Keira D’Amato and Sara Hall Rewrite the Distance Running History Books

Keira D’Amato and Sara Hall are still processing what happened Sunday.

On the same course in Houston, both set endurance records for American runners, in one case surpassing a mark that had stood for more than 15 years. And both helped redefine what it means to be an elite runner — and a mother — in her late 30s.

Hall, 38, ran the Houston half marathon in 1 hour 7 minutes 15 seconds, besting Molly Huddle’s previous American record of 1:07:25, set in 2018. D’Amato, 37, ran the Houston marathon in 2:19:12, breaking Deena Kastor’s longstanding record of 2:19:36, set in London in 2006.

Both knew they were capable of running those times. But neither knew if Jan. 16 would be the day they had both envisioned, years after many of their peers had hung up their competitive racing shoes.

“I haven’t been able to process it — it’s so confusing,” D’Amato said. “Part of me feels like it’s just beyond belief, and the other part of me is like, ‘Believe it, you’ve put in the miles in the rain and the cold and the heat, you’ve gotten up early and stayed up late, you’ve missed vacations.’ I believe it because I’ve been on the journey, but also I can’t wrap my mind around it.”

Together, D’Amato and Hall point to the future of American distance running, one in which runners are not expected to retire at 30, not disregarded upon starting a family, can control what success looks like and manage how they get there themselves.

Neither runner found herself at this point by following the traditional route of professional runners in the United States.

Fifteen years ago, on the same course, Hall watched her husband, Ryan, effortlessly set an American record time in the half marathon, 59:43, that still stands.

“My career could not have been any more opposite,” Sara Hall said. “It’s taken me a decade and a half of grinding and setbacks and disappointments.”

“It’s taken me a decade and a half of grinding and setbacks and disappointments,” Sara Hall said.Credit…Johnny Zhang

In 2009, Hall considered stepping away from competition. She had strong showings early in her career but was going through a series of challenges that had her contemplating what a future in running would look like.

“I always had success in the sport, and I didn’t realize how much I saw my self-worth and my belonging with other people contingent on that success,” Hall said of her mind-set then. “That period is when I went deep into my head and into my sense of belonging and stopped fearing failure, and felt more free to take risks in competition.”

Hall bet on herself and kept competing. She didn’t stop running even when “it didn’t really make sense on paper to a lot of people,” she said. She built a family with her husband, adopting four children from Ethiopia in 2015. She believed she had better days of running ahead of her, and when the times didn’t come, she chased “the feeling of flying.”

With the disappointments have come long-awaited accomplishments. After failing to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics at the U.S. marathon trials in February 2020, she shifted her focus to her next goal, written on a bathroom mirror: to set an American record. That fall, she ran the London Marathon in a personal-best time of 2:22:01, finishing second. Just over two months later, she raced in the Marathon Project in Chandler, Ariz., and finished in 2:20:32, then the second-fastest marathon run by an American woman.

D’Amato’s path took a different turn. She did leave the sport in 2009, her dreams for a professional running career dashed by a string of injuries. In the next eight years, she would begin a career in real estate and have two children while running recreationally as a way to meet people. In 2017, D’Amato ran a marathon with her husband, with a goal of finishing in under 3 hours 30 minutes. She finished in 3:14:54, signed up for another marathon and lowered her time to 2:47:00 that November.

She decided to go all in and took a bet on herself, too. “I sat on the sidelines for a decade wondering what if — what if I would have done things differently?” she said. “I lived with that for a decade, and then I finally found out.”

D’Amato signed a professional contract with Nike in 2021 with one prerequisite: She was not interested in changing any part of her life.

In October, the two runners lined up together to run the Chicago Marathon. Hall was attempting to break the American record there, and D’Amato was going for the podium.

“I don’t think I’m that far off from the American record,” D’Amato said before the race. “Realistically, I know I’m not there now, but I don’t know — crazier things have happened.” If she had only known.

Warm weather slowed the field, and Hall finished in 2:27:19. D’Amato was a minute behind her, finishing in 2:28:22.

Those performances were fuel for the fire.

D’Amato said Sunday’s race was one of the hardest marathons she had run. She knew she wouldn’t need a perfect performance to get the record, but one that was just good enough. Hall knew she was on pace and was excited to be feeling strong, but she didn’t allow herself to celebrate even when she got close to the finishing tape for the half marathon. Each found herself speechless in the minutes after crossing the line and seeing her official time.

“As a professional athlete, you get good at always believing that something special is going to happen and something special is possible,” Hall said. “You have to go into it with an open mind, that this could be the day — and regardless, you fight until the end.”

Their performances have been widely celebrated by the professional and recreational running communities, and by each other. Each has long been inspired by the other’s work ethic, drive and unwavering confidence in herself.

“I think it’s so powerful and says so much about the resiliency of women,” D’Amato said. “Two mothers in their late 30s just changed the history books in the same day.”

They aren’t done. D’Amato wants to make an Olympic team, and Hall is eager to write a new goal on her mirror, perhaps the American marathon record. They are also eager to cheer for fellow runners who are checking back in on dreams deferred.

“Hundreds of people are tagging me in their posts, saying that ‘if Keira and Sara can do it, so can I,’” Hall said, adding: “That’s what’s so powerful about our sport. We are running the same course at the same time and going through the same things.”

She continued: “Sometimes you need someone else to do something for you to see that it’s possible for you, and once you can see it, you can believe it for yourself, too. That’s made this super meaningful.”

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