Special K’s Deena Kastor & Meb Keflezighi:
by Jim Gerweck
American distance running fans had a double reason to cheer last summer when Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi won marathon medals in Athens, the first for the United States in the event in two decades and the best showing in the marathon by any nation at these Games. How these two runners, dubbed the Special K’s, exceeded the expectations of all but the most optimistic supporters is a textbook example of pre-race planning and preparation.
Make the Choice
The drive to the medals podium began almost a year before the Olympics, when Kastor and Keflezighi, the American record holders in the 10,000m, elected to forego that event in favor of the tougher and more unpredictable marathon. “We sat down and listed positives and negatives of each event,” said Kastor’s long-time coach, Joe Vigil. “She said ‘the harder conditions, the more trying the race, the better I’ve done. I want to run the marathon.’” Kastor, Keflezighi, and their coaches, Vigil and Bob Larsen, felt that the anticipated tough conditions would produce a more tactical, wide-open race that would give them a better chance against runners who were much faster on paper. “We felt we could take advantage of special features of the Olympic marathon,” says Larsen. “It wasn’t going to be like a rabbited race on a flat course under cool conditions.”
The focus then became the Athens race, with the U.S. Olympic Trials marathons as steppingstones to that goal. Both runners finished second in their Trials races after some minor road bumps: Keflezighi lost a few weeks of training with knee pain, and Kastor hit the wall in the race after failing to keep her energy level high enough. They raced sparingly the rest of the summer, each winning the 10,000m at the track trials in July in the midst of their marathon buildup, returning to altitude training at their Team USA base in Mammoth Springs, CA, immediately after their races.
“You have to earmark important competitions if you want to improve your time,” says Larsen. “To be successful you can’t be racing weekly, but if you do it right you can reach your peak on the day you choose.”
While Kastor and Keflezighi’s PRs were several minutes slower than those of world record holders and pre-Athens favorites Paula Radcliffe and Paul Tergat, the Americans sought to narrow the gap through intelligent preparation. To that end they, and most of the United States’ other marathon qualifiers, attended a “marathon summit” at the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center in May. Led by Dr. David Martin, the goal of the summit, in his words, was to get “all the major players thinking in a positive manner toward the challenges of Athens.” Martin puts special emphasis on his use of the word challenge rather than problem. “It’s more positive, viewing them as something to be met and overcome.”
The mantra that Martin drummed into the heads of the Olympians was: “Worry early.” That means recognizing a potential challenge, like the course or weather, well before the race date, allowing the maximum time to prepare to meet it successfully.
To that end, much of the summit’s time was devoted to making the athletes as familiar as possible with what they would face in Athens. “Knowledge is power, and we wanted our athletes to know as much about the race as possible,” says Martin. Randy Wilbur of the USOC attended a test run of the course in November 2003 and presented the athletes with a virtual course tour. Since course construction wouldn’t be completed until shortly before the Games, another USOC official, Dan Benardot, had an aunt who lives in Greece arrange for personal course tours for the team. In July, Martin obtained a course profile from the official measurer and forwarded it to the runners. “By the time they arrived, they had a total 3D knowledge of the course,” he said.
Train Specifically, Train Smart
To prepare for the hilly Athens course, Vigil went and “found a course that replicated the Athens course almost exactly, only it was at 8–9,000 feet.” To prepare for the hot and humid conditions that were expected, they ran during the hottest part of the day, sometimes wearing extra layers of clothing.
“We lectured them chapter and verse that the secret of their success would be to drink a liter to a liter and half per hour,” says Martin. On their long training runs the athletes practiced drinking and carrying their fluid bottles until they’d consumed a quarter of a liter every 15 minutes, something that wasn’t natural at first.
At the same time, they had to keep their training sensible. According to Kastor, “Our main motivation was to get in the best shape of our lives to withstand the conditions and get to the starting line healthy.” While she and Keflezighi were successful in that regard, in Athens she noted: “I couldn’t believe how many people were coming in for therapy before their races.” To withstand the rigors of the high mileage they were doing, Kastor relied on frequent massages from her husband, Andrew, while Keflezighi favored soaking his legs in a chilly mountain stream “after every run.”
Stick to the Strategy
Keflezighi and Kastor’s training was also molded by the strategy they planned to use in Athens. “We talked about the dynamics of heat in the race—how should they run it,” says Martin. “We knew with a 6 p.m. start it would be hot the first hour, then cool down. We also knew that once you start to accumulate heat, you can’t get rid of it. That fact laid the basis for the come-from-behind strategy.”
To acclimate to the conditions, the runners arrived in Greece three weeks early. “Physiologists say you get 95 percent adaptation in two weeks,” says Larsen, “but I felt 95 percent wasn’t enough if you were going for a medal.”
“We told the athletes [to] be cognizant of the heat, don’t fight it, endure it, don’t compete in the beginning, go easy the first hour,” Martin says. “Wear sunglasses because squinting uses energy. Even standing around in the sun you’ll start to accumulate heat.” Thus before the start, the U.S. team stayed inside, wearing Nike ice vests to lower their core body temperatures, while their competitors were outside warming up in temperatures near 100.
As everyone who watched the races on TV now knows, their strategy worked to perfection. “I decided that in the first 15K I wasn’t going to pay attention to what anybody else was doing,” says Kastor. “At 20K she was three minutes behind but she was smiling,” Larsen recalls. “When they got to the top of the hill at 32K, away she went.”
“She exhibited great emotional control and confidence to run that way,” says Vigil, terming it “just about the smartest race I’ve ever seen anybody run in a marathon.”
Keflezighi was less conservative, partially because the weather was 15 degrees cooler but also by necessity. “I didn’t want him that far back because with Deena it was a matter of beating two or three women,” says Larsen, whereas with Meb, “there were 38 guys with faster times in the race. I wanted him in sight of the leaders, and when they didn’t go out hard it made it a little easier. At 16K he was less than 100 meters back and looked great. We wanted him fresh enough at 32K to be ready to race for a medal.”
“Coach Larsen told me to treat the first 20 miles like an easy run with the guys, and in the last six show no mercy,” said Keflezighi.
“I can’t say my race was perfect,” says Kastor. “But when you go to a race so well prepared, when something goes a bit wrong it’s a lot easier to deal with it. I felt a surge of energy every time I got close to the next person ahead, and when you’re the one with the exuberant energy—I can’t state how thrilling it was. Those races are the days that we crave, that we end up suffering for in training. I didn’t anticipate it nor do I take it for granted.”