For any runners reading this post, Deena Kastor needs no introduction. A winner of both the London and Chicago marathons, she also won a bronze medal in the Olympic marathon in Athens in 2004. She is now smashing world records in the masters category (that means runners over age 40). She is the author of a brand new memoir, out today, called Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory.
For the purposes of the Best of Both Worlds podcast, she is also a working mom (of 7-year-old Piper). Sarah and I were delighted to welcome Deena Kastor to the podcast today. (Though we had a few technical issues — if it sounds like Deena is answering my questions before I ask them, it’s not that she’s clairvoyant. We had a slight sound issue so she now plays on top of my voice. It’s still listenable, so please just try to ignore that.) A few highlights:
Kastor tried, and floundered, in other sports. Her parents thought sports were important (they are!) so they had her try lots of different things. Her softball and figure skating careers were not illustrious. Coordination, she notes, was not her thing. Then she tried running and found she liked it. So for anyone whose kid is picking daisies in the outfield during baseball…that doesn’t mean your kid won’t some day win an Olympic medal! (Well, probably not. But one never knows about many things in life.)
Telling a kid they have talent isn’t necessarily a good thing. That’s because being naturally good at something isn’t enough to succeed at the top levels. Kastor almost quit running at the end of college. She had been quite fast as a high school athlete, winning relatively easily. But in Let Your Mind Run, she writes that she didn’t really see the connection between what happened in practice and what happened in races, and this led to some performances below what she was capable of.
While that lack of connection sounds strange, I think it’s a common phenomenon. About 6-7 years into my piano playing journey, my first Very Very Serious teacher asked me how I practiced. I mentioned playing through the assigned songs, and maybe going back to repeat any particular measures that I’d tripped on. He looked at me quizzically and asked if I knew measures were rough, why didn’t I start with them? To me, practice was about playing the pieces enough until I knew them, possibly for a certain number of times, or a certain number of minutes. To him, practice was about actively improving at specific skills one had identified as requiring work.
Since Kastor had been so “good” at running, she hadn’t needed to see this. But as the competition got tougher, it became harder to win. When she later started putting this together, with the help of coach Joe Vigil, her running career took off.
Mentors matter — but sometimes more for what they don’t do. Kastor credits Vigil with building her running career, but he was very good about putting it all on her. She had to take ownership of what happened in practice. She had to decide what races to do. He’d guide her, but she had to want things. Because if we’re not internally motivated, it won’t work. He knew she’d make a great marathon runner, but when she was winning 5ks and 10ks, he didn’t suggest it. He waited until she came to the idea after a beautiful California 18-miler, and she said she could almost hear him smile on the phone. He knew her better than she knew herself — but a mentor’s role is helping you come to know yourself.
Running isn’t just about running. It’s about nutrition. It’s about rest. And it’s about mental toughness. All these pieces matter too. Can you push yourself a little bit farther? Can you keep going despite bad conditions? Kastor learned, through long cold runs in Colorado, to be very good at suffering. And ultimately, marathons aren’t just about running fast. They’re about running fast in those last two miles when your body is falling apart. This mental fortitude is what she means by “letting your mind run” and it’s a skill that anyone can work on, whatever your skill happens to be.
Working with your spouse can be the best of both worlds. If you have the right spouse! Andy Kastor has helped coach and manage Deena’s career for years. They continue to work together as they manage and coach other athletes. That’s one way to get a lot of spouse time!
Mom guilt hits athletes too. In the first years after Piper was born, Kastor struggled with feeling like she wasn’t training enough to be at her best, and yet the time she was spending running and recuperating from running (and traveling to races) was taking her away from Piper. Many new parents feel like they’re not doing their best in either sphere, but in professional athletics, it’s very obvious and public in a way it might not be for most of us getting a bit behind on our emails. But Kastor has reached a place of balance that works for her, and it’s gotten easier as Piper has gotten older.
How pro athletes handle kid sports and activities… Piper has been trying various different activities that her runner parents haven’t necessarily done — like ice skating, and cross-country skiing. She also has other interests (like the piano!) Sarah asked an intriguing question* of how Kastor approached kid activities with her daughter. The answer is that she does make her stick out the season/year and then they evaluate. And if they’ve put serious money into it (like the piano) maybe a little longer.
I want to give a shout out to Let Your Mind Run — as I mentioned in my Books Read in March post, I have read a fair number of celebrity memoirs in my life and this was definitely one of the better ones, which is a testament to the collaboration between Kastor and her co-author, Michelle Hamilton. Not only is Kastor’s career intriguing, with all its ups and downs, she is very straightforward about her struggles, and what worked and didn’t. The mindset shifts are helpful for any skill you might want to develop.
So please ignore the technical sound issues and give the episode a listen!
*via me. We normally record podcasts on Sarah’s days when she doesn’t see patients, but coordinating Sarah’s patient schedule and Deena Kastor’s availability did not happen. Too bad, but Sarah joins for the pre-interview bit about our own running careers, which is pretty funny when juxtaposed with Deena’s, and then the Q&A on having a nanny when you work from home.