Two years ago, Keri Mandell didn’t know how to swim.
So the now-38-year-old West Windsor resident learned how any dedicated fitness enthusiast would: She put herself through Ironman Lake Placid, a demanding, iconic triathlon where one-third of the event has participants plunging into the chilly depths of an Adirondack Mountains lake and then swim for a third of a mile.
“Prior to completing Ironman, I didn’t know how to swim, so signing up was kind of a way to force myself to really get uncomfortable and start to learn,” Mandell says. “I didn’t like getting my head wet, and I didn’t like being underwater, so it took me a long time to really get comfortable. But at the end of Ironman, I felt invincible, like I could do anything, because I was that deathly afraid of the water.”
The marathon runner, triathlete and owner of the emPower Yoga studio in Ewing describes herself as “so Type A” that she is already training for her third summertime test of swimming, biking and running her way through a two-time Winter Olympic village with notoriously unpredictable weather conditions—especially now that she’s had a chance to recover from a February that had her running on seven continents in seven days.
Mandell recently completed the World Marathon Challenge, which took the international coterie of 30 runners who completed the 186-hour marathon around the globe in a week.
With the event having them run a standard 42.2 km. marathon in all seven continents—Cape Town, South Africa; Novo, Antarctica; Perth, Australia; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Madrid, Spain; Fortaleza, Brazil; and Miami, Florida—the challenge pitted them against climate and terrain so vastly differing that Lake Placid’s 40-degree temperature swings and wildly vacillating climate pales in comparison.
“At Ironman, we’d have hail and it was literally 30 degrees, and then toward the end of the run, it was in the 70s and sunny, which is similar to how it happened on The Seven,” she recalls. “We went from extreme temperatures: Antarctica ended up being -20, -30 degrees [Fahrenheit] with 70 MPH winds. I had frostbite on two toes and a finger. Then we went to Brazil and that was like 90 degrees with 80-percent humidity.”
Mandell says that she first heard of the worldwide marathon when she started running seven or eight years ago and “always laughed it off.” As time went on, the idea of running across the world in seven days became less of an impossible notion and more of a goal until she knew she just had to go for it.
“I’m somebody who just likes to up the ante so I’m always looking for new ways to challenge myself,” says Mandell. “The World Marathon Challenge came up again and again on my radar, and I knew it would be my next challenge.”
So she ramped up her training game, set her sights on a feat that only a few hundred other marathoners have accomplished—and partnered with a cause close to her heart to ensure that her efforts honored a few loved ones while making a difference to a greater good.
“I wanted to do it for something bigger than myself, I didn’t want it to just be about me and this race: I wanted to run it for a cause, run it for a reason,” Mandell says. “Having lost my dad and stepmom to cancer and a good friend of mine, a mentor, I wanted to run to raise awareness for the American Cancer Society. In June 2019, they were like, ‘Let’s do this, we’ll partner up with you and help you achieve your goals.’ It was incredible.”
After months of prep and training, Mandell headed for the event that would have her running 184 miles over 168 hours with 35 other marathon hopefuls, starting in South Africa.
While Mandell says that she never questioned her decision to take on a seven-day worldwide marathon or her determination to finish it, she says that everyone’s resolve took a hit during their time in the Antarctic.
“Antarctica was so hard, way harder than anyone expected: We were told that it would be like running outside in the Northeast, but the weather conditions were so bad with gale-force winds’ snowdrifts, you had snow up to your knees,” says Mandell. “I definitely questioned my sanity in Antarctica, and I’ll never complain about being cold again after that.”
But as difficult as the experience was, it drew the group together like nothing else could.
“Antarctica really bonded the women: It was so cold and some of them were so scared and it was like, ‘we’re here, we came all this way, we’re here to do something, we’re in this together, we’re going to help each other,’” Mandell says, adding that the solidarity went even further.
“A couple of us linked arms for body heat creating a shield so we would take turns being behind so we weren’t in the wind for so long” she says. “Everyone was just so kind and helpful, and we really became a family over the week.”
Mandell says that she averaged about five hours per marathon; however, it took her nearly eight hours to complete the track in sub-zero Novo—and that while nobody was pleased with their performance, it was the fuel everyone needed for a group rallying cry at the next stop in Australia.
“My mantra in Antarctica was, ‘You will not break me,’” she says. “Everybody was so pissed about Antarctica that we hit Perth, and we were running. Everyone hit Perth hard.”
By the time the week wrapped up in Miami, Mandell was feeling the ravages of up-and-down air travel paired with inadequate recovery time and averaging less than two hours of sleep a night. More than a month later, she’s still dealing with swollen feet and legs, fluid buildup in her shins and ankles, and a foot so sensitive to pressure that she wore a boot for a while.
But it pushed her to new limits and encouraged her to keep challenging the boundaries of her comfort zone.
“I had to dig really deep and get uncomfortable and find my edge, and I was able to do it and see truly what I’m capable of,” Mandell says. “It pushed me to a limit that I’ve never experienced before. The fatigue, the tiredness in Antarctica, the cold, the extreme temperatures—I found a new level, another drive, the next speed.”
It wasn’t just the physical training and support of her family at home and globe-trotting fellow marathoners that kept her going, though; the key, Mandell says, is mental toughness.
“The biggest part of training is developing that mental strength because your mind gives up way before your body every will,” she says. “Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re right.”
After all, she says, pushing herself harder and holding herself accountable is the example she wants to set for her students at emPower Yoga to encourage them to explore their own potential.
“My favorite quote is ‘Life begins at the end of your comfort zone’—I have it on the wall in my yoga studio and it’s something that I talk about with my students all the time,” Mandell says. “I’m always looking for ways to challenge myself and practice what I preach. How can I ask others to do what I wouldn’t do?”