Born in Massachusetts and raised in California, Deena Kastor would seem a fish out of water in St. Louis. Instead, she feels at right at home, which could serve an as advantage Saturday at the USA Cross Country Championships in Forest Park.
Kastor’s last official appearance in St. Louis was the 2004 Olympic marathon trials, which launched her to one of her most notable career achievements. Kastor led the bulk of the race in Forest Park, yielding to Colleen deReuck and finishing second.
Qualifying here led her to a bronze medal in Athens. The podium finish was the first for an American woman in the marathon since Joan Benoit Samuelson won the inaugural event in 1984.
“Running in St. Louis was great, and it was there I made my second Olympic team so it was very special,” said Kastor, who qualified for the 10,000 meters in Sydney in 2000. “I have family in the area, so I always have a lot of support when I run or visit St. Louis.”
Her entourage Saturday will include members of the extended family of her mother, Heleana Drossin, who live near Villa Ridge. Uncle Stan and Aunt Louise “have many sons, so most of my cousins and their families also live nearby. It is always a treat to connect with this larger side of my family,” she said.
Her extended family probably will stretch even further, beyond the traditional boundaries, to include members of the running community who recognize Kastor as the mother of distance running’s renaissance in this country. Kastor holds U.S. records in the marathon, half-marathon, 15K and 8K, which makes picking a career highlight tough. But not impossible. Kastor’s proudest moment was none of the above but her performance at the 2005 Chicago Marathon, her first victory at the distance.
“I really went to the well for it. I have never pushed the limits of my body like I did on that day,” Kastor said. “I ran out of energy, but was determined to win like I had replayed in my mind so many times in practice. I barely won that day and have never pushed so hard since.”
She won the Olympic trials in the marathon in 2008 but was forced out of the event in Beijing after five miles because of a heel injury. Victory eluded her for the next couple of years, which were punctuated by the other crowning achievement: becoming a real mom. Kastor gave birth to a daughter, Piper, in 2011. Less than 10 months later, she finished sixth in the 2012 Olympic trials. Since then, though, life has settled into a new rhythm.
“The only thing that has really changed since motherhood is that I don’t nap in the daytime,” she said.
Through her career, though, no other discipline is closer to her heart than cross country, which abandons roads and quarter-mile tracks in favor of grass or dirt paths over hills, through meadows, fields and forests. She’s pretty good at it, too. Kastor is an eight-time national champion and has finished second in the world championships twice.
“Cross country has always been my greatest passion,” she said. “I love winter weather, getting sloppy, using the terrain in my race tactics and also the strength that cross country builds. I haven’t run cross country since 2007, and I really missed it. This year has been thrilling to re-incorporate cross country into my racing season. My most successful years on the track and in marathons have been when I trained for cross country in the winter.”
The top finishers in the men’s and women’s open races here will comprise the U.S. team at the world championships next month in Poland. Kastor, though, has other commitments before Poland. She’s scheduled to race the Rock ’n’ Roll Pasadena half-marathon in two weeks and the LA marathon on March 17. The schedule would be considered ambitious for a 20-something, but Kastor, 39, doesn’t bat an eye.
“There is always something else to accomplish. There is such a thrill that comes with striving to be better at any given thing,” she said. “There are certainly setbacks and challenges in life, but in the big picture, the challenges spawn growth and that growth creates greater moments.”
For now, the challenges still include running, though a fourth Olympics are another story.
“I’m not sure I have another four years of such intense competition in me. I would love to go to Rio for the Olympics, but it may be on a volunteer basis,” she said. “I don’t think I will ever really retire from this sport because I believe in giving back in other ways besides performances. There will certainly be a final race, but retirement seems a little dramatic.”