CHICAGO – Deena Kastor came to the 2004 New York Marathon on a runner’s high after winning a bronze medal three months earlier in the Athens Olympic marathon. She was a little short on training but figured emotion and cheering crowds would carry her through the 26 miles, 385 yards.

The marathon, Kastor learned, doesn’t work that way. She dropped off the lead at 13 miles and dropped out 3 miles later.

“It made me respect the distance a lot more,” Kastor said.

And back then, all Kastor had to do was get her own 106 pounds to the finish. This Sunday, she will be lugging U.S. distance running with her.

“Deena comes in with a lot at stake,” New York Marathon director Mary Wittenberg said via telephone Wednesday. “We have been looking for a breakout U.S. athlete, and it can be Deena.

Kastor, 33, is an odds-on favorite to become the first U.S. woman to win in New York since Miki Gorman in 1977. She has the fastest time in the world this year and, because New York is not a fast course, almost certainly will remain the first U.S. woman with the leading time since Joan Benoit in 1983.

A victory clearly will make Kastor the world’s leading female marathoner in this season when world record-holder Paula Radcliffe of England is on pregnancy leave.

“I want to seize the opportunity and the moment,” Kastor said.

It won’t be easy. What Wittenberg calls a “field of dreams” includes Rita Jeptoo of Kenya, 2006 Boston Marathon champion; the redoubtable Catherine “The Great” Ndereba of Kenya, runner-up in the 2005 worlds and 2004 Olympics and a former world record-holder; Jelena Prokopcuka of Latvia, the defending champion; and Susan Chepkemei of Kenya, runner-up to Kastor in the 2006 London Marathon.

Although Kastor broke Benoit’s 18-year-old U.S. record at London three years ago (while finishing third), she took herself to another level at London this year, becoming the first U.S. woman to break the 2-hour, 20-minute barrier.

With less than two years before the 2008 Olympics, Kastor appears to be in the peak period of her career at just the right time-especially given the uncertainty of how well reigning world champion Radcliffe, 32, will come back from the year off.

“I don’t see a peak yet,,” Kastor insisted. “I keep improving every time I get out there training. It may not show every time I race, but I hope the peak is still up ahead of me a little bit.”

What Kastor has shown the past three years is consistency. The 2:19:36 at London was her fourth time below 2:21:25 since 2003; no other woman has run as many marathons that fast over that period.

Kastor plans to begin focusing for the Beijing Olympics after Sunday’s race. Her next marathon is to be the Olympic trials in April 2008.

Her marathon career began with a seventh at New York in 2001, when she expected to run faster and finish higher.

“It all comes down to an intense desire to win this race that has been burning in me for five years,” Kastor said.

As she traverses the five boroughs, a line from Madonna’s “I Love New York” will ring in her ears: “If you can’t stand the heat, then get off my street.”

“That’s my mantra,” Kastor said. “Own the roads.”

(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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AP-NY-11-04-06 1432EST

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