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A Virginia real estate agent hopes her 10-mile record is a springboard to the Olympics

Keira D'Amato set the U.S. women’s record for a 10-mile race Tuesday in Washington. (Bob Burgess)
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Keira D’Amato was only a mile away from reaching the pinnacle of her running career Tuesday morning, closing in on a national record at a local race called the Up Dawg Ten Miler, when her 36-year-old body started to give out. Her legs were wobbly. She grew dizzy. She wondered how she was going to sprint to the finish in Anacostia Park.

But D’Amato had helped create this race featuring five elite runners — she prepared her body tirelessly for months and invested thousands of dollars of her own money to hold it — so she mustered the strength to run as fast as she could over the last stretch. Her mother and husband were holding the tape at the finish line, and when D’Amato finally crossed, she had shattered the American women’s record for a 10-mile race with a time of 51:23.

It had been six years since the record was set by former Olympian Janet Bawcom at the 2014 Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run. Not only was it surreal that D’Amato had crushed that previous mark of 52:12 by 49 seconds, but D’Amato was one of the onlookers holding the tape for Bawcom as she crossed the finish line that spring day in Washington.

A few moments after Tuesday’s triumph, D’Amato found herself in the arms of her husband, Anthony, and she told him how much her body hurt before muttering: “I can’t believe I did it.”

As an unsponsored athlete — she is a real estate agent in Northern Virginia and the mother of two — it was a watershed moment in what has been a remarkable year for D’Amato. A former collegiate standout who drifted from competitive running for nearly a decade, she has continued a career resurgence with a string of impressive finishes in races over the past nine months — and hopes it will be a springboard to accomplish her Olympic dream in 2021.

“This has been a very personal journey for me,” D’Amato said. “It was a moment I will never forget. I have to include my wedding and two child births up there, but it definitely has a top-five spot in my life.”

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The performance capped D’Amato’s stellar body of work in 2020. It began in February when she ran a personal best 2:34:24 to finish 15th at the Olympic marathon trials in Atlanta. As the coronavirus pandemic set in, wiping out most of the country’s running schedule and leaving many runners retreating for a period of rest, D’Amato focused on opportunities that could help her improve her standing.

In June, she made headlines after running a 15:04 in a 5K at a high school track in Richmond — and while it wasn’t certified by USA Track & Field, it nonetheless shaved more than a minute off her college personal best time at American University nearly 15 years earlier and bolstered her confidence. She followed by winning the Michigan Pro Half Marathon and the Sugar Run 5K Classic in Tennessee.

“I felt like I had a lot of unfinished business. When covid hit, I think it was a natural time for the professional runners to take a break. … I was the complete opposite,” she said. “I kind of thought, pedal to the metal. I can make up some ground.”

Those performances had only made her more determined to set the American women’s record for a 10-mile race. Had she broken the record in April when the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run was scheduled to be held, she would have likely pocketed a $10,000 bonus — but to hold this week’s race, she would need to pour thousands of her own dollars to chase her goal.

She received financial and logistical support from the Cherry Blossom organization, and raised funds herself by selling apparel and gear, which helped pay to certify and measure the course through USA Track & Field and provide drug testing for the participants, among other costs.

D’Amato told people leading up to the race that the last year represented her “bonus round” in a most unconventional path following a standout running career at American. She felt forced out of the elite running world after she suffered an ankle injury in her 20s, and she hung up her running shoes and focused on her career. After marrying Anthony and having two children, she started to run again.

“I kind of fell backwards, back into this, and all of the sudden, all of those dreams and goals were back on the table,” she said. “I’m not afraid to fail again. I failed before and I turned out just fine. But I also know what it’s like not to hit those goals. I didn’t want that to happen again.”

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It was clear that D’Amato was not going to be denied her goal Tuesday, as she took control of the race and held a sizable lead from the onset. She finished the first mile split at 5:11, just under record pace. At two miles, she was 11 seconds ahead of the record pace of 10:15. By the third mile, she was clearly pulling away from second-place finisher and 2021 Olympic qualifier Molly Seidel, who finished more than two minutes slower at 53:36.

“It was storybook,” said Phil Stewart, the director of the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run who also oversaw Tuesday’s event. “It was phenomenal.”

“Her whole journey has been untraditional — it just felt like a very surreal moment,” said her husband, Anthony. “This is all part of a plan for her.”

D’Amato’s plan is to not stop. Her body ached when she woke Wednesday morning, yet she was energized about what comes next. She plans to run another race in December in Arizona, and it is all building toward the Olympic team time trials in June in Eugene, Ore.

“Making an Olympic team is probably one of my biggest aspirations. … That’s definitely been a dream of mine since I was 13,” she said. “But I think what has helped me in this journey is that I have taken it every goal at a time.”