Support the news
It was 6 o'clock on a recent morning, and Keila Merino and I were running up Harlem Hill with a homeless man named Miguel. Harlem Hill is the steepest, longest climb in New York City's Central Park.
Merino’s a volunteer with Back on My Feet, a non-profit that leads morning runs for homeless people three or four times a week. That morning was the first time that Miguel and Merino had run together. But Kenny D ran with Merino several times over the past few months.
"She’ll say, 'Keep going, Kenny. Keep going,'" he recalled. "You know, and I want to say, 'No, stop.' I feel stronger now."
They, at one point, had their lives together, and it just kind of went wrong somewhere. And they’re just trying to get back.Keila Merino, ultramarathoner
"You know what? It’s like my brain has awakened, because I’m thinking a little clearer," he said. "You know, problem solving is becoming a lot easier. We run by the river, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the sun rise over the water, and it’s like tranquil. You hear the ducks."
Not Your Average Volunteer
Terence Gerchberg joined us on our run, and he and I pulled ahead. Gerchberg’s the executive director of Back on My Feet’s New York City chapter, and he’s known Merino for years.
"All we ask volunteers is to show up once a week, or when they can, and just run with people, motivate people," he said. "I mean, she’s such an accomplished runner. It’s actually crazy what people could learn from her."
You wouldn’t guess it from her unassuming, five-foot stature, long black hair and soft voice, but Merino, 34, has completed more marathons and ultramarathons than she can count, including seven 100-mile races and seven Boston Marathons.
So Merino is more than just your average volunteer, and Back on My Feet is more than just your average running club.
Morning practices end with the serenity prayer, but the organization's work continues throughout the day. Back on My Feet also offers classes that teach skills like interviewing for a job and financial literacy. Participants who have 90 percent attendance or better can get additional help, like a metro card to get to work or a security deposit for a new apartment. Merino got involved in Back on My Feet a little over a year ago.
"Once you meet these guys, I mean, they have so many crazy stories," she said. "They, at one point, had their lives together, and it just kind of went wrong somewhere. And they’re just trying to get back."
'I Just Kept Going And Going'
After practice, Merino and I found a bench in the northwest corner of Central Park and talked about her life journey. She knows what it's like to face challenges. The first time she ran for the sake of running — and not to get somewhere or to play soccer — Merino was 9 years old. Her family had just immigrated to the U.S. from Ozumba, Mexico.
"I didn’t understand what the whole concept was of running a mile," she said. "And my gym teacher — I didn’t speak any English — so he just said, 'Run,' and I just kept going and going ... till he told me to stop."
Turned out, Merino was the fastest kid in her fourth grade class. Now, she’s regularly a top finisher in major ultramarathons. Last year, she decided to push herself even further and set out to complete the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning.
"I really didn’t know what I was doing," she said, "’cause I’d never done anything like that, where it’s four 100-milers within the period of like three months."
The first leg of the Grand Slam was the Western States Endurance Run, a grueling 100-mile race that includes both snow on the highest mountain passes and scorching temperatures in the low valleys. Ultramarathoners are known for pushing their bodies past their limits, but at Western States, Merino took that a bit too far.
"Going down into the canyons, I didn’t drink water. Going up the canyon, I start puking," Merino remembered. "So I get to the top, and I’ve already lost like five pounds. Mile 40, I couldn’t take anything in — like no water. So I basically ran on empty. I literally crawled. I’m not kidding. Like there were hills that people were running up. I was literally on all fours."
Merino finished the race. It took her 28 hours.
"What kept me going actually is they give you a bracelet that says 'Grand Slammer,' and I just kept seeing that and I kept thinking, 'I have to finish this because I am a Grand Slammer.'”
Only about 300 people have ever completed the Grand Slam. Merino is one of them.
Back In Time For School
But she's not done yet. Merino plans to spend next summer running from L.A. to New York City. Her goal is to raise money for Back on My Feet while breaking the world record for the fastest run by a woman across the U.S. To do that, she’ll need to run 50 miles every day for two months. And she has a hard deadline: she has to be back in New York in time for school to start in September.
"I’m an elementary school teacher," Merino explained. "My class is third grade bilingual, which means that I basically have mostly Spanish, and then we try to transition them into English."
Merino never planned to become a teacher, just as she never really planned to become a competitive distance runner. But, after college, she discovered that she loved to teach students who remind her of herself.
"It’s pretty stressful," she said, "but I think when I come out running, especially here in the park, I always am thinking about what to do next with my students, how can I push them better?"
When she runs across the U.S., Merino said, she’ll be thinking of those kids — and setting an example of what’s possible when you refuse to give up.
This segment aired on October 10, 2015.