Screenshot courtesy Shandi Kano
Shandi Kano

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Running was never the enemy.

But somehow the sport Shandi Kano loved for as long as she can remember got tangled up with what she thought she had to accomplish, with who she thought she had to be, and eventually, the pressure of the pursuit shattered her mind.

Five years after she found herself laying on a cot in a tent at the Boston Marathon as two bombs exploded at the nearby finish line, the 33-year-old Cottonwood Heights woman returns to a race both remade and reinvigorated.

“Every year I always pay attention to the New York City Marathon, and I always pay attention to Boston,” she said. “And I just, I guess I just missed how much fun it was. I missed how good I felt about myself and how happy I was. And I missed that when I went to Boston, I just felt like I’d done it wrong and that I didn’t go into it because I was having fun. I went into it because I wanted to prove something to everyone else.”

Kano’s running career began almost as soon as she could walk.

“The story goes that I had a lot of energy,” she said smiling. “And so my mom would just let me run in the backyard and I would run in laps, like I was on a track.”

Most of her life was defined by racing and training, including running for BYU. Always the excitement and joy was mixed with anxiety and fear.

Still, when she landed her dream job with ESPN after graduating from BYU, it was running that helped her cope with long, stressful workdays in a place she hated living. In 2010, she ran in the New York Marathon for the first time. She ran it again the following year and qualified for Boston with a time of 3 hours and 12 minutes.

“It’s not that fast,” she said. “But amongst my group of friends, it was kind of a big deal. I couldn’t go anywhere without people talking about it and it really built me up. And you buy into yourself, and that’s the problem. So going into Boston, I was like, ‘I’m going to break three hours.’”

She hired a coach and revealed a new promotion at work.

“I am an X Games person and I’m a super fast marathon person,” she said. “Because everything else is. … I hated Connecticut, and I didn’t have a social life anymore because I lost my boyfriend, and that was super sad.”

Every day was “a ton of anxiety,” and she didn’t sleep well for months leading up to the Boston Marathon.

It seems obvious in retrospect that Boston would be a disaster. But it would turn out to be a breaking point that would alter just about everything in her life.

“Around mile 14, I was just like, it wasn’t going to happen,” she said of her time goals. “It was just me wallowing in my own despair. … In my mind, I was like, ‘This must matter. This has to be a thing.’ But it wasn’t a thing, and I just couldn’t get over it.”

As soon as she finished the race, she began having a nervous breakdown. Her body exploded with pain and she couldn’t think clearly as medical personnel took her to a nearby tent. Her father followed her into the tent, and she said her memories are a jumble of clarity and fog.

“I had five nurses on my body holding down each of my limbs,” she said. “I’m just in this mental and emotional agony.

She heard what sounded like two explosions outside the tent. She asked the nurse holding her head what happened.

“It doesn’t matter," said the nurse, cradling her head. "You just need to breathe.”

What Kano and her father didn’t learn until officials told them they needed to clear the tent “to care for the injured” was that two bombs had exploded at the finish line of the country’s most iconic marathon, killing three people.

They wandered the city like zombies, taking juice and food from grief-stricken residents, as police pushed them farther from the finish area.

It wasn’t until she went for a run weeks later that she realized something inside of her had broken in Boston.

“I was running and the wind was super irritating to my skin,” she said. “It felt like it was loud and it was hurting me.”

Her boss gave her a to-do list and she wadded it up and threw it at him, yelling something about people dying and blacking out for part of the conversation.

She went to a neurologist who ran tests confirming she’d indeed had a nervous breakdown and the connections in her brain were misfiring. Her therapist advised a medical leave that she thought would be two weeks.

“I actually thought it was going to be a nice, old vacation,” she said. “A nice little break. Because I was still in fight or flight mode, and I was still fighting. … It ended up being six months.”

Two months before her medical leave ended, ESPN issued massive layoffs. At first, she began looking for new jobs, some within the company. But then a trip to Utah, courtesy of her best friend, changed that.

She was staying with her aunt and uncle and just snowboarding every day when her aunt suggested she move to Utah and stay with them until she figured out what her next move should be.

“It was just like a simple revelatory moment,” she said. She went back to Connecticut, packed up and moved to Utah. A month later, she returned to Boston to run the marathon, even though she’d trained very little.

“I was too terrified to run and too terrified to actually train,” she said.

When she felt panic at the though of a long run, she’d go snowboarding. Two weeks before the Boston 2014 race, she ran 20 miles, just to make sure she could finish. She asked a friend to meet her at mile 25 with three roses, one for each of those lost in the bombing the year before.

“It was unbelievable,” she said of her second Boston experience. “It was the most unbelievably cathartic moment of my life. I’ve never felt anything that was cathartic or that I can relate to it, but it was just insane. When it was over, whatever it was, it lifted off of me, and it was unbelievable. I felt like, ‘Now I can go on with my life. And I started taking small steps to doing that.”

That meant going to the store alone, meeting new people, and maybe even accepting invitations to movies.

She remade herself in Utah’s mountains becoming a formidable trail runner, even winning an ultra marathon. She worked as a freelance journalist and threw away all the measuring sticks she’d used to tear herself down for so many years.

" I just think if you want good things to happen, you just have to make good things happen. "
Shandi Kano

But every fall, as runners from around the world gather for the New York Marathon, she felt a yearning that never really left her. So when a friend found a coach who seemed to be able to balance the pursuit of personal excellence with perspective that it should bring joy, she decided to return to road running.

“I guess I just felt whole enough and complete enough that I could go back safely to this place,” she said. “But I knew it was going to take a lot of work to get back there safely. My goal was totally different this time. It was not to break three hours, it was to feel good about everything we’re doing and to have fun. I wanted to love it again.”

Her training has revealed more than her natural speed and strength. It’s shown her that resilience is a choice she makes every day when she focuses on something positive, whether it comes from her coach or a friend.

Kano also accepts herself the way she is.

“When I looked at going back to this race, I said, ‘Yeah, the goal is to have fun,’” she said. “The goal is to love it and come into myself again and to heal this piece of me where I just ruined something I love. But I’m still competitive. I can’t ignore that piece of me that says ‘I’m going to put everything I have into this physically and mentally and yeah, I’m going to try to heal all the other parts too. But I’m not going to ignore that I want a freaking PR.’”

She heads to New York for the marathon in two weeks, but it isn’t just her approach that’s different. It’s her purpose. She’s raising money for Team MR8, which is the charity created by the family of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who was killed at the finish of the 2013 Boston Marathon. She hopes to raise $3,500, and she’s about $1,000 short as of this writing.

She isn’t worried about the fundraising or the training. She isn’t worried about what anyone else thinks or what some might expect. All she’s doing is focusing on how good it feels to be in the embrace of an old friend.

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When she reflects on how her journey seems to be taking her full circle, Kano is profoundly practical.

“I just think if you want good things to happen, you just have to make good things happen.”

Life is complicated and sometimes what we love simplifies that, other times it makes it much more complicated and painful.

But Kano is right. She wanted to find a way back to the sport she loved, and she looked for a path where she couldn’t just manage, she could thrive.

“I wanted to heal this,” she pauses briefly, her gaze piercing, her voice soft. “And so, I did.”