Keri Mandell is planning to run seven marathons on all seven continents in seven days.
That’s not a typo. She’s really gearing up to run 183.4 miles in a week, including in Australia, Africa and Antarctica. Something only 103 people have ever done. For comparison, 536 people have been to outer space.
And yet the only thing that scares her about any of this is the airplane. “I don’t really like to fly,” she said.
But while that might be true, this 36-year-old yogi, CrossFit coach, marathoner, Ironman triathlete and businesswoman is not really the type to not do what she sets her mind to.
To that end, Mandell is in the process of raising funds so she can participate in the 2020 World Marathon Challenge—a grueling contest that calls for running in seven marathons on seven continents in seven days.
When the specifics aren’t yet known for the 2020 event, locations for the 2019 challenge are: Novo, Antarctica; Cape Town, South Africa; Perth, Australia; Dubai in the UAE; Madrid, Spain; Santiago, Chile; and ending in Miami.
Self described as “wicked competitive” when she wants something and “so Type-A” all the other times, Mandell, a West Windsor resident, is no stranger to pushing past limits she used to have.
Actually, she started out that way. Mandell was born two months premature and started her life in an incubator.
Growing up in Clifton, she was exactly the opposite of what you’d expect if you were to speak to her today—quiet, reserved, introverted. Maybe more than a little afraid of trying new things.
And other than playing softball, she really didn’t have an interest in sports or physical fitness.
She was more social by the time she ventured to Rhode Island, to get her bachelor’s in elementary and special education at Providence College, or later her master’s at Wheelock College, in the shadow of Fenway Park in Boston.
But her social life while she was trying to figure out her life was not the healthiest. One of hanging out with 20-something friends, at restaurants or bars, like 20-somethings do.
“We were a mile and a half from Fenway and I loved tooling around in the city,” she said. “But at some point you’ve got to grow up a little bit.”
She had been “kind of anorexic in high school,” she said, then put on a lot of weight in college. “I’m kind of all or nothing,” she said. At a certain point, she had the revelation that her lifestyle was not working for her physical or emotional health; nor was it benefiting her wallet.
What really helped her shift from quiet and out-of-shape to high-energy and super-fit, though, was the guy she eventually married.
“Meeting Dan was my first trigger to want to lose weight,” she said. That was mainly for their wedding.
And since Dan ran the “bridal boot camp” program at the Y, she was inclined to stick with it. The boot camp and her joining Weight Watchers, she said, changed how she saw her relationship with food, choices, and health.
The Mandells had visions of a pretty traditional life together—house, porch, kids, picket fence. Cancer had other plans for Mandell, though. She learned in 2009 that there were cancerous cells along her cervix. So ended the dream of children, and that revelation left Mandell in a bad way.
She’d stopped working out and stopped caring about much. She wouldn’t have the family she’d expected, she was sick, and she was out of work for months recovering from the post-surgery infections that came from operations to remove her cancer.
In the throes of her “pity party,” a friend dropped in with an offer: “Get your ass up and let’s go, we’re going to a yoga class,” she said.
The practice of yoga, Mandell said, saved her life. The general approach of mindfulness and gratitude that yoga affords taught her a valuable lesson that “just because you can’t do something doesn’t mean life is over.”
And in her all-or-nothing way, Mandell went all in on yoga. She started down the path to become a yogi herself. She figured if her body wasn’t working the way she’d expected it to, she’d make it work another way.
“I wanted to be the fittest I could,” she said. “I don’t like being told there’s something I can’t do.”
Plus, she wanted to reach and inspire people the way her yoga instructors had done for her.
But as things were coming together for Mandell, her father and stepmother got sick. She and her husband moved to New Jersey in 2011 to help them run their business, Monmouth Mobile Home Park. Both had contracted cancer—her stepmother lung and breast and her father bone marrow. Both died a few years later, within months of one another.
Amid all this, Mandell stayed with what she calls her “fitness journey,” getting into different boot camp-style workouts and CrossFit. She was also firmly out of her formerly introverted shell by this point, which is why she decided to walk up to a woman she saw wearing a weighted vest on a treadmill and ask her what she was training for.
The answer was, the Boston Marathon. Music to Mandell’s ears, and so she became a marathoner. She actually started training for a half-marathon, but remember, this is an all-or-nothing person, so she skipped right to the full marathon—although it should be noted that she’s run in something like 30 half-marathons, to complement her 10 full ones and her Ironman Triathlon (not the one in Hawaii, the one in Lake Placid, which was plenty brutal nevertheless, she said).
Despite her uneasiness with flying, she’s raced around the world over the past few years, completing the six major marathons—Boston, New York, Chicago, London, Berlin, and, lastly, Tokyo —that Olympic marathoners need to qualify for.
She’s not going for the Olympics, in case you’re curious. At least, not yet.
In the meantime, as she was taking her fitness journey on a world tour, she left education—she was a learning disabilities consultant in the South Brunswick school system for about four years —and opened emPower Yoga in Ewing in 2017.
When she finished the Tokyo Marathon last February, though, Mandell had a question for herself—What am I going to do now?
“I thought, ‘Why not run the world?’” she said.
Which brings us up to date on where Mandell is in her fitness journey. She’s decided to run the World Marathon Challenge, which happens in January and February of every year. She plans to spend 2019 getting ready for the 2020 runs.
It needs to be noted, however, that Mandell’s interest in running across the world is more than just an expensive bucket list item. Yes, she wants to do it for herself, but she’s also looking to raise money for the American Cancer Society.
The entry fee, according to the World Marathon Challenge website, is 36,000 Euros, which is about $41,000. Mandell said she needs to raise $52,000 to complete the challenge, even though she will be covering her training, gear and travel to Cape Town (where all the runners gather and then head to Antarctica).
She is looking for—make that actively, unapologetically petitioning—corporate sponsors to help her raise the money she needs. After she crosses the final finish line in Miami, she wants to hand at least $10,000 over to the ACS, she said.
But, Mandell is an all-or-nothing kind of person, which means she’s firmly in the go-big-or-go-home camp too. So she’s not averse to raising double those funds, which is why she is working with Michael Brown, a brand and sponsorship manager she said is helping her find the right corporate partners.
Brown knows Mandell through his wife, who does CrossFit with her. He calls Mandell’s efforts to run the world for a good cause, and her personal story of vaulting one bad break after another, “the kind of story that great movies are made from.”
Did we mention Mandell is also planning to video document her experience and make a film out of it? She’ll be calling Netflix about it in about two years, she said. She’s not even considering that they would say no.
Meanwhile, Brown said the effort to run seven marathons in seven days on seven continents is “incomprehensible to me.”
All of this is in the early stages. Mandell will begin training in earnest in 2019 and Brown will continue looking for the right sponsors.
“For the right brand, this is a no-brainer, especially in this day and age of social media influencer marketing and brand storytelling,” Brown said. “People are drawn to compelling and inspiring human interest stories and Keri’s is just that. While she won’t probably admit it, Keri is an influencer and I know she can positively affect someone’s life through this challenge.”
Mandell is also running a GoFundMe page to collect money for her cause, though she’d rather tap into Corporate America’s deeper pockets and forego raising it all on GoFundMe, because of the share of income the company takes. She said she’d like to give all the extra cash to the ACS.
And if she and Brown find the right sponsor and bring in that $52,000, or even $100,000, she said, she’ll be happy to cut a bigger check to the organization that’s trying to stop the disease that took both of her parents, and almost took her as well.