Duluth News Tribune Feature

Georgetown Running Club members come to Grandma's Marathon mourning death of teammate

By Louie St. George

Published by the Duluth News Tribune on July 13, 2015

Runners long have tailored their training to avoid “heavy legs” on race day.

If only there were a running plan designed to prevent heavy hearts.

Members of the Washington, D.C.-based Georgetown Running Club will arrive in Duluth this week for Grandma’s Marathon toting the latter.

For the second time in less than three years, the GRC is dealing with the sudden passing of a beloved teammate. Nina Brekelmans died June 3 in a fire at her Washington, D.C., rowhouse that also claimed a neighbor. She was 25 and full of ambition.

Brekelmans recently earned her master’s degree in Arab Studies at Georgetown University. After previously spending a year in the Middle East as part of a language and cultural immersion program, she was preparing to return to Jordan later this year on a prestigious Fulbright grant. There, her mission would be empowering women through athletics.

“She was very devoted to the idea of lifting women up, in Jordan in particular, through the ability to be an athlete,” GRC coach Jerry Alexander said last week.

A memorial for Brekelmans was held Wednesday at Georgetown, during which her humility once again was underscored. Brekelmans, originally from Louisville, Ky., never flaunted her many accolades. When she announced she was heading back to Jordan, for example, Brekelmans didn’t mention the Fulbright. And her professors at Georgetown were under the impression that running was a mere hobby, unaware she belonged to a professional team.

“These people from different aspects of her life didn’t know how accomplished she was in other areas,” Alexander said. “She did these incredible things and didn’t tell people. She was so humble about it.”

Alexander is bringing a handful of athletes to the Northland for Grandma’s and the accompanying Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon. Almost all are hell-bent on producing a time that would qualify them for February’s U.S. Olympic Trials in Los Angeles.

Brekelmans’ death hasn’t changed that singular focus. The consummate teammate, she gleaned more satisfaction from her cohorts’ accomplishments than her own. She was immensely proud to be associated with the GRC.

“I feel that the best way to honor Nina is to put it all out there and run a really good race in Duluth,” Kristin Johnson, 25, said. “I think that’s something she would be proud of.”

Johnson, from New Hampshire, is running the full marathon Saturday.

For Johnson’s teammate, Luke Meyer, the past 10 days have reinforced the reality that life is unpredictable, fleeting.

“I don’t want to sound trite, but it definitely has kind of helped me try to make the most of the opportunity that I have and try to give my utmost, knowing that things can change very quickly and that I shouldn’t take anything for granted,” the 31-year-old lawyer from Connecticut said.

Like he did last year, Meyer is running the half-marathon Saturday. He called the course “amazing” and was hoping for a respite from the humidity-laced heat that has gripped D.C. of late. Temperatures were in the 90s Friday.

That, along with a life lost far too soon, has altered the nature of the team’s training. GRC members say in one sense it’s been difficult to run because their minds are elsewhere. On the other hand, however, they say the memory of Brekelmans has buoyed their resolve to “go for it.”

In December 2012, another GRC athlete, Lauren Woodall Roady was struck and killed by a fire truck in Lexington, Ky., site of that year’s USA Track and Field Club Cross Country National Championships.

“It’s two losses for the women’s team, so it’s very shaking,” 28-year-old Kieran O’Connor said. “Everyone’s focus at this point is just kind of grieving Nina and celebrating her spirit.”

O’Connor hopes to run a sub-2:18 over 26.2 miles Saturday, which would qualify him for the Olympic Trials. He’s from upstate New York, just outside of Albany.

Brekelmans provided plenty to celebrate, including a blue-collar devotion to running that allowed her to overcome a lack of God-given speed. While in the Middle East, she won her half-marathon debut near the Dead Sea in Jordan and was thrilled to “wear her GRC shirt on the podium,” according to the team’s blog.

Running didn’t come easy for Brekelmans.

“She had to work harder than any of the other girls just to kind of be able to keep up at the back of the pack, but it meant the world to her to be part of the team,” Alexander said. “She didn’t have the natural gifts that some of the other girls do, but she made the most of what she had.

“And everyone really respected the heck out of her because of that passion that she put into it.”

Alexander was talking about her running.

He just as well could have been talking about her life.

-- One GRC runner who won’t be participating in Grandma’s Marathon is Sean Barrett. After graduating from Harvard in 2007, Barrett had a number of offers to work on Wall Street. He instead chose to join the Marines. Barrett did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star in 2010 while in Iraq. He currently is stationed in California and will be deployed in July to the Philippines. Barrett will be there for at least one year and had hoped to run one more race before departing, but a recent injury curtailed those plans.