7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days
Northeastern graduate Deirdre Keane recently won the 183.4-mile World Marathon Challenge. And her father would be so proud. She ran her first marathon as a senior at Northeastern in honor of her dad, an Irish immigrant, who passed away from cancer when she was 13 years old. Twelve years later, Keane has completed 50 marathons and turned her father’s passion into part of her identity.
Deirdre Keane takes first place on the second day of the World Marathon Challenge. Keane would go on to win first place overall among women competing in the seven-day marathon event. Courtesy photo: Deirdre Keane
The temperature in Antarctica was minus 25 degrees with the wind chill when Deirdre Keane grabbed first place on the snow-covered tundra in the first of seven marathons on seven continents in seven days.
Battling strong winds and “brutal” temperatures, the Northeastern graduate wore electric heated socks and mittens, and leaned into the wind gusts as needed to take the lead on the first day of the grueling World Marathon Challenge.
Day two was an extreme opposite. From the frigid Antarctic Circle, Keane headed to the scorching sun of Cape Town, South Africa, where she once again broke the tape at the finish line. The climates varied across the next five continents but Keane continued her steady pace and captured first place overall among women competing in the 183.4-mile event held from Jan. 31 to Feb. 6.
And it all started for Keane with a left turn along the Charles River in Boston about 12 years ago.
Keane ran down Huntington Avenue and onto Massachusetts Avenue toward the Charles.
The nursing student had completed the route many times since she decided to start running in her junior year at Northeastern. Keane would get to the river, turn right, loop around at the Museum of Science, go southwest along the river and then down Mass. Ave. and back toward Northeastern.
But on this day in the fall of 2010, during her senior year, Keane made a different decision, a life-changing choice. She decided to go for it.
She chose to cross the Charles and turn left. And she just kept going. Keane headed west and ran through Cambridge, Watertown and into Waltham, she crossed back over the Charles and headed east on the other side of the river, turned onto Mass. Ave. and trotted back to her place in West Village A on the Northeastern campus. It was her longest run—ever—16 miles, and she was ”absolutely exhausted.”
“That was a big jump. And once I hit the 16 miles, I’m like, okay, that’s it. I’m signing up for a marathon. I’m just 10 miles shy,” Keane says.
Keane quickly registered for her first marathon: Manchester City. She and a Delta Zeta sorority sister jumped in the car early that November morning and headed to Manchester, New Hampshire. While her friend did homework at a diner, she set off on her first 26.2-mile run.
Armed with all the knowledge she could absorb from the “Marathon Training for Dummies” book she had purchased, Keane was running her very first marathon.
The pace caught her by surprise.
Keane finished at 3:52:09, a sub-four-hour marathon on her first attempt.
“It was definitely much faster than I thought. I didn’t have a GPS watch at the time, so I was running whatever pace felt comfortable, but also getting excited by the crowd and letting them pull me along,” Keane says. “And I remember my friend who’s at the diner, I told her, ‘I’m thinking five to six hours, I don’t really know.’”
“I showed up in less than four hours and she’s like, what are you doing here?” Keane says.
Twelve years later, Keane has proven to be an accomplished endurance runner. She has completed about 50 marathons, trimmed her best time down nearly an hour and won the World Marathon Challenge with minutes to spare. She plans to do the Boston Marathon for an eighth time in April, has done the New York City Marathon eight times, and completed marathons in London, Philadelphia, Chicago, Honolulu and San Francisco, among other places, including several in Ireland.
“Running today is part of my identity. It is who I am and the first love of my life,” she says.
But the motivation to enter that first marathon was more than just the physical challenge. It was more than dropping the “freshman 15.” It was more than an endurance run. It was personal, very personal.
The reason Keane first started pacing on a treadmill at the Marino Recreation Center, turning 5-mile jogs into 16-mile events and then daring to try a 26.2-mile run was her father: John Keane, an Irish immigrant who ran sub-three-hour marathons before passing away from cancer when Deirdre was 13 years old.
“It was honestly the sole reason why I signed up for a marathon. To me, prior to that, a marathon was so insurmountable, something I would never be able to achieve because the distance is ridiculous. It’s 26 miles. Every now and then, I remind myself that humans aren’t meant to be running that far,” Keane says. “But I wanted to do something to honor my father. As time went on after he passed, it felt more difficult to feel connected to him.”
Keane made a T-shirt for that first marathon. Emblazoned with an Irish flag in the middle, the white T-shirt said “In memory of John Keane” in green and orange letters.
“My first marathon was filled with a lot of fear, and I spent a lot of time during the race having doubts. I kept thinking of my dad for motivation. I would have a conversation with him when I was particularly scared,” Keane says. “Then, the craziest thing happened, I was already at mile 21 and still feeling okay. It was an emotional moment. I started crying in gratitude to my dad but soon realized that running and crying are not easy to do simultaneously.”
John Keane loved to run. He immigrated from Dublin to New York City in the 1980s and settled in the Bronx, where Deirdre was raised. He was a teacher and very athletic.
Deirdre says she remembers weekends were family oriented and often revolved around a 10K, a half marathon or a full marathon that her father was running, and the whole family would go and cheer him on. Deirdre and her siblings would run kids races, but she can’t remember ever winning an event. During those kids’ races, she says, she was thinking: “I hate my life. This is terrible. I’m sweaty. I’m short of breath, I can’t breathe.”
Though she didn’t embrace running as a child, she fondly remembers her dad.
“He was a wonderful father and very engaged with us, especially when it came to academia and athletics. He always pushed reading, from when we were little when he would read to us, to when we were older, and we would spend Sunday afternoons in Barnes & Noble,” she says. “Most of all, I remember how much he loved life. He was outgoing, happy and always found humor in even the least ideal situations.”
Deirdre says she thinks about her father every time she runs, and she continues to try to reach his sub-three-hour marathon times, which he achieved without all the modern running amenities such as smart watches, GPS, carbon shoes and gels.
“I remember thinking at some point post-college, I have this activity that I can do and I can talk to him and I can almost feel his presence at some level,” says Deirdre, whose personal best is 3:08.
When Deirdre was 10 years old, her father was diagnosed with melanoma at 47 years old, she says. A mole on his forehead was removed; however, cancer returned on his jaw two years later. Despite the cancer and the treatments, John continued to run.
He scheduled surgery to remove a tumor on the day after he had planned to run the New York City Marathon in November 2001. He then had radiation treatment. The cancer never went into remission and he passed away in March 2002.
Running meant so much to her father, Deirdre says. Despite the oncologist’s warning, and denunciation from her mother, he ran that last New York City Marathon. “Running was such a form of therapy for him, an outlet,” Keane says.
The care her father received during his cancer battle stuck with her and she decided to pursue a career in health care, specifically, nursing. She had many college options but chose Northeastern University for undergraduate nursing studies soon after visiting the Boston campus.
“I went into nursing because I was so inspired by the nurses who took care of my father when he was close to passing,” Keane says. “Their compassion in their care for him always stayed with me. When I became a nurse practitioner, I wanted to work in oncology for a while. The patient population I worked with was inspiring in their resilience.”
After graduating from Northeastern in 2011 with a nursing degree, Keane went to Ireland for about a year where she ran three marathons before returning to the U.S. She went to work in New York City, as a pediatric ICU nurse at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center.
In New York City, Keane continued the dedicated running schedule she established in her senior year at Northeastern. She had a co-op at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston as a senior and, despite the night shift schedule, worked in daily runs that continued to add mileage.
Keane also crammed a lot into her schedule in New York City. While continuing her training and marathon runs, she earned a master’s degree and doctorate at Columbia University and became a nurse practitioner. As a nurse practitioner, she went to work in the pediatric intensive care unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Keane earned an MBA from New York University last year and recently took a position as a health-care consultant with McKinsey & Company.
Keane admits she has come a long way since she began running, from her college days of eating Lucky Charms for breakfast to following a training program and competing in marathons.
“I think it’s kind of mind over matter until you condition your body to adjust to the long mileage that you put it under,” she says. “So the first year of running was very difficult, and I’ll never undersell that. It took a long time and a lot of hard work to get to where I am today. And even today, I can go for a five-mile run and be absolutely miserable. Like, it’s something I don’t take for granted.”
Her initial running goal was to just finish one marathon in honor of her father, and she has discovered the running ability her father enjoyed.
“I do think I have some innate ability to thrive in distance running that came from my dad. It was very difficult to get to the point where I was able to run comfortably. Every minute of running in the beginning had me short of breath and I mentally had to push through. However, it has since become much easier, and I feel like I have excelled in a way that has probably been easier than most.”
Mark Conti is managing editor of Northeastern Global News. Follow him on Twitter @markconti11