Deena Kastor has been this way before - via the tortuous road from Marathon to Athens. When Paula Radcliffe fell by that particular wayside, stricken by illness, injury and exhaustion in the 2004 Olympic marathon race, the woman from Mammoth Lakes, California, was grateful for the British support she picked up on her way through the wilting field of contenders en route to an astutely won bronze medal in the magnificent marbled Panathinaiko Stadium.
Twenty months on, Radcliffe is out of the reckoning before the start of the 2006 Flora London Marathon next Sunday, having fallen victim to a foot injury. Kastor, though, is over here, and looking to fill the void left by the absent world champion and world record holder with a United States record and a first-ever win by an American woman in London
"I'm ecstatic to be here," she said, taking a mid-morning rest in the Teddington apartment that has been her base since she lowered her US half-marathon record to 67min 34sec in Berlin two weeks ago. "The British people have been very kind to me over the years. They were very supportive of me during the Olympic Games, when they were obviously disappointed in Paula dropping out but immediately adopted me as someone to celebrate coming into the stadium in Athens."
It was a classic marathon run worthy of universal celebration. On a course with an arduous mid-race climb, and in stifling heat and humidity, Kastor judged her Olympic effort to perfection, holding herself in check until the latter stages. She was 28th after three miles, sixth at 22 miles, and hit a medal position with less than a mile of the 26.2 miles remaining. Covering the first half in 75min 40sec and the second half in 71:40, she took a brilliantly earned bronze medal, behind Mizuki Noguchi of Japan and Kenya's Catherine Ndereba.
"It's definitely the most efficient way for your body to run a marathon," Kastor reflected, "because you're not burning up all of your glycogen stores early. It was definitely not my style of running prior to the Olympic Games. We just used the tactic because of the conditions and since then we've been revolving my training and racing around that tactic a little more often."
For next Sunday's race, Kastor and her coach, Terrence Mahon, will be adopting a less restrained approach. The flat London course has yielded three of the five fastest women's marathon times, all courtesy of the trail-blazing Radcliffe (a world-record 2hr 15min 25sec in 2003; 2:17:42 in 2005; and 2:18:56 in 2002). Kastor herself has run her quickest time on it. As Deena Drossin - prior to marrying Andrew Kastor, her physical therapist - she broke Joan Benoit-Samuelson's 17-year-old US record with a 2:21:16 time for third place behind Radcliffe and Ndereba in the 2003 London race.
"This year I have two major goals," she said. "One is to run 2hr 19min or faster. The other is to win the race. I've got my work cut out for me but I feel the most prepared that I've ever been going into a marathon, so I'm pretty confident going into this race and excited for it to finally come round."
A member of the Asics club in the United States, the 33-year-old Kastor faces strong opposition in the shape of Constantina Tomescu-Dita, the Romanian veteran who finished runner-up to Radcliffe in London last year and took a World Championship marathon bronze medal behind the victorious Briton in Helsinki last summer, and also in Margaret Okayo, the Kenyan who won in the English capital in 2004. Still, having claimed a major marathon win with success in Chicago last October, Kastor will be the woman to beat when the élite female field line up for their 9am start a week today.
The 5ft 4in American readily acknowledges that a London victory would have been a considerably taller order for her had last year's winner been fit to return. Not that the enforced absence of Radcliffe is necessarily a bad thing for the Bedfordshire woman herself. Apart from anything else, it might cultivate a little more fondness in the hearts of those who continue to portray her Athens nightmare as a defining fault-line through her career, even though she has since won a World Championship and recorded the third fastest time in history.
"I definitely feel for Paula," Kastor said. "She has to be so on top of her game every time she goes out and races in order to get a pat on the back, because she's been so impressive over the years. If she does anything shy of breaking her own world record or completely dominating a field, some people are going to be disappointed. She's in a no-win situation.
"I can definitely attest to it being difficult for her to get out there and shine brighter than she has before. And I definitely agree with her not getting on the start line without being in peak condition. These injuries are the body's way of telling you that you need to back off. There's no doubt in my mind that she'll be back fiercer than ever after this."Reuse content