the London Marathon in April and winning a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics, Kastor enters New York as a heavy favorite. She can become the first American woman to win in New York since 1977, which has made her the public face of this marathon. Her picture is featured in advertisements that decorate buses and subway stations in New York.

Kastor, 33, is the centerpiece of an event that could become a landmark race for distance running in the United States. American Meb Keflezighi, 31, returns to New York after placing second and third the last two years. He hopes to overcome a sore hamstring and become the first American man to win the marathon since 1982.

"This year's race is shaping up to be the best ever for Americans," race director Mary Wittenberg said. "Deena is the best American our sport has ever seen in the marathon. She's already been the leading force in the revival of American distance running in the last six years. Now she has a chance to take that to a whole new level."

Kastor said that New York has been her "obsession" since she returned from her record-setting race in London, where she became the first American woman to run a marathon in less than 2 hours, 20 minutes. She has spent the last six months training, sometimes with Keflezighi, in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., at an elevation of about 8,000 feet. Kastor ran about 135 miles each week in preparation for New York, and often felt fresh in spite of that. "The training has almost been too perfect," she said.

It's a stark contrast to how Kastor felt when she arrived in New York before the 2004 marathon, which she ran less than 80 days after her bronze-medal race in Athens. That year, Kastor truncated her training program and tried to recover from one marathon while preparing for another. The disastrous result in New York -- a fast, 10-mile start that devolved into a slow jog and then a sudden stop -- haunted Kastor for months.

To earn redemption, Kastor will have to overcome a solid field of runners attracted by the largest purse ever in marathon running, about $700,000. Kastor committed to run the New York Marathon very early this season and, as she watched other elite runners sign up, she said she thought, "Uh-oh, I really am going to have to train a lot harder."

Defending champion Jelena Prokopcuka, 2006 Boston Marathon winner Rita Jeptoo and 2004 Olympic silver medalist Catherine Ndereba could all finish ahead of Kastor if she runs an imperfect race.

Keflezighi, the silver medalist in the 2004 Olympics, will have to overcome an even stronger field, one that he has compared to the marathon dream team. Keflezighi will run against record holder Paul Tergat, former New York champion Hendrick Ramaala and 2004 Olympic gold medalist Stefano Baldini.

"Both [Meb and I] have the potential to win if everything goes right," Kastor said. "But nobody said it was going to be easy. If it was, an American probably would have won long before now."

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