Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson faculty and alumni to run the 2024 Boston Marathon for charity

Feixu Chen
Emerson faculty member Mary Shertenlieb is a four-time Boston marathoner and will run the 2024 marathon for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. (Feixu Chen/Beacon Staff)

Tomorrow, Emerson students and faculty will be only a few blocks away from the 2024 Boston Marathon finish line where they can watch the roughly 30,000 registered runners take on the historic course. But for two Emerson alumni, tomorrow is also race day.

The 2024 race will be writing, literature, and publishing (WLP) faculty member and Emerson alumni Mary Shertenlieb’s fourth time running the Boston Marathon and her fifth marathon overall. A three-time survivor of leukemia, Shertenlieb will be running the marathon to raise money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a cause dear to her heart since undergoing treatment there in 2013. 

Nicole Witkov graduated from Emerson with a bachelor’s degree in WLP and a minor in print journalism in 2003. She played volleyball and wrote for The Berkeley Beacon at Emerson as a student and returned to the school as staff in 2006, working in various roles until 2010 when she had her first daughter. Tomorrow will be her first-ever marathon. 

For Shertenlieb, running has been a passion that started when she was 15. She continued running in college as an undergraduate at Georgia Institute of Technology, but her motivation to become a marathon runner wouldn’t come until the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Though Witkov was not a lifelong running lover, she remembers being drawn to the competitive nature. As a self-described fiercely competitive person and lifelong athlete, Witkov said her penchant for intense goal-setting has greatly contributed to her choice to take on the marathon. That, and the fateful day when two bombs went off near the finish line of the 2013 Boston marathon.

“It was absolutely surreal … It was the first time I ever really felt unsafe in the city that I grew up in,” Witkov recalled. 

The bombing spurred Witkov to run her first half-marathon, the Run to Remember, which was started to honor the victims of the Boston bombings and is still run today. Witkov continued to run half-marathons for the next few years.

Shertenlieb was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a particularly aggressive form of cancer, in February of 2013 and underwent immediate chemotherapy treatment through the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which hospitalized her for five weeks. Two weeks after she came home, the bombings happened, which, for Shertenlieb, hit especially close to home.

“We lived at 755 Boylston Street, which is where one of the bombs went off at the marathon bombing,” said Shertenlieb.

Shertenlieb said what especially rattled her was that every year she would bring her oldest son out to watch the marathon, and he was about the same age as Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy killed in the blast outside her building. It was only because of her recovering immune system that Shertenlieb didn’t bring her son out to watch the 2013 race. Before the tragedy, she had never thought of running the race herself.

“We were just so close to it,” she said. “At that point, I felt this connection to wanting to do the marathon. I was kind of pissed that this happened to Boston at such a big event that pulls the city together.”

However, her battle with leukemia would prevent her from seriously training or even running as she dealt with off-and-on illnesses for the next two years. As more hospitalizations and relapses would come and go, Shertenlieb was still told by doctors to exercise even though she couldn’t leave her hospital room, so she came up with a strategy.

“I measured the square [tiles they had] on the ground and figured out how many squares it would take to walk a mile and just walked back and forth like a crazy person in my hospital room,” she recalled. “I just needed to move.”

Following a stem cell transplant in 2014, Shertenlieb has been cancer-free. However, her journey to realizing her marathon dreams was an uphill battle. She said doctors only cleared her to run so many miles at a time as they monitored her health.

“Finally I got the clearance to run more and I just kept going, going, going,” said Shertenlieb. “Then in 2018, I was like, well, this is five years out from the bombing. I want to do a marathon. I ran for Dana-Farber, and that was the year that I finished dead last.”

Despite intense training in all kinds of weather, the course conditions for the 2018 Boston Marathon were something Shertenlieb could never have anticipated. Heavy rain, winds up to 25 miles an hour, and 30-degree temperatures that were the coldest for a marathon day in three decades all worked against the field of runners to make it the slowest Boston marathon since the late ‘70s. 

But inconvenient conditions would quickly turn to potentially dangerous around the half-marathon mark, forcing Shertenlieb to exit the course and officially forfeit any time or medal for the race. Regardless, she remained determined to finish. Waiting for the rain to stop, Shertenlieb went home until 8 p.m., when she took an Uber with her husband Rich back to the course to continue the race. The pair crossed the finish line at 12:15 a.m., over 12 hours since Shertenlieb had begun the race.

Shertenlieb’s 2018 marathon run raised around $60,000 for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. However, she said it still left her in “an awful mental space” because she had not performed as she had wanted to.

“In the back of my head, I was just like, maybe I’m just not cut off for marathons,” she said.

But soon, Shertienlieb would prove that mindset wrong by running the New York City Marathon in a much better time next fall.

However, with plans to attempt Boston again and continued training in the following years, health factors once again got in the way. After experiencing hip pain, Shertenlieb got an MRI that revealed her cancer medications had caused her hip to hollow out.

“They were like, we don’t know how you’re walking around right now. Because you should be in tears,” she said. “I ended up having to get a full hip replacement.”

Shertenlieb left the hospital for that surgery in a walker and was told she could not run any more marathons or even a 5K—leaving her at a mental and emotional loss.

The combination of the hip surgery and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic prevented Shertenlieb from running for around six months, but she would return to the Boston Marathon in 2021 and ran it again in 2023, both times for Dana-Farber. In 2021, she finished at 4:47 and came in at 5:09 last year. This year, she hopes to come in under five hours, which is also Witkov’s goal. Both runners spoke on the importance of not obsessing over the race and freeing yourself from your expectations, especially with the hot weather predicted for race day.

Witkov said it’s especially important for her to keep an open mind about the race. Her desire to take on the marathon came after her husband ran it in 2019 for Massachusetts General Hospital’s pediatric cancer research charity. She felt in a spirit of competitiveness that “now it’s my turn.”

“Once I get something in my mind, I’m like a dog with a bone,” Witkov said. “The second I start thinking about it, and then definitely if I say it out loud, now I’m in. Now I have to.”

Witkov will run the race for Massachusetts General Hospital’s emergency response charity cause that benefits first responders and disaster relief. 

“I knew I would run for emergency response, [especially because of] the marathon bombing. These people responded to that [and responded to] COVID,” Witkov said. “It was important to me that whatever I did, it meant something.”

As charity runners, both had to raise a set funding goal to run the event. The charity runners run after the professional heats of runners who qualified for the race. Witkov’s competitiveness extended to her fundraising efforts. Soon before the race, she raised almost $14,000, doubling her initial goal. Shertenlieb estimated having raised around $120,000 for Dana-Farber across her marathon efforts.

While both runners have personal goals for this marathon, they emphasized that the charity pool is removed from the competitive energy of the professional event. Shertenlieb said she will sacrifice running faster to run near friends she sees on the path or stop and talk with students, family, and friends she sees on the sidelines.

“We’re in the way back. They call us the ‘party pace,’” said Shertenlieb. “It’s a very inspiring group back there.”

Above all, Shertenlieb said her goal is “to finish smiling and not wind up in a med tent,” a sentiment echoed by Witkov. 

“I’d love to do it without medical attention, feeling good, knowing I’m going to be sore, knowing it’s going to be hard, but just feeling really good and accomplished,” said Witkov.

As with many runners, especially ones new to the marathon scene, superstition and attention to detail have characterized Witkov’s last few weeks. She said she has had her racing outfit planned for months and has even practiced eating her planned last few meals for the day and night before the race to see how they will be digested and work with her running performance to ensure as much of her marathon experienced has been rehearsed for and controlled.

In relation to pre-race superstition and pressure, Shertenelib said that her unfavorable first marathon experience in 2018 freed her expectations going forward in the sport.

“No one else is going, ‘Mary, you [didn’t] finish at [the] time [you said you would],’ so I just like to be a little bit easier on myself, too,” she said.  “As runners, if things don’t go exactly how we want them to, we can be so hard on ourselves.”

Shertenlieb also said she sees being through adversities like hers as a helpful tool for any endurance athlete.

“At [one] point you have to move out of your legs and move up into your head [and] have these sorts of deeper things that you can draw from,” she said. “If you’ve gone through something tough, you can draw from that and be like, I’ve done things that are harder than this.”

Witkov echoed a similar sentiment.

“Over the course of these hours, for a normal person running a marathon and not an elite marathon or athlete, you go through all the emotions, the excitement, the pain physically [and] mentally, and there is an incredible amount of self-talk that goes into it,” she said.

Going into the race, Shertenlieb feels lucky for all the people who have helped donate and allowed her to run again, and she is grateful for her good health

“I’m just even lucky to be able to run … [and] have legs that can do this,” Shertenlieb said. “After not being able to walk a bit with this hip surgery, I had to use a cane for a bit and [go through] tons of painful physical therapy [and] I’m just grateful that I can get out there.”

Witkov plans for this to be her only marathon race due to longevity concerns associated with having scoliosis. 

“This is my one and done, [so] I really want to make sure I get to the finish line and injury-free,” Witkov said.

She continued that she is glad to be able to race Boston as her first and possibly last marathon experience.

“I just think there’s something about Boston that is so special,” Witkov said. “When you’re doing nothing in the city, you’re doing something. It has a pulse. It has this unbelievable serenity but still a pulse.”

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About the Contributor
Bryan Hecht
Bryan Hecht, News Co-Editor
Bryan Hecht (he/him) is a freshman journalism major from Havertown, Pennsylvania. He currently serves as an assistant editor of The Berkeley Beacon News section. Bryan also contributes to WEBN Political Pulse and hopes one day to work in broadcast news media. As a member of the Emerson Cross Country team, Bryan can likely be found on a run around the Boston area when he's not writing for the Beacon.

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