Picture this: you’re 29 years old, happily planning a future with your husband – and then he’s gone. That’s what happened to Mandi Kimberly in September 2014 when her beloved husband, Terry, contracted bacterial meningitis and died suddenly. “I don’t know if I’d ever actually sat down and thought if Terry died, what would I do?” she says. “I don’t know that I did cope, actually.”
Mandi, who is originally from Nashville, Tennessee, met Terry when she was 20 years old and studying languages. She wanted to travel to Europe; Terry had lived in the States as a child and knew her brother-in-law, who suggested Terry could act as tour guide. The couple dated long distance for four years before marrying and settling in Northampton, where Mandi started work as a secondary school teacher. Although she ran to get in shape for their wedding, and Terry enjoyed hiking, they weren’t exactly sporty, she says. “If you’d asked us, I’m sure we would have said we were active. But in reality we were coach potatoes who went for a hike once in a while!”
However, she says that Terry was “in perfect health”, and his sudden illness and death came as a huge shock. “Even in the hospital when they told us he might die, it genuinely never occurred to me that he would. He was just going to make it,” says Mandi. “And then he didn’t and everything just went black for a little while.
“I just got out of bed in the morning and that’s the most that could have been said until, all of a sudden, I could get out of bed and go out of the house, and perhaps run an errand in town. I think one of my friends said you just keep living until you’re alive again, and that’s sort of what it was.”
Learning to Live Again
Soon after Terry’s death, a friend pointed her towards a support group called Widowed and Young (WAY, widowedandyoung.org.uk). The group put her in touch with other young widows, who would meet for coffee or come over if she wasn’t up to leaving the house. “They’ve been the most helpful – just seeing that this happened to somebody else and it didn’t end their life,” says Mandi. “It destroyed it in some ways – but it didn’t end it.”
Without realising, by contacting WAY, Mandi was also on her way to finding another way to cope: running. A new member, who had just lost her partner to cancer and was a keen runner, went onto the online forum to see if anyone would run a marathon with her.
“I’d had a glass of wine and I was feeling very confident, so I said ‘I don’t know if I could do a marathon but I could think about a half-marathon.’ I have no idea why I thought I could – I hadn’t run for years! I got a message the next morning saying ‘When you can sign up, this is great!’”
Despite the wine-induced confidence, Mandi realised she may have had a good reason for volunteering. “The half-marathon was on 4 October and Terry died on 30 September. I knew the one-year anniversary was going to be really tough so I thought if I could just focus on this race, if I spent all my time thinking about October 4, maybe I could get through September 30.”
Racing Against Time
But it was already July and time and fitness were not on her side. Mandi downloaded a training app and put in her current running, her aim and the date of the race – and the app told her she couldn’t do it. In her local running shop, she was also told to have a re-think. Mandi was undeterred. “I lied to the app and I said that I could already run three miles and then it agreed to give me a training plan,” she laughs.
With the support of her virtual training partner, Fran, Mandi gradually built up to running 10-and-a-half miles. On the weekend of the event – the Cancer Research Lee Valley Half-Marathon – the two finally met in person. “It was great meeting her. When you join a support group, because you’ve got something quite intense in common, you tend to form bonds very quickly.”
The two ran together, with Fran pushing Mandi on – “I told her I hated her a couple of times!” – until they finally reached the finish. “We crossed the line and it was the best feeling for about a minute – I was so proud of myself – and literally minute later the first marathoner finished. So I had about 60 seconds of the best feeling in the world, followed by the shattering realisation that someone had done it twice as quickly as I had done!”
Running For Life
Like many first-timers, Mandi immediately vowed not to put herself through it again but it was too late – she had become a runner. “My relationship with running when I was running to burn calories was really different and I think the reason that I was able to stick with it this time was because it was attached to something else.
“When Terry died, I didn’t feel like I was getting anything done. I was failing at life. Running was the only thing that really brought me a sense of accomplishment. It came at just the right time. With the low of the one-year anniversary of his death and then the high of the half-marathon, it was very extreme, but looking back they balanced out quite nicely.”
She couldn’t stop there, and signed up for the Paris Marathon in spring. “The marathon was harder than I thought it would be,” she says. “Up to mile 20 was fine, and then at about mile 23, my mind just checked out. And I think I told my marathon partner that I hated her again. I’m not a nice runner!
“My legs were done, my hip was in agony and then at the end I sprinted, so I was obviously in fine condition. I’m really proud that I finished a marathon. I got back and showed my medal to my form at school, who were in year nine at the time, and they gave me a standing ovation, which was really nice!”
Now Mandi hopes to run another half-marathon, perhaps a bit faster, and is hesitantly planning another full one – but her biggest motivation for running will always be more important than her finish times.
“Running has become a really good part of my life. It helps me manage the bad days, because I know that I’ve had really bad days before and I’ve gone out for a run and it has helped, so now if I know I’ve got a bad day coming up – my birthday or Terry’s birthday, something that will be difficult to handle – planning runs in is helpful.
“But it helps with other things too. I have a stressful job and I have better days when I get up and go for a run in the morning and I’ve had time to gather my thoughts. It still helps in managing my grief and managing my bad days, but it helps on my good days too! It’s really had a positive impact on everything.”
Mandi and her family and in-laws have raised over £3,000 for Meningitis Now in Terry’s memory – visit meningitisnow.org for more information.