Even as Aleksandra Duliba, 27, of Belarus handily demonstrated how to run your first marathon by winning Sunday's ASICS L.A. Marathon in 2:26:06, Deena Kastor, 40, proved the power of experience, grit and professionalism by placing third in 2:32:39.
The big difference is, where Duliba crossed the line, got a massage and may not race again for several months, Kastor crossed the line and immediately kicked into her other modes -- wife, mom, sponsored athlete, spokesperson for the sport and super-express marathon recoverer. In three days, she will fly to Poland where, one week after running the marathon, she will tackle the grueling 8K World Cross Country course.
But the true mark of a seasoned pro? Standing in the back of a room full of reporters, agents, organizers and photographers moments after running 26.2 miles the hard way, Kastor deftly snaked her hand up inside her singlet, disengaged her soaking sports bra, produced it magically from the bottom of the singlet, and in one fluid motion, stepped out of the spent article and posed for a photo with a man who had been standing next to her throughout, oblivious.
"Guys don't know," she said, laughing.
For the last 10 years, the ASICS L.A. Marathon has had a gender challenge, this year providing elite women an 18-minute, 35-second head start over the men, and an extra $50,000 to the first finisher on top of the $25,000 first prize for each gender. What this meant to the already slim six-woman elite field was that they would, in all likelihood, be navigating the broad boulevards of starsville alone. This scenario played out sooner rather than later for Kastor, as she passed the 10K mark in 36:05, 12 seconds off the lead pack of four women.
"My stomach was upset for about six miles. It was just one of those things -- you know it will pass," she said.
She ran the next 14 miles alone, looking even smaller than she is, a tiny blip of hot pink hugging the curb of a sea of cement. She eventually slipped to more than 70 seconds off the lead pack, but continued grinding away.
"This was about pride, not money," Kastor said. "I felt pretty alone out there, and my legs were a little flat, but I stayed in it mentally without feeling great. I got 100 percent out of myself on an 80 percent day, and I'm happy with that."
Eight miles, 10, still alone -- this was where her grit and experience kicked into gear. The wide streets and long straight stretches, while soul-crushing, also allowed her to maintain visual contact with the four women ahead. She could see, for example, two of the three Ethiopian women fall back. She gained incrementally, passing Aberash Nesga just after the 12-mile point. Always the savvy competitor, Kastor used her knowledge of the course to her advantage.
"I was coming up on the third-place woman and I timed it so that I could pass her on the hills near the VA hospital," Kastor said. "I know I'm strong on hills. She dropped out right in front of me because she didn't want me to pass her. That really chapped me."
At 21 miles, the pursuing pack of lead men caught Kastor and she used their slipstream to pull her through the final miles.
Significant attention has been paid to this race, as it was her first major event as a Masters athlete in her 28th year of competitive running.
RELATED: Etiquette For masters runners
"My training has been about the same as always, in terms of workouts and recovery," she said. "While there was nothing specifically wrong, I felt like the effort today would have resulted in a 2:24 or 2:25 when I was younger."
The changes she's made are more about expanding on the good things in her life. In addition to 2-year-old Piper, Deena and husband Andrew have welcomed the Mammoth Track Project and training group athletes Bria Wetsch and Tim and Lindsay Tollefson into their larger family. "We have a good time -- there's such joy in training with this group," Kastor said.
Kastor has also added a weekly acupuncture treatment to the regimen. "Before the [2012 Olympic] Trials, when my back was spasming, I was desperate," she said. "I'd literally tried everything. I don't even want to say this, but an intuitive led me to an acupuncturist who happens to be near Mammoth. He cured the problem in one two-hour session. Now I go once a week."
Of course, her focus has expanded too. "When I was at the height of my career, my focus was very narrow. I still love competition, but I'm at the point where I think it's important to give back to the sport."
An hour post-marathon in L.A., Kastor's compressed recovery was underway. Surrounded by friends and family, with toddling Piper snuggled on her lap in the ASICS hospitality suite, someone asked if they could get her something to eat.
"One of those chocolate things over there would be great," she replied.