My name is Keri Mandell. I am a yogi, crossfit coach, marathoner and Ironman, but I wasn’t always these things. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I discovered my passion for physical fitness and health.
The Keri in my past is way different than the Keri most of you know today. She wasn’t always the driven enthusiastic girl she is now.
Here’s my story…
I was born in January, 1982, 2 months premature and only weighing a few pounds. I spent the first part of my life in an incubator until it was safe for my parents to bring me home. I grew up in Clifton, New Jersey. As a kid, I was much more quiet, reserved, and introverted (if you can imagine that). At that time the only form of physical activity I really enjoyed was playing softball. I played softball from the time I was in elementary school until I graduated high school. I was in a travel softball league and we played all year long and throughout the state. Once I went away to college, physical activity was not really my thing. I spent the majority of my time studying, working, and socializing with friends. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I truly found an appreciation and love for physical fitness, health, and nutrition.
I began my fitness journey when I got engaged to my husband Dan. I decided I wanted to lose weight for our wedding. At that time I was a size 12/14 and weighed over 175 lbs. I joined Weight Watchers and started attending bridal Boot Camp classes at the local YMCA where we lived in Boston. At that time, I also dabbled a little bit in running. I never thought I was much of a runner nor did I think I had a runner’s body. I started to slowly run, going one block at a time, alternating between running and walking, building up until I was able to run for longer/extended periods of time. I wasn’t the biggest fan, but looked at it as a way to help myself lose weight.
After I got married in July of 2009, I still tried to remain physically active. I joined a new gym, started taking spin classes, trx classes, and hired a personal trainer.
During the fall of 2009, I found out that I had cancerous cells on my cervix that needed to be surgically removed. I became ill, suffering from a serious infection after the procedure. I had to take a leave of absence from work and could no longer workout. On top of that, the doctor told me that I would probably never have kids.
Could you imagine being told something like that? As a woman I had always dreamt of having a family, but here I am as a newlywed and all of our plans for the future were crushed and washed away. I was angry and devastated. I told my husband we could get a divorce so he could remarry and find someone else to have his children. I became severely depressed and suicidal. What I had imagined my future to be had changed in an instant. I wallowed in self pity for a while until one of my friends got me out of the house and made me go with her to take a yoga class… that class literally saved my life. Now I’d practiced yoga a few times, but it wasn’t until that moment that yoga became such a huge and integral part of my life. I often tell people that it was yoga that saved my life. It taught me to live in the moment, to find peace, to love myself, and it showed me that body was capable of so much more than I thought.
I started to come out of my depression and stared to re-evaluate what my life was going to be. So my body may not be able to bare children, but it sure as hell could do other things… and there it began. I wasn’t going to let my body or anything else for that matter get in my way of living my life. I immediately started to look for ways to challenge myself and challenge my body. I wasn’t going to allow it to hold me back. My goal was to try to see how fit I could be.
In 2011 we moved to NJ. My dad and stepmom owned and operated a business, Monmouth Mobile Home Park. They both became ill- she had lung cancer and breast cancer and he had bone marrow cancer. They needed someone to help run the business so my husband and I moved to Princeton, NJ to help. A few years after we moved down here, they both passed away within a few months of each other.
During our time in NJ, I continued on my fitness journey. I joined Can Do Fitness where a I met my good friend Hilary. I would attend spin and bootcamp classes in the mornings before work. Each day when I arrived, Hillary would be on the treadmill running with a sweatshirt and/or weighted vest. Having seen her numerous times, I decided to go over and approach her. I asked her what she was training for and she stated the Boston Marathon. I started to arrive to the gym early and walk on the treadmill next to her. She intrigued and inspired me. Her drive and dedication to her sport was like nothing I’ve ever seen. So each morning, I’d arrive at the gym early in hopes to see and talk to her. In time, I would slowly start to jog next to her. We would talk about running and the running group she was a part of called Run Around Princeton or RAP as it’s often referred to. Hilary convinced me to join her one Saturday morning at their weekly long runs and also sign up for the Broad Street 10 miler in Philadelphia.
When I started running with the group, they would give you a slip of paper that had the route with turn by turn directions. I was always last. At that time, I think I ran a 12.5 or 13 minute mile. By the time I got back to the lot everyone had already left. I would cry. I hated being last and I hated running, but I committed to doing a 10 miler so I stuck with it. Eventually I got a little bit faster and was no longer the last one in the group. I ran the 10 miler on May 5, 2013. After that, I decided to keep running. I signed up for countless half marathons and even started training for a full. I completed my first full marathon that November, the Philadelphia Marathon.
I caught the running bug. From there, I started to run several marathons a year and eventually decided that I was going to complete all of the World Major Marathons. I just completed my final World Major Marathon this February, the Tokyo Marathon. Since 2013, I have run over 30 half marathons, 10 Marathons, 2 ultra marathons (50k) and an Ironman!
For a few of the races, I joined a charity team. I decided to run and raise money to support charities such as the Special Olympics and Autism Speaks. As a Special Education teacher, these charity’s where near to my heart. Running and raising money for charity was a great way to bring awareness to the charity but also to travel and see how far my body could go. During a marathon, you often feel like you are going to die, but you don’t and when you cross that finish line there is no better feeling. I started to crave the high that running gave me.
In addition to running, I knew I had to incorporate strength training into my routine. In 2013, was also the time I discovered Crossfit. I loved it so much that I went to get my level one Crossfit certification so I could coach. In 2014, I started an internship at Crossfit Nassau and started coaching part time at the gym in 2015.
Additionally, I was still taking yoga classes. Yoga was a great tool that helped me with running- it helped increase strength, mobility, flexibility, allowed me to work on my breathing as well as my mindfulness. In 2014, I decided to become certified to teach yoga. Yoga had given me so much over the years that I knew wanted to give back. Fast forward to 2016, I quit my job and opened my very own yoga studio, Empower Yoga. I decided that health and fitness was going to be my full time gig.
In 2014, my husband suggested that we try to complete a triathlon. We signed up for the New Jersey State triathlon. He thought it could be something fun for us to do together. Now, I didn’t know how to swim (I hated swimming and was terrified of putting my face in the water) so I was a little afraid prepping for this race. However I figured it was a great way to force myself to learn. I took swimming lessons and practiced swimming regularly at the pool in the clubhouse where we lived. I was nervous for the race, but excited to give it a try. During the race I panicked in the swim. A woman in my group panicked too and got on top of me, pushing me under the water. All I could think about was that I was going to drown and regretted not telling my parents I loved them that morning. I eventually broke away. It took me over 30 minutes to swim 500m because I doggie paddled. I was never so happy to be on land. At least when you’re running and you need to stop you can walk, but if you’re swimming and you need to stop, you drown. It was scary. Unfortunately, the bike wasn’t much better. I started to ride my bike but when I went to take sip of my Gatorade I didn’t put the bottle back in the cage correctly and I dropped it. I proceeded to roll over my bottle and fall off my bike. Unable to clip out in time, I fell off my bike and cut open my knee. It was gushing blood. From there, I went on the run. It was incredibly hot that day and the sun was beating overhead, there is no shade. When I crossed the finish line and my friends were there cheering for me they asked, “how do you feel?“ I said “I fucking hated that. I will never do that again.” The following year my husband completed a few more triathlons while I watched on the side lines. In 2017, I decided to give triathlons another try. I decided that I wasn’t going to let triathlons get the best of me and I wanted to work hard to be and do my best. I decided to sign up for a half Ironman, I figured go big or go home. I reached out to several friends and asked about training plans. I piecemailed a plan together and started training. I joined a Master swim program near where we lived and bought a road bike. That summer leading up to my 70.3, I knew that the swim was going to be challenging for me. So I decide to sign up for several smaller races in order to prepare. I basically raced every weekend that summer forcing myself into those uncomfortable positions at the swim start- adrenaline pumping, heart racing, large crowds, flaring arms, people kicking you, and swimming over you- I needed to get my nerves under control. Towards the end of the summer I start to get stronger, faster, and better… Even placing in my age group in a few races.
Prior to even competing in AC 70.3, I had decided to sign up for a full Ironman. Always down for a challenge and a way to get better and stronger, I knew I just had to do it. I wanted to see what my body was capable of. In such a short time, if I could go from being afraid to put my face in the water to swimming over a mile, I knew I could do anything. Less than 1% of the population complete an Ironman and I wanted to be one of those people. My husband (and prob the rest of the world) thought I was nuts. I hadn’t even completed a 70.3 race yet, what if I hated it. Why sign up for a full? I said that even if I hated it (which I doubt I would) I would do it anyway because completing an Ironman quickly catapulted to the top of my bucket list.
When I have an idea or want something, there is nothing getting in my way, and I wanted to be an Ironman! After AC 70.3 I was hooked on triathlon racing. I was anxiously waiting to start training for my next goal, completing Ironman Lake Placid. I knew I needed some help and expertise to really go the distance and get the most out of my race, rather than piecing a plan together like I did for AC. This was something I didn’t want to wing and I knew it would require hours of work each week for my body to get there. So I hired a coach, Chris Draper ( who was referred to me by my good friend Hilary, who has stuck with me over the years)
Training for an Ironman takes lots of time, sacrifice, and dedication. Training wasn’t always roses and butterflies. It was hard, grewling, time consuming and left you at times beaten up and bruised. Even though it was challenging, I have to say that I loved every minute of it. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and more badass. There is nothing in this world that compares to 15 hours of non stop physical activity and finally running down the shoot to the finish; where you here your name- Keri Mandell, you are an Ironman!!
Since my Ironman, people of been asking me what’s next? Well how about The World Marathon Challenge?! A few years back, I heard about the World Marathon Challenge- An event where competitors must run the standard 42.2 km marathon distance in Antarctica, Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe, South America and North America within 168 hours (seven days). The clock starts when the first marathon begins in Antarctica. This event started in 2015 and since then, 103 have people have finished the challenge. When I first heard about it, it sounded incredibly scary and exciting at the same time. Now, the more I think about it and read about it and hear the inspiring stories like Becca Pizzi from Boston, I know that I need to do this too.
The World Marathon Challenge is next on my bucket list. In order to do the challenge I need to raise $52,000. I’m currently seeking sponsors to help make this dream a reality. I want to continue to surpass my mental and physical limits and see how far I can truly go. I want to help encourage and inspire people to live their best lives and know continue that anything is truly possible. Will you help me?
When you are ready to contribute, please visit my Go Fund Me page to donate!
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