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Deena Kastor’s Comfort Zone

Deena Kastor hold the American record for the marathon. Photo:
Deena Kastor hold the American record for the marathon. Photo:

In this exclusive interview, the American marathon and half marathon record holder discusses her lifestyle for success.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Deena Kastor, 36, is one of the most accomplished American distance runners of all time. She owns the American record for the half marathon (1:07:34) and marathon (2:19:36) and won a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympic Marathon. One of the secrets to Kastor’s long-term success is what you might call her “comfort zone.” Early in her career, Kastor found the perfect coach (Joe Vigil, now retired), the perfect place to live (Mammoth Lakes, Calif.), and the perfect all-around lifestyle to support her running, and she has never deviated from this winning formula.

We interviewed Kastor about her comfort zone shortly before she flew east from her home in California to provide reporting for NBC’s television coverage of the 2009 ING New York City Marathon, which was won on the men’s side by an important character in her comfort zone: her longtime Mammoth Lakes Track Club teammate Meb Kelflezighi.

Competitor: In your mind, why have you been able to race so successfully for so long?

Deena Kastor: I chose a coach [Joe Vigil] who I believed was the best and most knowledgeable in the world, so I trust and believe in the program. So it was very easy to come to practice every day and just follow the protocol. Being part of a competitive running group, we get an incredible amount of quality work done together.

But I believe the leaps and bounds that I made over the last several years have come from outside the training environment and how we choose to recover. During a workout you’re breaking down soft tissue and really stressing your body. How you treat yourself in the time between your workouts is really where you make your gains, recover, supercompensate and gain strength to attack your next workout.

It’s easy to get to practice and focus at that time, but I make a conscious effort to focus on the time between workouts in order to get the most out of my recovery to maximize my training.

What is it about living and training in Mammoth Lakes that seems to agree with you?

Mammoth is a town of 7,500 people, and everyone who lives there is an athlete of some sort. We have skiers, mountain bikers, climbers. We’re just the runners who fit into this extraordinarily fit community, and it definitely shows in the support that we get from everyone outside of our training group. It’s fun to be connected to the community in that way.

Almost every world and Olympic champion in running has lived and trained at altitude. We are at 8,000 feet of altitude, which is similar to Kenya’s Rift Valley. We know we are at optimal altitude with an optimal community situation—we really feel grateful for where we are.

I’m a homebody. I love to be at home and get into that training zone. The optimal buildup to any competition is a two-month period at home in Mammoth Lakes, and the simplicity of a mountain town where I can focus on getting the work done and recovery. The time in between I fill with chiropractic and massage and acupuncture and ice baths and proper nutrition immediately after workouts.

Since Joe Vigil’s retirement in 2004 you have been coached by his protégé, Terrence Mahon. What was that adjustment like?

Coach Vigil’s training was nose to the grindstone every day. Terrence’s training has a little more of a middle-distance philosophy mixed in, with neuromuscular recruitment and explosive workouts mixed with endurance workouts. Terrence’s training is really well rounded and has made me a much better all-around athlete in the second half of my career. I think both coaches were perfect for the time that I had them. Coach Vigil instilled an incredible work ethic, and Terrence has made me more of a well-rounded athlete.

When you look at the workouts we’re doing, we’re all doing pretty much the same thing, from the recreational runner to the elite distance runner. Our workouts are similar: We’re doing interval sessions one day a week, long runs one day a week, tempo runs once a week. The difference comes with the elite runner being able to dedicate so much time to recovery. Also, we believe in our coaches. If you’re second-guessing your program or second-guessing the coach you’re operating under, chances are you’re not going to be fully committed to the workouts you’re doing on a daily basis.

You seem to thrive on continuity in your coaching and other supporters.

I’ve surround myself with people I believe in: my therapists, my coaches, my manager—I’ve chosen the best people in the trade. When I go to work every day I know that I am being helped by the best professionals and that gives me an extreme amount of confidence.

I think anytime you commit to a coach, commit to a team, commit to a training environment, the continuity that you get from that is going to pay off in the future. I notice that when I have to travel, my training suffers in the weeks that I spend away from the coach and the team. Terrence has created a dedicated group of athletes who love meeting to practice together and feed of the support that we offer one another.

Do you have some favorite workouts that you have relied on for many years to build your confidence?

I really gain the greatest confidence from putting together weeks upon weeks of solid training. It’s not really a matter of walking away from a session of mile repeats and saying, “Wow, I’m ready.” It’s running a session of mile repeats two days after a 24-mile long run and following that up with a tempo run just under race pace—it’s putting in the work week in and week out that’s really what I thrive on.

My favorite workout to do is four times two miles at 9,000 feet. It’s an elevation that taxes me, whereas when I do intervals and other sessions at 7,000 feet I’m usually able to do them quite easily. But when I go up to 9,000 feet and do these two-mile repeats it really taxes me and it feels really good afterwards. Trying to hit five-minute-mile pace at that elevation is a really daunting task, but it’s a workout I really thrive on and love doing.

I gather that over the years you have developed a daily routine that works well for you. Can you take us through a typical day in the life of Deena Kastor?

I wake up at about six o’clock and then eat breakfast and then take the dog for a walk. As soon as I get back my husband [Andrew, a massage therapist by trade] will stretch me out and get me ready for practice. At 8:30 everybody meets for practice. Whether it’s a hard day or an easy day I’m usually back at around 11:00 or 11:30. I’ll eat a snack and then take an ice bath and then eat lunch right afterwards. Then I lay down to take a nap. When I wake up I eat another snack, walk the dog again and do my second run. At 4:30 I meet my trainer at the athletic club for a gym session. Then I come home and prepare dinner for my husband and myself. It’s usually early to bed.

I try to sleep 12 hours with my night rest and my nap combined. I am sleeping half the day, but I found that it allows me to be more energetic when I’m awake.

What do you do for social life?

Running is my social life. Every day I get to interact with people who share the same passion I do.