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Interview: Deena Drossin

Above: On her way to victory at the 2001 Gate River Run, the U.S. 15k Championships. Below: Running away from the competition at the 2001 USATF 8k Cross Country Championships.
(Photos: Victah@Photo Run)

Deena Drossin links:
Drossin Page on ASICS site profile
USATF Bio Bio Bio

(This interview is a compilation of material collected during a May 14th press conference in New York, held to announce that Drossin will be making her marathon debut at the 2001 New York City Marathon.)

Deena Drossin has been the top cross country runner in the United States for several years and has been among the best on the roads and the track as well. In February 2001, she won the U.S. 8k Cross Country title for the fourth straight year. She became the first woman ever to win both the U.S. 4k and 8k titles in the same year when she did so in 2000. Drossin has finished 12th in the World Cross Country Championships in each of the past two years. On the track, she ran PRs of 8:42.59 (3k), 14:45.62 (5k, 2nd at Olympic Trials) 31:51.05 (10k, 1st at Olympic Trials) in 2000 and set a U.S. road record of 15:08 in winning the Carlsbad 5,000. Drossin, 28, will make her much-anticipated marathon debut at the 2001 New York City Marathon.

Why are you running a marathon?
I never admitted to ever wanting to do one, but in the past year, my body has felt strong enough to go the distance and I'm really curious to do it.

Is this something that you've wanted to do for a long time? Why now?
In the last year or two, longer runs -- 15-18 mile long runs on Sundays -- have become easier and my body feels stronger, I recover quickly from them and in the past I've never felt that before. I just last year for the very first time got the notion in my mind that I might want to run a marathon someday and the opportunity arose to come to New York and I am just ecstatic about it.

When you decided you wanted to do a marathon, was it hard to pick this one?
It was a relatively easy choice. That it's the U.S. National Championships makes it incredibly exciting, I'm very happy that New York has picked that up. Between that and the timing -- being 3 months after the World Championships on the track -- and also the fact that ASICS is not only my personal sponsor but also a sponsor of the New York City Marathon also had a lot to do with it.

On a more emotional and personal level, when I was 13 years old my dad and I watched the race on the television... The two winners were getting the keys to the car that they had won and my dad said, "You see that, one of these days you're going to win me a car at that race," and I said, "I'm never going to run a marathon." He said "Nope, I want you to make me a promise right now that you'll win me a car at the New York City Marathon." And I said "Okaaay, I'll win you a car." So I'm going to go for that, uphold my promise (laughs). So if I don't do it this year, I'll be back again next year.

What is the intrigue for you about the New York City Marathon?
Gosh, I guess just the energy that the city offers on an average day and multiplied by about 1,000 on the day of the Marathon. Even from the television [coverage] I can see that -- that New York is just an electrifying run. Structurally the course is not a fast course with the hills... I think it's the energy of the crowds that makes the winners post such great times there.

I'm just so excited to be part of the tradition of New York, I think that's one of the biggest things that lured me here, that it has such a great tradition and I guess it's mostly because of the media that it's such a spectacular event -- everyone around the world can see it.

Did somebody urge you to do New York?
No, the timing was perfect, the race itself is very magnetizing, enticing and I'm really excited to do it.

Have you ever done a race in New York before?
No, this is going to be my first one. I'm usually just a visitor and a tourist when I come here. In November when I come, I'll definitely have a mission in my mind.

It seems like some U.S. runners have waited a little too long to make the jump to marathoning -- it's good to see that you're doing it while you're still in your prime. Are you at all worried about losing track speed like some runners seem to be?
Coach Vigil is very precise and I've never really had a lot of raw speed so I've sort of survived off of strength and running the distance. I think we're just going to build on that and still do the speed workouts, like running downhill repeats once a week to keep up my leg speed. I'm sure it will diminish quite a bit in marathon training but I also think that you can get it back in the track season as well.

On the timing of the race:
I didn't want to be at the end of my career forcing one last race in or doing it too early in a way that would be detrimental to my career. I feel like this was just perfect timing. All of the situations felt perfect from the start -- the timing after the World Championships... I do have a track season ahead of me though to think about but I am going to be focusing on my long runs on Sundays to prepare me for New York and it's always going to be in the back of my mind now that I've made that commitment.

What do you think will be the most difficult about making the jump from the cross country distance to the marathon?
From the training perspective, the most challenging part is going to be the resting in between. It's going to be an exhausting program, running three times a day and sleeping like a rock at night... and constantly being hungry. I guess that's just a marathoner's way. Eating, sleeping and training is really all they have time to do.

From a racing perspective, I really don't have too much to go on except for what my training partners have told me, to have patience. I've always been the type of runner who goes out hard from the beginning and keeps pushing the pace, hoping to [decrease] people's speed at the end of the race. And in a marathon, you have to have the patience. Even at the 10 or 12 mile mark, if you're feeling great, you can't go with the surge or go with your instincts to want to push and hurt a little more at such an early stage of the race, you have to wait a little longer.

Who are you training with that's going to help you with this?
Right now I'm training with Peter De La Cerda (2nd in the 2000 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials) in Alamosa, and my boyfriend Andrew who's been helping me in training a lot. Peter, being a marathoner, has given me a lot of tips and that is one of them -- have patience... And practicing drinking on the runs, which isn't very hard but I keep choking, gagging on the water. That's probably going to be one of the most challenging parts of pursuing this (laughs). I'm trying to grab information everywhere I can because I do want to do this right, I do want to make everything come together perfectly on that day and in the weeks leading up to it.

Some of the greatest runners in New York City Marathon history were also great cross country runners ("And great track runners," interjects Allan Steinfeld.) Do you get any inspiration from those people?
I didn't necessarily make the correlation between them being great cross country runners and being successful in the marathon... My coach, Joe Vigil, says that cross country strength is the strength that carries over into the longer distances and helps people out with longer road races -- half-marathons, marathons. So I knew eventually that if I could feel comfortable running (long) distances that the marathon would be my distance eventually.

Do you view this as a step up in your career or is the marathon something you want to just try once and then go back to the shorter distances?
I definitely feel like it's a step up in my career, I truly love cross country and the track. I guess I can always go back to running track and cross country, but the marathon, I'd love to throw one in once a year... But it does take a lot of training so it can't be something that is just sporadic because I feel like a lot of training has to go into it -- and hopefully it will be a leap in my career. I'm preparing for it to do that. I want to plan it perfectly so that it can be a step up in training and in my racing.

Are you envisioning trying to make the 2004 Olympic team as a marathoner?
I don't necessarily think so. I think I'd like to stay on the track for championships like that (World Championships and Olympic Games) but as far as the marathon is concerned, I would still like to do one or two of them a year.

You ran the last 10 miles of the New York City Marathon course yesterday (from the Queensboro Bridge to the finish line) what did you think of it?
It was fabulous... It was exciting. As we were running along, David Monti (the new NYC Marathon elite athlete coordinator) was giving the commentary as to how many people would be lining the streets and I was visualizing it, it was all terribly exciting. It was the quickest 10 miles I've ever run, probably not time-wise but just the feeling of it, it seemed like it went by in a flash because it was so exciting to be on the course and to be running on the streets that so many great names have run on before.

Could you talk about the importance of visualization in your training and how having seen the last ten miles will help you?
I think it's especially important in the longer distances to really prepare for everything. I've (now) seen the last 10 miles of rolling hills, going through the Bronx and back into Manhattan, knowing that First Avenue is lined with people... just a lot of things that I can add into my preparation for the race, so that nothing takes me by surprise. It's hard enough to prepare for the race as far as your competitors are concerned but if I can have a picture of what it will be like on the sidelines and on the course itself, I think it will help me focus on the race rather than any conditions outside of that.

Do you have any track races planned between now and (USATF) Nationals?
No, just Nationals and after Nationals, I'm going over to do three races in Europe, and the World Championships after that.

What races will you run in Europe?
I'll run a 1,500 in Nice, a 3,000 in Paris and a 5,000 in Stockholm. I always keep that Stockholm race in there because I usually get a personal best in the 5k.

Do you plan to not only contend for the national championship but also the overall championship in this race?
I know I'm going to have my work cut out for me out there. New York always attracts some of the top marathoners in the world so I know the competition is going to be intense out there. In the next five or six months that's what I'm going to prepare for -- to go up against the world's best. Not only on the national level but on the international level, I hope to be competitive in the race.

So if there's a group that goes through the first 10k quickly, do you expect to be in that pack?
Yes, I'd like to be in that lead pack.

Could you comment on the 2:21:21 American Record by Joan Benoit? Is that something that you think about?
There's no doubt that Joan stands far above any other marathoner that the United States has produced. The record is going to be extremely challenging for any American to try and conquer. I haven't thought about it on a personal level, I've just considered running the marathon and what paces I'd like to run. I haven't thought about breaking any records at this distance yet and I haven't really trained for it yet. (
Allan Steinfeld adds: A friend of mine once said, "The only thing that's certain about marathons is that nothing is certain.") Drossin continues: At this distance I think you see the greatest amount of upsets and triumphs. So much can go wrong and so much can go right in that span of time.

I don't know if everyone can go out in their first marathon and set a world record like she did but I was wondering if you have a personal goal for yourself in your first marathon?
My training is going to be geared to be on American Record pace by the time I get to the starting line -- that's what my training is going to be structured towards. But as we mentioned, anything can happen within 26 miles. But if my training is set up to be running that pace and I keep that for the majority of the race, then even if I have fallen off for 5 or 6 miles, I'll still be running a pretty good time.

When you say American Record pace, do you mean Benoit's 2:21:21?

What's the longest training run you've ever done?
18 miles.

Was that recently?
Last year and this year.

Do you know how long your longest run will be?
Three hours, I don't know how many miles that will be.

Did your run at the [Old Kent River Bank Run in Grand Rapids, MI] this past weekend make you any less eager or confident about running a marathon? (She finished 5th in 1:28:19.)
No, I had a terrible weekend in Michigan. They're going to come every now and then and it was unfortunate that it came in a race that was so important to me in preparing for the New York City Marathon, but I was running very tense because I was putting that pressure on myself and that had a lot to do with it.

What exactly happened during the race?
I was feeling very comfortable with the pace through about the nine mile mark. Svetlana and Teresa from Russia and Kenya, respectively made a move at about the nine mile mark. I was a little late in reacting but I eventually did react to them and I caught Teresa. I think making that move just put me in the hole and I couldn't recover from it. For some reason, I'd been running really stressed out. I don't feel stressed in my mind but my back was really tight, my shoulders were up near my ears. I was trying to relax and then finally during the race, I got a huge cramp in my back, then my hamstrings cramped up, my calves cramped up... I wasn't dehydrated at all. The conditions were perfect for a 25k. I finished, but I think the last few miles were at about 6:30 pace, when I had been running 5:25s..

What did your coach say?
He was disappointed because my workouts have been going great and I should have really run well. I was supposed to run the exact pace that the girl who won ran.

What do you do when a race like that goes nightmarishly wrong?
I don't even know. I didn't really process much in those last few miles. I just thought just go to the finish line and all these girls were blowing past me and I just let them go, there was no reaction at all. I couldn't wait for that finish line to come because everything on me hurt so badly.

How do you feel now?
I feel fine. I felt fine the next day but every time I walked off a curb or something, I felt my back tighten up. But I went and flew out that night and then the next morning ran the ten miles here on the course and felt fine. I ran (8 or 9 miles in Central Park) this morning and felt fine.

Was it a mental error, do you think?
I think it was a mental error in terms of the pressure I was putting on myself for the 25k race, the high expectations I had and the strong pace that I wanted to run it in. Svetlana from Russia, who won, ran the EXACT pace that I was planning on running so if I was having a good day it would have been a great race for both of us. But I was just running tense and my back cramped and when your back cramps up, because it's the middle of your system, it throws everything off... it was a bad day out there altogether.

What lesson did you take away from that?
I think, if anything, just getting back to the basics of running and enjoying it. For the two weeks leading up to it I just put way too much pressure on myself and I think now I'm going to sit back and relax and enjoy the runs -- like my run I had in Central Park today and the last 10 miles of the New York City Marathon that I was able to run yesterday.

Do you plan on doing any more races longer than 10k before the Marathon?
I'm most likely going to do a half marathon but I'm not sure -- I'm thinking the Virginia Beach Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon because I'm one of the founders of it -- but it might be really hot there...
I get a lot of confidence from my training because I train the same runs year in and year out, I have a lot of training partners who are marathoners and I've seen the work they've done, so I can gain a lot of confidence from that rather than just traveling around and racing. Traveling does take a lot out of you.

Will you have enough long races in you to run a marathon?
I won't have as many long races in but definitely a lot of hard tempo runs, and I run with a lot of men so a tempo run for me with my training group is just as good as any race I could get into.

Could you tell us about your training group
I'm running with Running USA in Chula Vista, California for our low-altitude training and Mammoth Lakes, California for our high-altitude training. In that group there's Meb Keflezighi who just recently broke the 10k American Record, Milena Glusac who just won the National Championship in the 25k, Jen Rhines who was an Olympian in the 10k, Abdi Abdirahman who was an Olympian in the 10k, so our training group is just a fabulous group of people.

Do the men and women run together?

So Milena's win at the 25k National Championships this past weekend couldn't have been a total surprise to you.
No, not at all. She's in fabulous shape.

How much time have you all spent training together, it seems like you've all been traveling a lot.
Yeah, I actually have been up in Colorado, where my home is, for the past month so I haven't been with the Running USA group. All of us are going to be together starting in September up in Mammoth (Lakes). Next month, in June, we'll be down at the training center together so that's when we'll all be together. We've been in and out, not as a whole group but three or four people at a time training together at various times of the year.

What's the altitude at Mammoth Lakes?
7,500 feet. It's a big skiing resort in the wintertime and in the summertime, the trails open up and we have endless miles of trails to train on.

Is anyone else that you train with going to train for a fall marathon with you?
Peter De La Cerda, who was second in the Olympic Trials in the marathon, will be training for a fall marathon also.

Tell us about winter runs in Alamosa.
(Laughs) Winter runs are probably what will best prepare me for what it's going to feel like in the last ten miles of that marathon. There's like negative 20 degree weather and high winds -- very extreme conditions. So to get out there everyday and persist in training will definitely carry over into a marathon and marathon training, the mental toughness that's required for it.

Could you tell us about the achilles problem you had last year?
I injured it last track season right before the (Olympic) Trials... I was down at the Olympic Training Center and instead of doing workouts at the park in my training shoes (as she normally would have done back in Alamosa) I was doing all of my workouts on the track. So three times a week I was on the track in spikes and my feet just couldn't handle the instability that comes with wearing spikes for so many miles. So it was too many miles in unstable spikes that injured (my achilles). I ran in the Trials with my achilles bothering me considerably and after that went over to Europe, still working out twice a week on the track, racing on the weekends. I just wasn't giving it a rest, so I was forced to give it a rest right before the Olympic Games, which is not an optimal time to be taking a break. After competing poorly in the Olympic Games from being out of shape, I took a couple of months off completely. To be able to be training and running and hard as I am right now, I am extremely grateful, to have come back from it. A lot of people have had recurring problems with their achilles and I feel like we just treated it perfectly.

Which achilles was it?
Both of them.

Were you disappointed with the Olympics?
I was disappointed with the injury but the experience itself was the most spectacular thing I've ever been a part of. It was a little disappointing not to be in peak shape and to have to take three weeks off before the race, but other than that it was a tremendous experience.

What was the best part of the Olympics?
I'd have to say that it's one of the same things that's driving me to New York, and that's the tradition of it. It's ultimate dream of any athlete to compete at that level and the fact that I was finally there -- not there in the best of forms, but there and I was a part of it and I had earned a spot, it was really exciting.

What's it like when you walk into the Olympic Stadium?
I have to say extremely emotional because it wasn't just one race that got me there, it wasn't just the Trials that got me there, it wasn't just that one year of training that got me there. It was the beginning of running when I was 11 years old and seeing Joan Benoit win the Olympic Marathon and just having people to look up to and other athletes that have been there, the glory that they've gotten and the pride that they've had in competing for their country. The fact that I was now in the spot where my idols were years and years ago was very exciting.

How about the World Cross Country Championships this year - how did that go for you?
I was sick. Andrew (Kastor, her boyfriend) said that it may be the same thing (that she has right now) that I just haven't shaken yet. I've had a cough for a good month and a half now. I don't know how it happened... I never get sick. I haven't been sick since 1992 and I've got this cold now that I can't shake.

Do you feel like you have unfinished business at the World Cross Country Championships?
Yeah. In Portugal (2000), I felt like I was in the best shape, like I was really ready to run well and I was stung by a bee. This past [World Cross Country Championships] in Belgium I still felt from my injury that I was making up time and never getting on top of things fully. And having a cold, I wasn't able to perform well. I'm still waiting for my cross country championships to be a success... Training for the marathon will be a great base, I think, for going in to cross country season, I probably won't have to run as many miles next cross country season and I'll be able to concentrate on improving my turnover.

Where were you born?
Boston, but when I was a week old, I moved out to California, so I was raised in Agoura Hills, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.

You had a very good high school program that produced other stars such as Amy Skieresz and Ryan Wilson. Were you there at the same time of either of them?
I was there at the same time that Ryan Wilson was, and Brian Dameworth who was a Foot Locker (then Kinney) Cross Country Champion. We had a great team but it was by no mistake, our coach (Bill Duley) was fabulous. He also instilled in us an extreme playfulness in training and I feel like I've kept that with me over the years. There were a couple of years that I was battling it but for the most part I always come back to it being playful kind of being my playground.

Andrew (addressing Drossin's boyfriend Andrew Kastor who was also in attendance) do you run also?
I do.

I used to, in college.

So how did you guys meet?
Andrew: We kind of knew each other -- we got to Alamosa around the same time, I went there for school, to Adams State and about 3-1/2 weeks before I graduated, I finally knocked on her door -- after 2-1/2 years of knowing her -- and we had a nice conversation in the kitchen for about five hours...

Do you train with Deena?
Andrew: I don't do quite the volume she does...

Deena: If I'm running five mile repeats, he'll do the last 800 of each of them with me. He helps me keep on pace. It's very motivating in those last repeats when I'm huffing and puffing and grabbing onto the back of his shirt because I can't keep up (laughs).

Do you do marathons at all, Andrew?
No, I was a miler in college.

So you're not going to come run New York too?
Actually, I am.

Deena, do you like racing in Europe?
I do, for the same reason that I choose the races that I choose now -- there's so much energy there and they draw such a fabulous crowd. I think that's why people run so fast and so well over there, the energy of the people in the stands, (the runners) feel the excitement. It's the same thing with New York, the same thing with other races that draw large crowds, the runners can't help but feed off that positive energy.

David Monti: Tell them about your first trip to Europe.
(Laughs) I was in this little Finnish village, this farming community outside of Helsinki. It was probably the best experience of my running career as far as growing as a person and growing as a runner that I've ever experienced. But it was a nightmare. I was lonely, I had no one around me, the people I lived with didn't speak English. We lived off the farm so I was taking milk from the cow and picking vegetables so that I could have a meal at the end of the day -- it was tough. It was in 1997. The first race went terribly so I called and asked [Coach Vigil] if I could come home and he wouldn't let me come home, so I told him that I hated him and hung up on him (laughs).

I just came to the realization that I'd better make the most of my time there so I trained, I put in my first 100 mile weeks, I was training two or three times a day it didn't matter, (it was) just something to do. I was there for a month. I took up boxing. I can't even believe that that was me. I just made the best of the opportunity and I finally got a connection to get in to the Grand Prix race in Stockholm and I PR'ed by 50 seconds in the 5k. That was my very first breakthrough race on the track. It was definitely worth it but I wasn't thinking so at the time.

It sounds like you're well balanced, like you have other things going on in your life.
Yeah, last year was by far my best year and I was deeply in to remodeling my house, tearing up carpets and scraping down walls and putting up cabinets -- a lot of construction stuff, kind of my boxing ego at work there.

Do you still do a lot of writing?
No, not so much anymore, I haven't in probably two years. Last year it was remodeling the house and this year it's been traveling around and packing up the house.

Do you think you'll pick it up again?

Do you plan on publishing any of your writing?
My book that I was writing -- that's on hold right now -- is based around a fictional cafe in New York City.

Does it have any running in it?
No... well at one point a jogger runs in front of the cafe (laughs). It's the Green Leaf Cafe. Voices of the Green Leaf Cafe is the title -- I have a title but I don't have it finished. It's eight short stories. It's all different characters but they all have connections to this cafe.

Can you tell us a little about your experience at Arkansas -- you've mentioned losing your passion for running -- what happened and how did you get it back?
I just got too caught up in competing for the wrong reasons, competing for the team and earning a point. I think the college season is so taxing, just going from race to race week in and week out and never really tapering but just constantly having to be on top of your game. It was just very exhausting to me. It was mentally exhausting and physically exhausting. I got to the point where I wasn't competing as well as the previous year and I always feel like I have so many goals and I want to accomplish so many things. My mind started wandering to "Gosh, I want to open up a cafe." I don't know, I just felt like I was cheating myself out of doing a lot of other things because I was so wrapped up in running and training and schoolwork that I just started feeling bitter towards it -- I felt like it was taking away from other aspects of myself that I wanted to pursue. I was really in to creative writing at that time and in those classes they were meeting at certain times outside of class and little cafes to do little writer blocks, and I couldn't make it because I was at practice. Just little things that I felt running was taking away a part of me.

Once I graduated and got thrown out into the real world, I decided that I hadn't gotten the best of myself in running and I wanted to pursue it. (I realized) that there was time to open up the cafe and I could still do that some day, and if I just focused on running that I could still write in between. I got it back, definitely, but Coach Vigil had a tremendous amount to do with that, he was very inspirational. It helped moving to a place that I was moving to specifically for running. So as soon as I got there, my life revolved around training and what it took to be a good athlete... sleeping well and eating well.

You did very well in your transition to post-collegiate running, some of the runners that were beating you in college didn't transition quite as well. Do you think the smooth transition was because of Coach Vigil?
Yeah, I think it was the environment that I was in, and everything that we did was very progressive. I got to Alamosa and I basically got there feeling like I was a new athlete, and I was just starting running, that it was something that was all new to me and I was opened up to any advice that he was going to give me. I was just so impressionable at the time. I absorbed every bit of information he gave me -- it's kind of the same thing now leading up into the marathon, I feel like a new athlete because it's something that I've never done before... I'm just absorbing every piece of information [Coach Vigil] is giving me as far as rest and recovery and diet and training modes, different phases of training leading up to it -- it's exciting again to dive into something new.

How did you choose Coach Vigil?
He was suggested to me by an assistant coach at Arkansas, it was when I was still undecided, "Do I want to run? Do I not want to run?" I gave him a call and I hadn't run in probably a month at all. I hadn't run one step. I gave him a call to see if he would even take me if I moved there. I was so inspired by him from that first phone call. He instantly wanted to know what my goals were and when I told him what they were, he said "These are pretty lofty goals, but I think that we can get you there if you do everything I tell you to do and revolve your lifestyle around this, I think we can get there. After about 20 minutes of phone conversation, I hung up the phone and went on a real leisurely, slow 10-mile run and it felt so good. I just felt that freedom again and that rawness of running, that just got me right back into it. [I felt] that euphoric feeling that you feel on a good day and everything just came together and I just thought it was the right decision.

I'm surprised that more runners haven't hopped on board and decided to train with him.
I think that people would if it wasn't in Alamosa, Colorado (laughs). Now that he's down in San Diego, a lot of people are going down to San Diego to train down there... It seems like everyone that's a part of [the newly-formed Team USA Southern California group] is such a team player and everyone is so supportive we really have a great group. It's amazing that one bad apple can come into the group and spoil it, but right now the chemistry of it is just fabulous and hopefully we can keep it that way.

It was great watching the Trials last summer and seeing you and Regina going at it, Regina and Suzy going at it -- it seems like it's a really good time for women's running in the United States. Everyone has been saying that distance running in the U.S. is dead and that we need to revive it, but it seems like they're thinking more about men's running rather than the women.
I think distance running is at it's best right now in the U.S. as far as men and women go. As far as our appearance on a world level, the world is advancing -- world records are being broken every year, they keep making so many leaps and bounds and so are American runners, it's just that we're overshadowed because the world has gotten so strong, whether it's naturally or unnaturally that they're doing it. I mean Meb breaking the American Record, Bob Kennedy is still a fabulous runner, Abdi had a great showing in the 10,000 in the Olympic Games... I don't really feel that the men or the women deserve to hear talk like that because I don't think that it's suffering at all. I think that it's getting stronger and becoming more glorified in our country, so I think that everyone is doing a great job and the training groups are probably going to help elevate that even more. But in the last several years I've been very impressed with men's and women's distance running in our country.

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