Heroes Cheer On, Lean On One Another

Heroes Cheer On, Lean On One Another

As Karen Vanderheyden ran the trail at Busse Woods in suburban Chicago, she would sometimes let her imagination take her to a simpler place in her mind. In these silent musings, she was competing in a race. Unburdened by the very real world of adult obligations, her gait was light, wide, and free. Her parents were there in these waking, running dreams as well. Vital and healthy, cheering for their daughter, and encouraging her to victory.

But at the end of each run, Karen was again an adult facing the realities with one of life’s most difficult challenges—caring for aging and ailing parents. 

Still, the thought of her mom and dad, and all that they’d meant to her forever kept her going. And even while she carried them in her heart, running also offered a momentary escape from the stressful responsibilities that consumed every one of her days. 

She would use these runs to fortify herself, to give her the strength she would need to be there for her parents who needed her so badly right now. But who would be there for Karen? Who would cheer her on as she raced to the finish line?

Thankfully, she had several heroes in her life.

One of them was Mindy Davis, who ran the Bank of America Chicago Marathon for Mercy Home in 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022. Mindy encouraged Karen to consider training for a marathon. 

 “She had a lot of good advice for me.  [But] I hadn’t run a half marathon, yet” she said.    Then Mindy gave her even more than advice. She gave her a challenge. 

“Pick a virtual marathon and I will do it with you,” Mindy told her.   

Still, Karen wasn’t quite ready for a full marathon, so Mindy and two other Mercy Home Heroes, Debbie Loeb Theisse and Jennifer Jais Milewski, ran with Karen on her first half marathon.  

In 2019, she completed her first ever DRI-TRI at Orange Theory Fitness, again with the support of Mindy Davis.  

With a few successful long runs under her belt, Karen was finally ready to set her sights on the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.  But a foot injury soon complicated her training. Then, while recovering, her father suddenly passed away after a brief illness, leaving Karen as the sole caretaker of her mother, who by then was undergoing regular dialysis. 

With her marathon goal on hold, Karen focused on looking after her mother’s health and home. Working hard seven days a week left little time to think about an undertaking like her first marathon, let alone training for it. 

Amid the stress of being a professional, a wife and mom, and a full-time caretaker, Karen’s husband became concerned for her well-being. Knowing what running did for her mentally, he suggested that she reconsider her deferred dream to run the Bank of America Chicago Marathon and sign up. While apprehensive she could barely resist that calling to run, and to experience that freeing sensation again.

She resolved to enter the race in 2022. But now she would ask for help. 

After discussing her plan with her husband and son she said, “If I run the marathon, I’m going to need you to help me with grandma,” she said. 

Her family responded with enthusiastic support. Karen was all in. 

And because of the positive support she experienced with Mercy Home Heroes who told her all about Mercy Home’s life-saving mission, Karen vowed to run on behalf of our boys and girls. 

Time was her biggest obstacle. Karen had to get creative and eke out odd times during each day to prepare her body. 

 “Every time I would go to the bathroom I would do squats in the bathroom,” she said. “I was walking three miles on my lunch hour.” 

Just then, another hero stepped in to encourage her efforts. Her husband Brian, who had been inspired by his wife’s dogged pursuit of her goal, decided to sign up to run the Bank of America Chicago Marathon with Karen. 

“He’s always been there for me,” Karen said. “I was always going off on these crazy runs and he would watch me and then he started running with me.”  

It was never on Brian’s bucket list to run a marathon. He had some running experience competing on his high school track team and doing running exercises while serving in the Army Reserves.  But it was his love for his wife and the nature of his character to do whatever he could do be the wind at her back. 

Whenever the couple goes for runs, Brian repeats to Karen, “You can do this!”  

Brian gleefully accepted the role as Karen’s ultimate hype-man, feeding her spirit with positive affirmations and well-timed doses of humor.    

Together, they’ve charted a 26.2-mile course to a marathon goal and identified every step they need to take to reach the end. They push each other to run outside when the weather allows and to run on the treadmill at home when the temps dip well below freezing. 

“He’s going to be a big help,” she said. “Having my husband by my side is going to be the greatest help of all for me.” 

Karen, 57 and Brian, 58, refuse to see their ages as an obstacle.  

“The age factor is no problem,” Brian said. “No matter how old you are, you’ll get there.” 

Karen has dreamed about crossing the finish line since 2020.  Now that her husband is running by her side in the 2022 Chicago Marathon, she is more determined than ever to accomplish her goal. 

Even though her mother and father can’t be at the race, she knows she’ll have a lot of heroes raising their voices to cheer her onward with every step of the journey. The memory of her beloved father. A loving mother back at home. Her Mercy Home Hero teammates. The young people at Mercy Home for Boys & Girls. And everyone who donates to the Home in support of our runners. 

Karen and Brian will lean on each other as well, and on their strong faith. 

“The Lord is my pilot,” Brian said. “He will be there to help us get to the finish line.”

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