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Deena Kastor On Being Your Own Cheerleader & Why She Loves Chicago

We sat down with Deena Kastor to discuss this year's Chicago Marathon, her secret to lasting success and what makes this event so special.

On Thursday, I walked into Cityfront Café inside the NBC Tower building in Chicago, Illinois to finish preparing my notes while I waited for Olympic medalist and American record holder Deena Kastor. Already having been in Chicago for three days, the city had seemed different that day. Runners had slowly begun descending upon The Windy City and you could feel the excitement of the upcoming 41st Bank of American Chicago Marathon in the air.

In my seven months with Competitor Running, I had yet to meet Kastor, but her reputation as a kind, mama-bear-type figure who also happened to an icon in the sport, made me more nervous than I expected. Kastor and her team walked in moments later and she stood before me seeming larger-than-life in her petite frame yet very approachable.

It was possibly the latter sentiment that caused me to blurt out (within minutes) that I had signed up for my first full marathon next spring. Like telling your best friend about a new crush, she gushed with me over my chosen course, offered up training advice and looked genuinely enthusiastic about the 26.2-mile challenge.

There’s a reason the running world loves Kastor. She’s not only great at what she does but will most likely be your biggest cheerleader whether you’re an elite athlete or a beginning marathoner. Her enthusiasm for the sport and confidence in the strength of the human mind and body is palpable.

As we began discussing the upcoming marathon, Kastor lit up mentioning the place where she took first in 2005 in 2:21.25 (she’s currently the last American female to do so here) and where she broke the U.S. masters record with a time of 2:27.47.

“To be here early enough in the week to see the city gain momentum and excitement is always so exciting to me,” says Kastor. “It seems to increase exponentially as the media gets closer and as the Expo starts up. People start to get fired up and they have their bib numbers and you’re seeing it on social media, you get bombarded with everything marathon.”

Kastor, who is in Chicago with Bank of America, also noted how the week’s events and activities were made easier thanks to the convenience of mobile banking and the corporation’s partnership with ApplePay. Runners can use their Apple watch or smartphone to purchase items at the Expo or around town without having to pull out their credit cards or carry around a purse.

“Another beautiful thing that they’re doing is that, when you come here to the city, you always want to give back in some way. And a lot of times people don’t know how,” she says. “There’s going to be tap-and-go places along the course, so for every dollar you give to the Chicago Parks Foundation, you get a commemorative item like a water bottle.”

This year, the 45-year-old Mammoth Lakes resident released her book Let Your Mind Run in which she discusses the power of positive thinking and how it not only helped shaped her career but has been a formidable guide in her life. “Here I thought I was sitting down to write a book about how this mental approach has worked for me, but it’s worked for everything, not just for running. And so to be able to step back and see that application has been really rewarding,” shares Kastor.

When asked how this approach benefitted marathon training and racing, she urged that our thoughts can be the deciding factor in being able to push through the pain to cross the finish line. “When we are in that point of the race that, it’s getting uncomfortable or we’re starting to doubt, we have the opportunity to be our biggest cheerleader or our worst critics,” says Kastor. “To really take on the role of being your cheerleader is going to be more beneficial in every single choice you make out there. … You get faced with so many opportunities in the marathon to make that choice and make the right one. It becomes a habit.”

It’s this same mindset that has kept Kastor running strong for the past 34 years. She even suggests that when you’re not able to bring your mind back to a positive or healthy place during a run, just try smiling. “I feel like just the act of doing that might be releasing something in my body to make me actually feel good again,” she says.

Of course, Kastor has every reason to be smiling these days. Along with her own achievements in the marathon, American female distance runners have been taking the sport by storm in the last few years. She noted that as we watch their success, we’re finding our own self-belief and striving to go out and accomplish our own goals.

“I think that’s why we’re seeing such a deep level of talent in U.S. distance running because every weekend you’re getting inspired by someone else’s performance,” says Kastor. “It instills a belief that you too can do that on any given weekend. I think that that has been a really contagious, infectious attitude that all American distance runners are benefiting from.”

Although running for Greece today, Alexi Pappas is another distance runner that Kastor is proud of and will be rooting for during the race. Coached by her husband Andrew Kastor, she says she knew exactly when Pappas became a marathoner.

“It was very clear the very day that she became capable of the marathon. And it was all mental,” says Kastor. “It was putting in the miles, getting the work and just one day that she was like, ‘I don’t have another interval in me, I don’t have another repetition in me.’ And she got it in. That’s what the marathon is. It’s at first thinking you don’t have something else in you, anything left in you and then doing it anyway.”

With elites such as Laura Thweatt, Gwen Jorgensen, Florence Kiplagat, Roza Dereje and Brigid Kosgei joining Pappas in the race for the win in Chicago, today’s race should definitely be a fun one to watch.

Before we part ways, Kastor offers up one last word of encouragement, noting that not everyone has the time or discipline to put in the work it takes to run a marathon, but that’s what makes it so special. With a smile, she adds, “But you do,” and wishes me good luck once again.

In case anyone’s keeping tabs, I’ll for sure be making my way across that finish line in March because, you don’t lie to Deena Kastor, you just don’t.