Steph Chambers/Getty Keira D'Amato
Keira D'Amato is currently at the top of women's distance running. She holds multiple American records — in the 10-mile and the marathon, the latter of which had stood for nearly 16 years before D'Amato smashed it in January — and has racked up win after win this year at everything from 10Ks to 7 milers. But just two years earlier, the real estate agent and mom of two was mostly unknown, a "hobby jogger" quietly putting in miles near her home in Midlothian, Virginia.
That's not to say D'Amato's success came out of nowhere — before starting her real estate career and her family she was a standout runner, a four-time All-American, at American University in Washington, D.C.
"My life then was to eat, sleep, breathe and run. That was all I knew and all I wanted to do," D'Amato, 37, tells PEOPLE. "It was my whole world." She planned to pursue professional running after graduation, but her dreams were quickly derailed by a series of injuries. When her insurance denied a needed ankle surgery, D'Amato was "kind of forced out" of the sport.
"It was a weird breakup. It really felt like running was breaking up with me," she says. "It was heartbreaking. All of sudden I was Keira the runner who doesn't run."
D'Amato ended up meeting her husband Anthony, getting her real estate license and having two kids, Thomas, now 7, and Quin, 5. Her running at that time was very casual — she picked it up again to get back in shape after the two pregnancies and for a dose of sanity while at home with young kids and a military husband, who at times was deployed for more than a year.
Aleksandra Szmigiel - Pool/Getty Keira D'Amato with her kids Thomas, bottom left, and Quin, top left
"That was a really, really hard time for me," she says. "Just two kids under 2 and being at home alone. I felt lonely and I felt a little trapped." D'Amato would hire a babysitter for an hour, just so she could get out and run.
"I needed something that was mine and that I controlled and something that was just slow and peaceful. Then as soon as I walked back in the door, I was feeling really proud that I'd accomplished something for me that I could go right back to being a mom," she says. "It just helped me cope during that time."
D'Amato also started jumping into a races — a local 5K, or a long weekend in Nashville with a friend for a half marathon. "It was totally for fun and it taught me how to love running without needing to be fast or have goals."
Her real return to running started as a prank — she kindly gifted Anthony with an entry to the 2017 Shamrock Marathon for Christmas one year, and feeling bad about it, decided to sign herself up too. Thinking she'd run it in around 3 hours and 30 minutes (an impressive time for the average runner, but nothing outstanding), D'Amato ended up easily covering the 26.2 miles in 3:14:54. Eight months later, she decided to train for the Richmond Marathon, and shockingly finished in 2:47:00 — two minutes short of the Olympic Trials qualifying time.
"That's when the fire started because I was like, 'Oh, two minutes in a marathon. That's four seconds per mile. I can do that.' "
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With the help of her old college coach, Scott Raczko, D'Amato qualified, and then came in 15th at the 2020 Olympic Trials, ahead of around 450 other women, including several professional runners. A few weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world, and races.
But for D'Amato, "running wasn't canceled," she says. "I think a lot of other pros thought, 'Well, there are no races. This is a really natural time to take a break.' For me, I'm like, 'Hey, they're taking a break. I'm putting the pedal to the metal and I'm going to really catch up.' I trained really, really hard during COVID."
She started making some headlines after running a speedy 5K on her local track, and then even more in Nov. 2020 after she organized a 10-mile race where she broke the American women's record. Four months later, D'Amato signed her first-ever professional running deal with Nike.
"That was really cool," she says. "I think for Nike to bet on someone that wasn't a right-out-of-college national champion, it was some mom in a smaller town — for them to see what I saw in myself is really powerful."
D'Amato had already been relying on Nike for her running shoes, and appreciated that unlike other brands that require their runners to join teams in Arizona or Oregon, she could continue training at home in the Richmond area.
"They support people like me that are trying to be the best in the world, but they're also really supportive on an individual level of everyone finding their own best," she says. "They really build up the sport from youth programs to professional athletes and everything in between. I feel like they've created shoes for all runners to be their own best."
NIKE Keira D'Amato with girls at Nike's KIDSPORTS activation
D'Amato ticked off more goals from there, coming in 4th at the Chicago Marathon — her first World Marathon Major as a pro — and winning the 2021 U.S. Women's Half Marathon title. Then, in Jan. 2022, she went after the American marathon record, a record that had stood since 2006, despite years of the top female marathoners in the country trying to bring it down. It was D'Amato, on a windy day in Houston, who was finally able to do it in a time of 2:19:12.
"On the starting line that day, I was thinking I'm either going to get the record or I'm not. If I get it, that would be wild, but if I don't, I'm going to be right where I am right now and that's cool too. I'm happy," she says.
Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle via AP Keira D'Amato breaks the American marathon record at the 2022 Houston Marathon
D'Amato thinks that the way she found her way to professional running — going from a standout college career to her "elaborate halftime show" to getting back in the game — helped her to her record-breaking runs.
And D'Amato isn't done now that she has the American record. She got to knock off another goal in June when she got a last-minute call-up to compete at the World Track and Field Championships and donned a USA uniform for the first time. Despite having just 17 days to train for a marathon (D'Amato had been racing speedier 10Ks when she got the ask to join the team), she went out fast and finished eighth in the world. In September, she'll toe the line at the Berlin Marathon — known for its flat and speedy course — and has her mind set on lowering the American record again.
Carmen Mandato/Getty Keira D'Amato finishing the World Championships marathon in June with teammates Emma Bates and Sara Hall
"I'm in this really beautiful spot where I feel like I have nothing to lose, but just everything to gain," she says. "I'm putting everything out there, my heart, my soul, my running shoes and just going for it with every opportunity."