Maui Marathon: a shared challenge |

Maui Marathon: a shared challenge

Aspen Times writer
Michael BrandsMembers of the Challenge Aspen Marathon team pose for a group photo before a 20-mile training run on the Rio Grande Trail from Aspen to Emma on Aug. 27. From bottom left is Susie Wallace, Danah Waters, Dave Tolen, Jenni Petersen, Linda Spada-Magill. The middle row is Judith Cross, Shelli Craig, Mardell Burkholder, Christ Petersen, Elain Crowley and coach, Austin Weiss. John Keleher is standing in the back.

By Nate PetersonAspen Times Staff WriterAll of Aspen appears to be sleeping in at 7:30 on the last Saturday morning in August as a group of runners begins piling out of cars at Herron Park, just down from No Problem Bridge off Original Curve.It feels like fall is just around the corner because it’s chilly enough that everyone in the group can see their breath as they go through a pre-run stretch. The gathering is an eclectic one, to say the least. There’s a few fit 30-somethings and 40-somethings to go along with the handful of runners who have stayed active into their 50s. There is also John Keleher, a towering figure at more than 6 feet who at 69 (though you’d never guess it) is preparing for his second marathon in as many years. The rest of the group, with Keleher, is readying for the same race: the scenic Maui Marathon. On this particular Saturday in August, the group is doing its final long training run – a full 20 miles on the Rio Grande Trail to Emma – before tapering off for two weeks.There’s something pushing Keleher to run, as there is with each of the members in the group. That something is more than just the impetus of exerting one’s body through 26 miles of torture just to say, “I did it.”

Each member in the group has raised $4,500 through donations to help support local nonprofit Challenge Aspen, which works with people with mental and physical disabilities. In exchange for securing the donations, each member receives 20 weeks of training leading up to the marathon as well as a plane ticket to Maui and seven days of lodging at the Westin Maui.This year, 45 locals have signed on to do the program – up from 36 a year ago when the Challenge Aspen team ran the Monaco Marathon in October.For Keleher, the cause was especially close to his heart. One of his sons was born with muscular dystrophy and died in 1980 at the age of 13.Upon hearing from friend Mardell Burkholder about the marathon fund-raising program before training for the Monaco Marathon began last year, Keleher jokingly talked about how his wife, Linda, convinced him to sign up.”Linda looked at me and said, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to go to Monaco,” Keleher said. “Then she said, ‘Why don’t you run a marathon?’ Anyway, that’s why I ran this year. This year, I thought it was an experience that I ought to do again, so here I am.”Running with purpose

Burkholder, a former Challenge Aspen employee who still remains active as a volunteer, hatched the idea of the marathon fund-raising program more than three years ago. She heard about an arthritis foundation doing a similar fund-raising drive by using 1st Marathon, a Phoenix company that provides interested groups with a training program and a coach.Burkholder contacted 1st Marathon founder Brian Collins, the brother of elite runner Kevin Collins, and things got rolling from there. Austin Weiss, a former ultra marathon runner and one of the nordic coaches at the Aspen Valley Ski Club, knew Burkholder from time spent together volunteering for another nonprofit, Leadership Aspen. After hearing from Aspen Cycling Club President Danny DiMaria that a company in Phoenix was looking for a coach for a marathon group in Aspen, Weiss sent in his resume. When Collins pegged him to be the coach, he was reunited with Burkholder.Burkholder’s plan wasn’t for the group to run just any old marathon. She figured there would be more interest if the marathon was in an exotic location. The runners on the team would get a week-long vacation wrapped around the race, all in exchange for raising the required amount of funds through donations.”That way, you get people who are excited to put in more than just going to the Chicago Marathon,” she said. “You get a trip out of it, too. You get a week, you get 20 weeks of training and you get airfare out of Denver. It’s a win-win.”In 2003, under Weiss’ tutelage, the first Challenge Aspen team ran in the Marathon de Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland – a scenic race set against the backdrop of the Swiss Alps. Last October, it was exquisite Monaco, where the marathon made swings into Italy and France.Weiss said the coaching experience, given the variety of abilities of the runners who sign up, has been educational.

“It’s just been a lot of fun for me to work with such a great group of folks,” he said. “Because we get total beginners as well as accomplished runners, everyone learns from everyone else, including myself. I’m learning a ton each time I do this.”Different stridesWhile the $4,500 is the number that directly links the 45 names on the Challenge Team together, the more important number is 26.2. Raising the money, Burkholder said, is the easy part. Completing the race, that’s where the real work is.However, knowing your teammates are sharing the same individual workload makes the training regimen leading up to the race and the race itself that much easier.”It’s a huge undertaking,” said Shelli Craig, a first-timer. “Having everyone here for support, as well as the coaching, it really makes it a lot easier. Everyone I knew, there were lots of tips. I didn’t have to do a lot of research, which can bog you down. I had a lot of injuries between miles four and six. I just couldn’t crack 10, but everyone knew where to send me. They told me the right chiropractor, the right acupuncturist, and I got through it. I don’t know if I could have if I didn’t have that support network.”Dave Tolen, a teacher at Aspen High School who recruited Craig this year, had run a marathon by himself before training last year with the Challenge Aspen team. He said training and completing a goal with a group was a more fulfilling experience. “It was definitely more motivation,” Tolen said. “Both to be doing it for an organization like this and also to be doing it with a group of people. Having a group of people to train with and to run with is amazing.”

Some runners have closer ties to Challenge Aspen than others. Tolen said he knows students with disabilities at the high school who benefit from the programs at Challenge Aspen, which was one of the reasons he got involved. Gwen Carew, the only three-year participant on the team, has a mildly autistic daughter enrolled in programs at Challenge Aspen. There are also three runners on this year’s team with disabilities. Nancy Stevens, a blind athlete, is a former three-time gold medalist in the Paralympics as a member of the U.S. Disabled Cross Country Ski Team. Christy Smith is one of two hearing-impaired runners on the team.Burkholder, who completed her first marathon last year in Monaco in her 60s, said the most rewarding experience of all is completing an incredibly hard endeavor, all the while knowing how much each footstep is worth to those who benefit from the programs at Challenge Aspen.”For me, I said it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever done in my life, other than having a child,” Burkholder said. “I get goosebumps just thinking about it. It is so amazing to think all these weeks you’ve spent. Then, you don’t know if you’re going to make it or not. You know mentally you have to and your body just keeps going along. It’s your mind that gets you there. You just keep thinking about these kids who can’t walk or that have a disability and you say, ‘Hey, I can run.’ When you cross that finish line, you feel so incredible.”Nate Peterson can be reached at

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