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Illinois National Guard Friends Complete Marathon Challenge

Pheidippides, the original marathon runner, was a Soldier in the Greek Army who ran roughly 26 miles to Athens to give news of the Greek victory at Marathon. Then he died.  

Illinois Air National Guard Lt. Col. Kira Tierney of Middletown, the commander of the 183rd Force Support Squadron based in Springfield, and retired Illinois Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer 4 Rachelle McKay of Hartselle, Alabama have run six marathons, roughly 160 miles.   

Both are still alive!  

One of the ultimate feats in the running world is to complete a major marathon.  There’s a special breed of runners though that say one just isn’t enough. For those, the Abbott World Marathon Majors began a program to incentivize runners to complete all six world marathons: Boston, New York, Berlin, London, Chicago, and Tokyo.   

On March 3, Tierney and McKay officially became “Six Star Finishers” by completing their sixth marathon in Tokyo, Japan.  

So, what does it feel like to cross the finish line after your sixth major marathon?  

“There was a lot of emotions. Relief was probably the biggest,” Tierney said. Her goal was to finish, not to place. But there are strict cut-off times even for those in the back of the pack. “I wrote the cut offs on my arm so I could keep track of where I was at on the course and how much time I had until the next checkpoint.” 

McKay agreed. “(There was) lots of relief and happiness,” she said. “Relief because the cut off times are so strict and there is so much stress prior to the race on whether Kira and I were going to make the cutoffs. Happiness for completing the Abbott World Marathon Majors challenge because I know so many never get the chance. Happy that Kira and I were able to do the challenge together with our friends and families over the years and all over the world.” 

The Line Up 

Their journey began with the world’s oldest – the Boston Marathon, which grew from 15 runners in 1897 to become the world’s most venerable footrace.  

Boston was ornery on April 16, 2018, when Tierney and McKay faced its path route of rolling hills from Hopkinton, Mass., to Boylston Street in Boston. Drenching rain, high winds, and with wind chills in the 20s made for apocalyptically atrocious running conditions.  It was the worst running conditions on record in over three decades.  A total of 2,785 runners received medical attention with multiple reports of hypothermia and 81 runners had to be transported to local hospitals for treatment.  

“That was by far the worst conditions I have ever been exposed to.  However, with those conditions being our first of the series - any running conditions after that was a piece of cake,” Tierney said. “Chief and I would often say, ‘Hey at least this isn’t 2018 Boston weather.’”  

It was shortly after the 2018 Boston Marathon that Tierney heard about the World Majors from a podcast she was listening to.  “That’s when I got this crazy idea to attempt to complete all six marathons,” Tierney said.  “I didn’t want to do this alone, but who would be crazy enough to join me?” 

Then she thought of her close friend and running buddy, Rachelle McKay. McKay’s response: “Does 2018 Boston count or do we have to do that one again?”  

She had taken the bait.  

The New York City Marathon: On Nov. 3, 2019, Tierney and McKay toed the starting line with more than 54,000 of their compatriots to run through New York City’s five boroughs. Starting at the Verrazzano Bridge on Staten Island, running through Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan to the finish line in Central Park. Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya won the race in 2:08:13. Tierney and McKay both finished and survived to run another day.  

The Berlin Marathon: McKay blazed through Brandenberg Gate earning another star on Sept. 29, 2021.  But Berlin was a struggle the first time for Tierney, who could not finish the race in 2021. Tierney returned to Germany on Sept. 25, 2022.  

“I had no business toeing the line in 2021. I had not been in the right mental headspace and was very undertrained,” Tierney said. “My ‘stubborn self’ thought that I could walk it within the allotted time. I was sorely mistaken. I knew I needed to stay on the same completion timeline with Rachelle. Rachelle was scheduled for ankle surgery in 2021 and needed to take running break in 2022, so this allowed me time to go back to Berlin and redeem myself and to stay on the same timeline.”  

The London Marathon: On April 23, 2023, just days before McKay’s 50th birthday, the Illinois National Guard duo ran London’s world-famous course past the more than 2,000-year-old city’s most iconic landmarks. Running across Tower Bridge, they had spectacular views of the London Eye and Big Ben, and taking a final right turn, they finished in front of Buckingham Palace.  

For McKay, the London Marathon came at a difficult time, and she relied on her friend for the support she needed to get through.  

“I don’t remember much about the London race. My mom was dying, and I shortened my trip to as short as possible so that I could get back home,” McKay said.  

Tierney’s father, Carl Crocker, had died a little more than a month before the pair ran the New York City Marathon in 2019. She understood what it was like to lose a loving parent and to push through that grief to complete a 26.2-mile run. She did everything she could to support her friend. 

“My mom was one of my biggest supporters and I knew she would want me to go but it was a tough time in life for me. Kira lost her dad during this challenge and she supported my choice to shorten my time in London by going to the expo for me and collecting my bib and timing piece. It was another way that we bonded over the years of completing this challenge.” 

McKay’s mother, Vivian Lester, died three days after her daughter successfully completed the London Marathon. Vivian had a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, but supported her daughter’s endeavors and celebrated her accomplishments throughout her life.   

For Tierney, the London Marathon was special. She was able to complete it with her friend, McKay, and support her while also enjoying ‘London Town.’   

“Of all the races, London was probably my favorite. Being able to see all the sites, running across Tower Bridge and the crowd support was unmatched,” Tierney said.   

The Chicago Marathon: It was back home in Illinois for the 45th running of the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 8, 2023.  The two women both earned their 5th Star on the same day and course that Kelvin Kiptom set the world record of 2:00:35! 

The Tokyo Marathon: On March 3, Tierney and McKay completed their journey and earned their sixth star in the ‘City of the Rising Sun.’ But only after adjusting to more than 24 hours of travel and a 15-hour time change. Jet lag was not going to stop them from completing their six-marathon, 160-mile, running journey.  

After they crossed the finish line, Tierney’s mind immediately went to the future. “My first thought after finishing was…well, what’s next?” she said. Whatever future challenges lie ahead for this dynamic duo in running shoes, they were able to accomplish something together that very few others have obtained.   

Outdistancing Discrimination: Both Tierney and McKay both understand that their grandmothers, even their mothers, would not have been allowed to participate in one marathon, never mind six.  

“I am grateful for history, not for the discrimination itself, but for the women who showed up for the races showing the world that women could run long distances too. I am grateful for all of the runners who continue to show up all over the world,” McKay said.  

Women were not allowed to run in the marathons in Boston or New York City until 1972. There was even pseudo-science to justify this discrimination with claims that a woman’s uterus would fall out or she would grow hair on her chest if she ran long distances. Per the Amateur Athletic Union, women were only allowed to run up to 1.5 miles – less than the Army physical fitness test.  

But that didn’t mean that all women waited for permission. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer entered the Boston Marathon as “K.V. Switzer” to hide her gender. Two miles in, an official tried to eject her from the course, a moment captured in dramatic photographs. Switzer overcame the assault to become the first woman to officially finish the race.  

The year before, Bobbi Gibbs ran the Boston Marathon without an official number hiding in a bush near the starting line, disguising herself with a hoodie and men’s gym shorts, and starting the race when most of the men had already crossed the starting point. To the cheers of the crowd, she finished the race faster than more than half of the men. 

“I’m thankful for all the women marathon trailblazers - the Katherine Switzers, Bobbi Gibbs, and Joan Beniots of the world,” Tierney said. “The mindset in the late 1960s early 1970s toward women runners baffles me. I can’t image a time that women could not sign up for a race.”  

Women runners now continue to excel. In June 1972, a new federal law known as Title IX was enacted stating “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” This opened the door for female distance runners. On average, 45.7 percent of American marathon participants are now women. 

“Women have only gotten faster over the years.  The current women’s marathon world record is 2:11:53 set by Tigist Assefa,” Tierney said. “That’s a 5:01 per mile split for 26.2 miles!  There isn’t a lot of people that can do that for 2 miles for their fitness test.” 

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