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Within about 30 minutes on Sunday morning in Houston, the American women's distance records were rewritten when Sara Hall finished second in the half marathon in 1:07:15 and Keira D'Amato won the Houston Marathon in 2:19:12.
Hall's new American record, held by Molly Huddle since 2018 (1:07:25), came 15 years after she watched her husband and coach, Ryan Hall, set the men's national record on the same course, which still stands (59:43). D'Amato is now the fastest U.S. woman ever at the distance and the second to ever dip below 2:20--until Sunday, Deena Kastor had held one of the most sought-after marks in U.S. distance running for 16 years (2:19:36 in London--clocked well before the big advances in today's running shoe technology).
Hall is 38 years old and a mother of four; D'Amato is 37 and a mother of two, as well as a full-time realtor. Hall has been "grinding" away as a pro in the sport for 15 years, while D'Amato took a seven year break during injury and pregnancy, returning to elite racing just within the past three years.
"What's special about this moment for both of us today is that we both have kids, we both have a lot going on in our lives and I think people can relate to that," Hall said after the race. "All the masses out there today, hopefully they're seeing [we] can accomplish [our] goals...we can create that time for ourselves and do that."
The races on Sunday started on the chilly side, the temperature 34 degrees and wind steady at 10 miles-per-hour, which was sometimes blowing in the runners' faces and other times giving a bit of a boost at their backs. The weather didn't appear to hinder the leaders--Vicoty Chepngeno of Kenya won the half marathon in 1:05:03, a course record and the fastest women's time ever on American soil, followed by Hall in second and Dominique Scott of South Africa in third (1:07:32).
D'Amato, who lives in Midlothian, Virginia, had a commanding win in the 26.2 mile race, with Alice Wright of Great Britain finishing her first marathon as runner-up in 2:29:08 and Maggie Montoya of Boulder, Colorado, placing third in her debut, also clocking 2:29:08. Coming into the race, D'Amato's fastest time was 2:22:56, set in December 2020 at the Marathon Project.
"I really believed in my heart and in my legs and in my soul and in my brain that I was capable of breaking the American record today," D'Amato said on Sunday. "We started out on that pace. It never really felt that good, so I started worrying, but I just tried to hang in there and luckily I had the two best pacers in the world today in Calum Neff and Silas Franz."
Many have taken inspiration from D'Amato's unlikely comeback to running. She had raced at American University but quit the sport after graduating, suffering a foot and ankle injury that required surgery. Years later, after having son, Tommy (7), and daughter, Quin (5), she started slowly logging miles again mostly as stress relief while her husband, Anthony D'Amato, was deployed for almost a year with the Virginia Air National Guard.
"I really struggled having a two-year-old and a baby at home without my partner in crime," D'Amato told Women's Running during an interview in November 2020. "It was tough and I was lonely and I filled all of that with running. It wasn't a conscious decision to get back into it. It was the way I chose to heal myself in hard times."
Since then, D'Amato has become a force on the competitive stage. In 2020, while the pandemic canceled most in-person racing opportunities, she staged her own 10-mile road race in Washington, D.C., which she called Up Dawg. She won the event in 51:23, another American record. But then an ill-timed hamstring injury put an end to her Olympic Trials bids in 2020 and 2021. She came back from that injury to place fourth at the Chicago Marathon in October .
On Sunday, D'Amato, who is now sponsored by Nike, went out with her pacers quickly, averaging 5:18 per mile for the first 15K. She began slowing to about 5:21 per mile between the halfway point (1:09:40) and 30K, but rebounded well from 35K to the finish, ultimately averaging 5:19 per mile.
"That was a struggle, man. When you start getting so tired in a race, your mind starts negotiating with your body and you kind of come up with anything you can say to keep going," she said. "It was that time in the race that I just kept telling myself that if I stayed on the pace and kept with it, I'll never have to do this again and I'll never run a marathon again...I don't think I was feeling awesome today, but I was feeling good enough to get it done."
And the Hall household in Flagstaff, Arizona, is now home to the two fastest half marathoners in America, a fact that left Sara Hall emotional on Sunday.
"It's something I've dreamed about doing and I thought it would be really special to do it today with it being 15 years since Ryan set the [American record] here," she said. "That day changed our lives forever, actually. It launched his career and our lives were never the same after that day, so it's always a special memory here in Houston."
The 15 years between the races also illustrates the differences in the couple's career paths (Ryan is now retired from competition), said Hall, who has a marathon best of 2:20:32 and finished third at the 2021 Chicago Marathon to qualify for the 2022 world marathon championships in July.
"For him, he just knocked it out of the park from the beginning and then for me, it's taken 15 years of just, like, kind of grinding and persevering and overcoming so many disappointments along the way to get to this point," she said.
D'Amato was greeted at the finish line by her kids, Tommy holding a sign that said, "Your 1# in my heart" [sic]. Running continues to be a family affair for the new American record holder, who said they'll probably celebrate by first getting some rest and then going to an amusement park when they get home.
"I think it's about nap time for us all. I think that might be a first way to celebrate," D'Amato said, laughing. "But we'll think of a big surprise. We've all sacrificed a lot and put in a lot of hours in different ways to get here, so I think we're going to have a little brainstorm and think of something fun to do as a family."