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Thursday, April 18, 2019
HomeArchivesThe 30-Minute Mile: Grad Student Beats Cancer, Downpour to Finish Marathon

The 30-Minute Mile: Grad Student Beats Cancer, Downpour to Finish Marathon

Somewhere between miles 13 and 15 of the Boston Marathon, Mary Shertenlieb began shaking uncontrollably.

Since 2013, Shertenlieb, a Writing, Literature and Publishing MFA candidate, had survived leukemia (three times), bone marrow/stem cell transplants, a collapsed lung, liver failure, shingles, and a broken big toe from a scooter crash.

Now here she was in Wellesley in 40-degree driving rain, with soggy running shoes and water pouring down her back because the wind kept blowing her poncho hood off. She and her friend and running partner, Vanessa, ducked into a medical tent to warm up and promptly ignored the nurse telling them to board a bus back to Boston.

“We just kept going. We ran out of the tent,” Shertenlieb said. “We ran into Vanessa’s dad on the course. I’m 42 and he’s talking to me like I’m a 12-year-old girl, and he’s like, ‘Get into this Dunkin’ Donuts now.’”

But that’s not where the race ended for Shertenlieb. She downed a hot tea and called her husband, Rich, who was waiting with their two kids at mile 18. Rich had a proposition for her.

“The rain’s not gonna let up; it’s going to be a torrential downpour,’” Shertenlieb recalled Rich saying. “’Why don’t you go home, take a warm shower, put on some dry clothes, eat something. You and I can take a cab back to the same Dunkin’ Donuts and finish the rest of it.

“There won’t be anyone at the finish line…but you’re doing this for you.”

 

No stranger to tough challenges

Running had always been a part of Shertenlieb’s life, so when she was sidelined by illness it was frustrating for her.

She was first diagnosed with leukemia in 2013, and relapsed twice, each time requiring a five-week stay in the hospital. The third time the disease came back, the doctors at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute “threw the kitchen sink at me.”

“My husband always jokes that they bypassed the monkeys and went straight to me,” she said.

She’s been in remission from the leukemia since August 2014, but the “kitchen sink” they threw at her, including a stem cell transplant, led to complications. One of her lungs collapsed. At one point, her liver conked out.

When her body finally adjusted to the transplant, Shertenlieb decided that she would get back into running and go large. She would run the Boston Marathon and raise $15,000 for cancer research. 

“I thought, you know what, I bet if I ran a marathon, people would sort of be guilted into giving money to Dana-Farber because I had cancer,” she said.

Her doctors gave her the go ahead to start training for the Boston Marathon, with the caveat that she listen to her body and stop if it told her she was doing too much. She began training last fall, until she crashed into a pole on a Razor scooter and broke her big toe. Her orthopedist made her rest for a month.

In January, toe healed, she was back at it, this time in single-digit temperatures. That’s when her left leg developed a painful rash. It was shingles; thanks to the immune suppressants she takes, she’s prone to “weird” infections.

The doctor said she shouldn’t run for three weeks. She was ready to give up and try again in 2019, but Rich convinced her to at least keep training. She worked her way up to 14 miles, which was the distance her friend who had run Boston the previous year said was the most she had run prior to the marathon.

“Mentally, I’m like, ‘I know I can pull it off,’” Shertenlieb said.

But she hadn’t counted on the wind and rain.

Nice day for a run

April 16 was the wettest Marathon Monday in decades. About 2,500 runners required medical care, and more than 80 were taken to area hospitals, many for hypothermia, according to news reports.

Shertenlieb wasn’t big on running in the rain during training, but she did read up on how to race in wet weather. So Monday morning, she dutifully duct-taped her sneakers and put on a poncho because, she thought, as long as her chest stayed dry, she’d be fine.

The duct tape fell off before she got to the starting line in Hopkinton, and the poncho was no match for the 30-mile-per-hour wind gusts.

“There are all these things that are great in theory that don’t really work if the wind’s involved,” she said. “It was crazy.”

Shertenlieb left the Dunkin’ Donuts and headed home to Boston, where she lives not far from the Emerson campus. She showered, ate dinner, and played a board game with her kids. Then she and Rich took an Uber back to Wellesley. It was 8:45 pm.

Rich, who works for a local radio station, tweeted that he and Mary were back at the race, mostly to let friends know that they were alive and well because Mary had disappeared from the Boston Athletic Association’s tracker.

In Newton, they got company.

 

Coming together

“A [WBZ] camera guy came out of nowhere on Heartbreak Hill” and started filming them, having seen Rich’s tweet, she said. “He didn’t even say hi.”

Then their friends started jumping in to their two-person marathon. Someone joined them around Boston College. Another popped in a few yards down the road in Cleveland Circle.

It was now 11:00 pm and the small group had been alternating walking and running to conserve energy—Shertenlieb had been in this race for 12 hours and she was going to run across the finish line, no matter what.

When they turned onto Boylston Street, there was a gaggle of reporters, a group of friends, and a bunch of random people who just came out to see this woman who couldn’t be beat by anything: cancer, injury, wind, rain, duct tape.

As she crossed the finish line, at 12:15 am on Tuesday, April 17, she saw her friend who had run Boston last year.

“She came running over and put her medal around my neck, just so I could have that experience,” Shertenlieb said.

Rich and Mary at finish line

Rich and Mary at the finish line. Courtesy photo

When Rich tweeted that their race had resumed in Wellesley, Shertenlieb had raised $33,000 for Dana-Farber—already more than doubling her original $15,000 goal.

While they were hoofing up Heartbreak Hill and barreling down Beacon Street, their story was pinging around social media, unbeknownst to them. By the next day, they were minor celebrities. Boston.com, CNN, The Today Show, CBS News all picked up her story. A friend’s husband who was working in China last week heard about her.

She didn’t turn down any interviews.

“I kept thinking if I talk to one more person, I can get one more donation,” Shertenlieb said.

As of this writing, she’s raised nearly $44,000 for cancer research. Ten thousand donors were total strangers.

“All from people I’ve never heard of,” Shertenlieb said. “I thought, wow, the community really is just good.”

You can still donate to Shertenlieb’s fundraising page at www.runDFMC.org/2018/marys.