This was not how she expected her first marathon to go. 15.5 miles into the race, Mary Shertenlieb stood shivering in the lobby of a Dunkin’ Donuts. For hours, the three-time cancer survivor had been battling driving rains, punishing winds, and unrelenting cold weather in order to cross the finish line of the 2018 Boston Marathon®. But as she stood there talking to her husband, she realized that was not going to happen—at least, not the way she had originally planned.
“Mentally I felt like I could keep going, since getting through cancer had been way harder,” recalls Shertenlieb. “But physically, my body just wouldn’t let me.”
It was here the pair came up with a plan. Shertenlieb would go home, change, and eat dinner; then, when, the rain stopped she would come back and finish the race. Five hours later she returned to the course, and at 12:18 a.m. she crossed the finish line.
“When I got to Boylston Street that’s when it became real,” explains Shertenlieb. “That’s when I knew it was going to happen, even if I had to crawl across the finish line.”
The final straightaway fulfilled a promise Shertenlieb had made to herself after she was diagnosed with leukemia.
How She Got There
In 2013, Shertenlieb, a mother of two, noticed she was constantly feeling tired. Initially she thought the flu might be the cause, but when her symptoms worsened, she decided to see a doctor.
From there, things moved quickly. Blood tests showed Shertenlieb had an aggressive form of acute myeloid leukemia. Due to her condition she had to immediately begin intensive chemotherapy and was admitted to the hospital for five weeks. During this time Shertenlieb was in isolation and unable to see her two boys because they were so young.
Shertenlieb’s cancer would return that same year, and again the next. In 2014 she underwent an allogeneic transplant, and after another relapse received a donor lymphocyte infusion, with her sister serving as the donor. Since the infusion she has stayed in remission.
“I can honestly say Dana-Farber saved my life with these treatments,” says Shertenlieb. “I am so thankful for my amazing, kind, and smart medical team.”
Just as Shertenlieb’s treatment at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center stuck with her, her personality had a lasting impact on her physicians.
“Mary is an indomitable character,” says her oncologist, Robert Soiffer, MD. “What’s remarkable about her is her eagerness to give back to her community. She refuses to give in to her condition.”
That generosity was on full display during Shertenlieb’s fundraising campaign for the 2018 Boston Marathon, which she ran as a member of the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team to benefit the Institute’s Claudia Adams Barr Program in Innovative Basic Cancer Research.
Another Marathon on the Horizon
While she initially wanted that rain-soaked evening to be the end of her marathon career, Shertenlieb received an unexpected call. Michelob Ultra had heard Shertenlieb’s story, they told her, and they wanted to offer her a spot on their 2018 New York City Marathon team. Along with her entry Shertenlieb would receive coaching from 2017 race winner Shalane Flanagan, and a contribution of $10,000 to Dana-Farber.
While the offer caught her off-guard, Shertenlieb jumped at the opportunity. She sees it as another chance to tell her story.
“When I was sick, I used to scour the Internet for stories of hope, and for people who got over having cancer and went on to do things,” says Shertenlieb. “I thought, if my story can help just one person get through a tough procedure or their treatments, then I’ve done something good.”
While Shertenlieb vows this will be her last marathon for the foreseeable future, she admits she could be pulled out of early retirement to run a marathon in Hawaii.