Knowing what a humble person Karen McKeachie was, it seems odd to hear so many tributes lauding her athletic accomplishments. Something makes me think she'd be embarrassed at all the attention. Though she clearly loved racing with every bone in her body, she didn’t brag about it. Not even a “humble brag.” You’d hear from *someone else* that Karen won two races in one weekend but you wouldn’t hear it from Karen. If you asked about it, you’d probably get a smile and a shoulder shrug. Karen was the most down to earth person you could possibly imagine.
Luckily, I was clueless that Karen was a legend in triathlon when I was invited to her basement—more affectionately known to those who have spent time there as The Torture Chamber. At a recent gathering for Karen one woman remarked how she thought she was going to die down there—she had never worked so hard, sweat so much, or had a heart rate so high, and I know what she means. Feeling the same way, the crew I ride with had joked Karen ought to install a defibrillator, to which she smiled and pretended to check that everyone had waivers signed… In retrospect, I think she knew what true suffering was, and knew that we mere mortals weren’t in danger of pushing the limits in the way she knew how.
Those group CompuTrainer workouts wouldn’t have happened if Karen wasn’t an engineer / geek. CompuTrainers are fiddly beasts, especially when you’re trying to run in “multi-player mode”. It seemed like every week some new issue arose, and she diligently worked things out. If something was needed to make her basement setup more efficient, she’d just create it—like building stands for the CompuTrainer remote units. Her engineering ability and creativity had no limits. (Thank goodness, because that's also why we all have cut out bike seats now!)
In that basement, Karen wasn’t an elite athlete—she was a sherpa. Embarrassingly so, sometimes. You’d show up and find your bike already on the trainer. She’d check the tire pressure and get it up to snuff. She’d insist that you stay on the bike while she adjusted the resistance. I gave up protesting and enjoyed being doted on, as she seemed genuinely happy being helpful. Apparently, this was another one of her specialties, as one of the remarks at the gathering yesterday was from someone wondering what they would do now after all of the things Karen took care of for her—such as patiently explaining what kind of replacement tube to get after a first flat. Her willingness to help had no limits.
I once got to return the sherpa favor at Ironman Louisville—to take her bike into the hotel, up the glass elevator, and into her room. I have never been so careful! As I pondered whether I should get a tri bike, too, Karen quickly assessed it would make little difference. (She’s also famous for not mincing words, and that candor endeared her to many.) A couple of years later when she and Lew took me to get my first tri bike, it was more than a shopping expedition. It meant a lot that she thought it was time—and that they both took the time. Her time seemed to have no limits.
There were also no limits to her desire to help others achieve their potential—and I have no doubt there are a books worth of anecdotes about people she helped along the way. Strikingly, there was also an “I am not worthy” theme to enough stories about her, it left me with the distinct impression that she had a way of believing in people before they believed in themselves. I gather she was famous for running back and forth across the track to time women running 13:00 minute miles with the same care and attention reserved for elite athletes. If you cared enough to try, she cared enough to help. This simple “strategy” helped a lot of women get faster and make fitness a part of their lifestyle. Her belief in the potential of others had no limits.
There were no limits to her own potential either. 63 was just a number, not an age. She spent her life competing against men and women of every age—and routinely beating them. She drove herself to get better and better every day, “even” at 63. She set an example—a new standard—for everyone that knew her. Clearly, age was not a limiting factor. You couldn’t ask for a better role model as someone entering the world of triathlon at 39. Right in front of you was living proof that anything was possible, so that’s the frame you're also operating within. I’ve run three half marathons so far, and gotten faster each time. I expect the same will happen this year, and the next. (I can safely say this because I still have plenty of room for improvement. Trust me, Karen would agree!) This year, I completed my first half Ironman, and there will be more. I’ve gone from being a desk jockey to someone getting stronger, faster, and racing smarter as I age. It’s a pretty great feeling! And it wouldn’t have happened without Karen and the supportive group that has gathered around her. She had no limits, and she inspired others to believe there were no limits, too.
The part about this story that’s hardest to convey is this is not just my story—it’s the story of countless women who knew Karen. I've heard women grateful for her welcoming them into the local community after a move, women grateful for her help during times of grief, and of change. Women grateful for the friends they developed as part of her Running Goddess group. Women surprised and touched Karen had taken to time to learn about their kids. Women surprised by her random acts of kindness. Yes, Karen was a remarkable athlete. She was an even more remarkable person. The kind of person who inspires grown women with children to say, "I want to be like Karen when I grow up.”
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