RICHMOND, Va. - With the last pale-yellow traces of sunrise hanging over the track at St. Christopher's School, Keira D'Amato prepares to run.
It's 6:37 a.m. on a Thursday in June. The surrounding streets have yet to wake, save for a local running group logging laps around the track and a few people walking their dogs. A caramel-colored cat, dubbed "Track Cat" by local runners, slinks by as D'Amato presses her feet one after the other into a black chain-link fence, waking her calves.
It's an unlikely training ground for the American record holder in the women's marathon, but everything about D'Amato's story is unlikely. She claimed that record in January, as a 37-year-old mother of two in the thick of her second chapter as a professional runner. Fourteen years after being forced from the sport by injury, five years after using running to lift herself out of one of the lowest points of her life, D'Amato finished the Houston Marathon in a time of 2 hours 19 minutes 12 seconds, toppling a U.S. record that had stood since 2006.
She had stumbled back into the sport almost by accident; now she had reached its summit by knocking down one carefully calculated goal after another. After she crossed the finish line in Houston and reveled in the feeling of breaking the record, she looked around and thought: I can go faster.
There are more goals to topple: Compete with the world's best at marquee marathons. Represent the United States on a global stage. Qualify for the Olympics. They are tinged with urgency; if the laws of physiology are to be believed, D'Amato's window of opportunity is on the verge of narrowing. When the 2024 Olympics in Paris begin, she will be three months away from 40.
On this steamy June morning, D'Amato is slotted as an alternate for Team USA. If any of the three American runners drops out, D'Amato is in, that lifelong goal to represent the United States achieved sooner than expected.
But as much as D'Amato wants to reach these goals, there are compromises she isn't willing to make. That's why she's here, in Richmond, and not training at altitude. It's why she still works as a Realtor instead of making the sport her full-time job. It's why she signed a long-desired contract with Nike only after ensuring she wouldn't be required to adjust the routine that brings her here, to the track at St. Christopher's, among the dog-walkers and Track Cat.
As she stretches, members of the nearby running group send reverent glances her way, and one woman asks whether they can take a picture together. This has become a frequent occurrence here since D'Amato broke the record, and though she still isn't quite accustomed to the attention, she obliges it. She steps back from the fence, smiles and poses.
D'Amato's house is nestled at the base of a sloped driveway in a tree-filled part of Richmond, its white walls adorned with children's drawings and school projects. On this summer morning, her whole family is in the basement.
Her husband, Tony, a delivery manager at Microsoft, is taking a call in the home office. Their two children are playing computer games nearby. There's 7-year-old Thomas, who recently requested that everyone, including his mom, start calling him by his legal name instead of Tommy. Then there's 5-year-old Quin, whose name is spelled with one "n" instead of two because, Tony and Keira reasoned, it would allow her to be 20% more efficient.
D'Amato stands in the middle of her home gym, where foam padding protects the wood floor from the room's contents: elliptical, rowing machine, squat rack, medicine balls, dumbbells. On the wall behind D'Amato hangs a metal plate with the words "The D'Amato Pain Cave" carved into it, a gift from a lender she works with.
Dumbbells in hand, she squats slowly in front of the rack. Above her head hangs the finish line from the Houston Marathon, the record-setting time and D'Amato's autograph scrawled in Sharpie, a heart dotting the "i" in Keira. Framed on another wall are two high school running tanks: one hers, one her husband's.
When they attended the same running camp in high school, Tony got Keira's AOL screen name and messaged her, sparking a correspondence that clogged the phone lines in their homes.
After high school in Northern Virginia, D'Amato became a four-time all-American at American University before trying her hand at running full time. She joined DC Elite, a professional running team led by Scott Raczko, who coached Alan Webb when he set the men's U.S. record in the mile in 2007.
But two bones in her left foot were connected where they shouldn't have been, requiring a surgery her insurance didn't cover and nudging her reluctantly into early retirement. She went to work for the mortgage company Freddie Mac and eventually became a Realtor. And for the next eight years, she built a life outside of competitive running. Even after she finally had foot surgery in 2009, she had no desire to mount a comeback.
But she didn't abandon the sport altogether. She tried her first marathon in 2013, with hopes to qualify for Boston. After the "perfect storm of everything that could go wrong in a marathon," D'Amato thought the 26.2-mile race simply wasn't for her.
She became a mom the next year and a mom of two in 2016. "That's what's really important to me," D'Amato says in the middle of her glute set, nodding toward her children. "When I come home from a race, whether I win or lose, they're like: 'Hey, Mom. What's for dinner?' They don't care, you know?"
They're here now, tucked into the basement, everyone occupied but connected. There is a comfortable silence here, occasionally interrupted by ambient noises from the people she loves. But five years ago, this was a harmony that didn't exist.
Tony was gone, whisked around the country for Air National Guard training. Quin had just been born; Thomas was not yet 2. She felt overwhelmed and isolated. The thought of loading the kids into the car to do something was daunting. What if she had to go to the bathroom? It was easier to stay home, even if staying home made her feel trapped.
Sometimes, though, her mother-in-law would watch the kids. D'Amato would use the time to run.
"In a way, it just feels like this is my fun thing," she says. "It's my hobby. Some people are in book clubs. Some people collect stamps or coins. This is what I do."
Tony was still running, too, so in 2016, as a Christmas gift of sorts, D'Amato signed up her husband for the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach. Then, feeling bad about her prank, she decided to run it, too. This time she trained, and despite a barrage of sleet and frozen rain, she crossed the finish line in 3:14:54.
She kept running, and her times kept falling. In 2017, at the Richmond Marathon, she clocked a time of 2:47:00, two minutes shy of the 2020 Olympic trials qualifying mark. This is the marathon D'Amato thinks ignited the fire, when she started to wonder how high her ceiling might be. She called on Raczko, her old coach, to help her find out.
She chopped time in gaping increments and finished 15th with a time of 2:34:24 at the Olympic trials race in February 2020. Later that year, she helped organize a race in D.C. called the Up Dawg Ten Miler, which she ran in a time of 51:23 to claim the U.S. women-only 10-mile record by nearly a minute.
That made Raczko wonder what D'Amato's limits were, what other records might be within her grasp. They eventually labeled the marathon record a goal.
Tears form in D'Amato's eyes as she thinks back to crossing the finish line in Houston. Early in her first act as a competitive runner, goals were achieved if she worked hard enough, and she had always worked hard enough. But those goals eventually evaded her, leaving her dejected and confused, wondering how she had so badly miscalculated her capabilities. That's why this second chance has been so gratifying: It has quelled every "what if" that circled the back of D'Amato's mind for years.
It's midmorning now. The kids' summer camp has already started, and Tony is getting them out the door. D'Amato pauses her workout, says goodbye and tells them she'll be there to pick them up.
D'Amato stands on the side of the pool deck in white Birkenstocks, a Nike tank top and black athletic shorts, with a neon-pink swimsuit underneath in case her kids successfully persuade her to swim. Around her neck hangs a thin gold chain strung with two circular charms, each etched with one of her children's initials.
She watches Quin play in the water near the steps of the pool, fetching her daughter's goggles and granting her permission to go down the waterslide. Thomas floats nearby, occasionally shooting a glance toward his mom, who flashes two thumbs up.
D'Amato is midway through a buffalo chicken sandwich from the pool's concession stand when the topic of competitive swimming comes up. After Tony says he enjoys watching butterfly more than he likes swimming it, Keira leans forward in her plastic chair.
"Question for you," she says. "How fast could you do a 25-meter butterfly, after eating the sub?"
He looks at the pool and ponders the question before coming up with his answer: He thinks he can swim it in 25 seconds.
Keira nods. "You break 25, you get a Drumstick," she says.
She starts recording on her iPhone and places her finger on her Garmin watch. "Timer's ready," she says, and Tony dives in with a splash.
"I really didn't think he was going to be this good," she says as she watches.
Seventeen seconds later, Tony has won the bet but turns down the ice cream cone. Keira unwraps it and eats it herself. It's at least her second dose of chocolate today, after the Dove candies she plucked from a dining-room candy bowl — the silver cup she was awarded for winning the Boston Athletic Association 10K.
The buffalo chicken, the chocolate, the pool — it all feels so normal for an almost-40 runner with Olympic aspirations. That's the point, D'Amato insists. Her goals are weighty, but she would rather fail than overhaul her life to achieve them.
At the track, D'Amato changes into her second pair of shoes, swapping the bulky bright green trainers she wore to warm up for a pair of white track shoes with yellow trim.
Raczko is waiting nearby, stopwatch in hand. It's a "regeneration" week on the training calendar, so today's workout is shorter and lighter than usual, containing 2,000- and 1,000-meter repeats at paces of 5:10 and 5:00 per mile.
Despite his years of coaching experience, Raczko finds himself in new territory as D'Amato gets older and her times get faster. He isn't sure whether he should be surprised that he hasn't needed to adjust her workouts as D'Amato has progressed through her 30s.
"I don't even know if she would have had the capability to do this when she was younger," he says, then pauses. "Well, she didn't."
Raczko has watched D'Amato grow from a solid runner in her 20s to an elite marathoner in her 30s, has seen her Olympic dreams transform from far-fetched to entirely achievable. He helped guide her to the American record that wasn't even on her radar in her first time through the sport and is continuing to guide her as she aims even higher. Raczko is also working with D'Amato on her newest endeavor: opening a branch of Potomac River Running in Richmond, called PR Run & Walk by Keira D'Amato.
They don't know it this morning at St. Christopher's, but the next day, D'Amato's phone will ring with an invitation to the world championships.
Normally, D'Amato would choose her marathons months in advance, building an entire year's worth of workouts around two painstakingly calculated dates on the calendar. Normally, it would be unheard-of to add a marathon to the schedule at the 11th hour. This is an anomaly, but hasn't this all been an anomaly?
So she will leap at this chance to don a Team USA kit and compete on a world stage. She will book not one but four flights to Oregon, and she will spend the next 2 1/2 weeks preparing to see how well she can fare against the world's best.
Raczko readies his stopwatch, and D'Amato places her fingers on the sides of her Garmin watch, blue-painted fingernails shining.
Through the first portion of the workout, she has clocked faster paces than Raczko called for, and she jokes that he's "taking it easy" on her with the set. When Raczko shouts out her time after a 400, D'Amato thinks it should be a second lower, needling her coach for being slow on the stopwatch.
He waves her off, tells her to take her 45 seconds rest. She waits 43 and starts to run.