All smiles – Keri McDermott (left) and Sara Huegerich before running the Boston Marathon in record heat on April 16th.
All smiles – Keri McDermott (left) and Sara Huegerich before running the Boston Marathon in record heat on April 16th.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Super Bowl for runners, only for the elite, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, were descriptions Keri McDermott had heard about the Boston Marathon. After many years of indecision, Keri, a 1993 Kuemper Catholic High School graduate, of Grimes, finally decided to set forth plans to become part of this annual event.

The Boston Marathon was first held in 1897 and is the world’s oldest annual marathon. It is always held on Massachusetts’ celebration of Patriots’ Day, the third Monday in April. Each year, over 20,000 runners compete in the 26.2-mile race, the same distance as Carroll to Denison.

Even in elementary school, Keri, daughter of Dan and Sue Badding, of Panora, knew she had natural running ability. She recalls being picked first for teams at recess because she was quick. She also remembers winning first place at the Hershey Track Meet in fifth grade.

In high school, she was a distance runner excelling at the state level in cross country and track. In 1991, she broke the school record for the girls’ mile run and still holds the record today. Keri was even voted, “Most Likely to Run the Boston Marathon” by her Kuemper classmates, but at the time, it seemed like an unattainable goal.

Keri went on to run one season at Coe College, but she admits she lacked the discipline and motivation to run at the collegiate level. She wasn’t sure if she had enough drive to be able to compete in athletics and do well academically.

Keri continued to run on her own for leisure and recreation. She graduated from college with a degree in public relations and English and moved to Des Moines. At the urging of her colleagues, she began running distance races.

By the time Keri was 27 she had completed eight marathons and qualified for the Boston Marathon at least five times through her marathon performaance. However, Boston was not yet on Keri’s mind. She thought about the timing, expense and training it would require. Keri said, “So, I put it off believing the day would come eventually.”

As time went on, Keri began to worry if too much time passed, she’d miss her peak, and if she would have the energy and time to train for another marathon.

Keri’s time to shine finally arrived, with the help of longtime friends and 1994 Kuemper graduates Meredith (Way) Smith and Sara (Gross) Huegerich. In 2010, Meredith, daughter of Al and Sue Way, of Carroll, returned to Iowa after living in Texas since graduating from college. Meredith and her family settled in Johnston, and Meredith told Keri she wanted to complete a marathon before she turned 35. Sara, of Ankeny, daughter of the late Walter Gross and Norma Gross, of Carroll, hadn’t run a marathon in over 10 years but decided to take on the challenge with her childhood friends.

Sara trained with Keri and Meredith and all three ran the Marathon to Marathon race in Storm Lake in June 2011. Keri and Sara qualified for the Boston Marathon and decided they would run together in April 2012.

Intense training began for the three runners. Although Meredith did not qualify, she remained a loyal running companion and trained alongside Keri and Sara.

“I was so excited for Keri and Sara that they had qualifying times, never a bit jealous or anything because at mile 20 of our marathon, I just knew that I never wanted to run another, I much prefer half-marathons, but I also knew I would train with them,” said Meredith.

During a typical week, Keri and Meredith run five days a week, 5-6 miles per run. For the 10 months leading up to the Boston Marathon, they kicked up their training. The three met on Saturday mornings to run anywhere from 7 to 20 miles, running in every kind of Iowa weather from cold winter winds to pouring rain. Despite the inclement weather and tedious runs, Sara said, “We spent our training runs catching up, talking, and laughing, just like in high school.”

As race day approached, Keri and Sara were well-trained and mentally prepared, but Keri was suffering from an injury. There was pain in Keri’s left heel caused by plantar fasciitis. When she told Sara about the pain, Sara told her she needs to do what is best for her. She said she would have supported her decision no matter what. Keri decided to proceed to Boston and limped to the airport Friday night, along with her husband, John, and Sara and her husband, Dan.

The four of them enjoyed their time together hanging out in Boston. They even ran into Matt McDermott (a 1997 Kuemper graduate and the son of the late Del McDermott and Barb McDermott), of Des Moines, at dinner and chatted. Matt was also there to run the Boston Marathon.

Keri describes the atmosphere before the race as inspiring. They were surrounded by runners with amazing running stories that had taken them along personal journeys.

Keri knew in the back of her mind she should not be running with an injury. She would have backed out of any other race but not this one. Instead she headed to the drugstore to load up on necessary supplies including a heel splint, shoe inserts, Tylenol, anti-inflammatory medication, ice bags, etc. Keri was determined to run the Boston Marathon, regardless of her heel and potentially dangerous heat.

The forecast for Monday’s race called for unseasonably warm temps in the upper 80s. The race was to begin at 10:20 a.m., a late race. Most runners prefer to run early in the morning, the coolest part of the day.

Keri and Sara received several emails from race officials warning runners to avoid the race “unless fully prepared for the heat.” The emails strongly encouraged runners to “refrain from running” and urged runners to defer their qualification until the 2013 race. Of the over 22,000 registered runners, nearly 4,000 opted out of the race due to the heat.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Race Day

Boston, Massachusetts

 On Monday morning, Keri and Sara boarded a bus in downtown Boston. Keri describes the lines of runners as going on for miles and miles. They rode on a school bus for an hour to Athletes Village in Hopkinton, Mass. About 18,000 runners were sprawled out under tents on the grassy field of a high school. The energy surrounding Keri and Sara was nervous. People were chattering about the heat, which only kept rising with each hour that passed.

The race began in waves, with the elite runners first, followed by three additional waves. Keri and Sara ran in Wave 2, as their qualifying times were about five minutes below the required time.

As they started out onto the race course, Keri noticed there was not even a bit of breeze, but her heel was feeling manageable as she could finally put some weight on it, but she knew it could eventually be a factor in the race. Keri and Sara paced themselves to stay strong until the final third leg of the race, which they’d heard was the toughest.

Keri and Sara were well-trained, but as Keri explains, they were not prepared for the hills.

“There were many, and they were long and endless. The way up was one thing, but the way down was worse. The pounding and pressure on your knees was tough,” said Keri.

The crowds along the race course were phenomenal and supportive.

Sara said, “The best part was the people cheering. Along the route, fans were cheering you on and giving you high-fives along the way. It was uplifting and definitely needed.”

The crowd tried to lessen the heat with ice, sponges, Popsicles, garden hoses and water tents. The fire department even released the hydrants to provide relief.

Husbands, John McDermott and Dan Huegerich, rented bikes to support their wives. They rode almost 60 miles on bikes that were not meant to leave the beach. Their support was exactly what Keri and Sara needed to keep their spirits up.

The race continued, and the conditions became worse and worse. The course was challenging and the record heat was downright dangerous. Keri said what they witnessed instilled fear in her.

“At one point, there were more people walking than running,” she said. “We saw countless of capable men and women fall to the ground and begin convulsing, due to heat and dehydration. It was somber and disheartening, it seemed like every runner was just struggling to get one leg in front of the other.”

Although the initial adrenaline had worn off and there seemed to be little enjoyment left, Keri knew she had to get through it. She and Sara had family and friends tracking their progress through the Internet and text messages. Keri said her support at home was her only motivation at some points.

Meredith was cheering on her friends the day of the race, getting butterflies and pacing in her living room.

She said, “I was cheering out loud as I got my text updates. I got absolutely nothing done that day!”

At mile 21, Keri’s legs had had enough. She began to walk. She was worried if she tried to keep running, she wouldn’t cross the finish line, her No. 1 goal. Around that time, she stopped to help a runner vomiting at the side of the road. The runner told Keri she was so nauseated, she couldn’t see. Keri walked with her for a bit, trying to be of help.

Sara, uninjured, ran on. She looked back, and Keri waved her on. The next time Keri looked up, Sara was out of sight. Keri continued to alternate between walking and running for the next five miles. Those five miles were painful, and Keri said she’d never been so unsure of her running ability than at that moment.

Nearing the finish line, Keri picked up speed and crossed the finish line in almost-90-0degree heat. Usually crossing the finish line is exhilarating, but this time all Keri could think about was finding the bus that held her belongings. She was feeling sick, and her feet and legs were in great pain.

Keri finished the race in 4 hours, 11 minutes. Sara fared a bit better, finishing in 3 hours and 58 minutes.

Nearly 1,800 runners did not make to the finish line. There were estimates of 1,200 runners seeking medical assistance, and 100 runners were admitted to the hospital. Two days after the race there were two runners still in critical condition.

Despite the grueling heat and heel injury, when asked if she would ever consider running the Boston Marathon again, Keri emphatically answered, “Yes, absolutely.”

Keri had no reservations about her answer but says if there is a next time, she will be better-prepared for the hills and be more mindful of her body.

After the Boston Marathon, Keri rested her injured heel and didn’t run for five days. Until she ran again, Keri said she “felt in a funk.” Keri describes running as “the best time of my day.” She says running is what gives her energy for the day.

Keri needs all the energy she can get. She works from home, working full-time as communications director for Cimro of Nebraska, a quality-improvement organization focused on health care. She and her husband, John, from Dubuque, have to keep up with their four children, Meredith, 7, Tate, 6, Emerson, 4, and Anthony, 1. Their two oldest children are already showing an interest in running and athletics. Meredith, a first-grader, can run the mile fastest in her class.

A typical week for Keri includes running outside five days a week, sometimes rising as early as 4:30 a.m. to run. Keri also takes a spin (indoor cycling) class once a week. Keri runs in Iowa events such as the Drake Relays half-marathon, Dam to Dam, Living History Farms Cross Country Race, Capital Pursuit, and the Des Moines half-marathon. Even while pregnant Keri continued to run until the week before she delivered. She even ran a half-marathon while pregnant with each of her four children.

On April 16, 2012, Keri McDermott and Sara Huegerich achieved their ultimate goal. They completed the Boston Marathon, one of the world’s best-known road races. Although they didn’t cross the finish line together, they couldn’t have done it without each other and their friend, Meredith Smith. Two weeks later, they can still hear the crowds cheering in their heads.