Meet a Health Hero: Heather McDanel
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Name: Heather McDanel
Occupation: Director and founder, Students Run Philly Style
Who or what motivates you to be healthy?
Being active and staying healthy to keep one’s mind sharp was a big part of my family’s culture when I grew up. I was raised in a small town in Northeastern Pennsylvania where we spent a lot of our time outside playing games like kickball, Wiffle Ball, tag and other playground games. Being active and healthy has always been a part of me. When I think of my life now, I’m motivated by the work I do with Students Run Philly Style, a program in Philadelphia that enables young people to realize their dreams through distance running. Every day, I work with regular kids who don’t think of themselves as athletes, but who have completed a marathon or are in the middle of training for a marathon. The courage they demonstrate in setting such a goal and the effort they put in to reach it are impressive.
Describe a health- or fitness-related turning point in your life.
Born in Philadelphia, my mother was a fiery redhead who played field hockey and basketball at a time when few women and girls played organized sports. She raised my brother and me to be active and eat healthily. We spent our days on baseball fields and in swimming pools, and our nights eating home-cooked, stir-fried vegetables when other kids ate McDonald’s. When I was a 20-year-old college student, my mother died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 47. The shock of my mother’s death catapulted me to a place that has come to define me: I became a long-distance runner. I needed running—sometimes alone, sometimes in community with others—to process and grieve, and to challenge my idea of health and longevity. It would take a few years for me to understand it, but my mother’s death helped me realize that I needed to become a marathon runner. Becoming a marathon runner has since taught me that I can push myself beyond what I think I am capable of achieving. I will not only survive, but thrive under stress, pain and sometimes anguish. It was on many 20-mile training runs that I came to understand I would be strong enough to endure anything life would throw at me—a lesson that is learned by living, not by talking. This is the precise reason I am so passionate about Students Run Philly Style. We give young people the chance to understand in their guts that they are capable, tenacious and will thrive, despite anything that is thrown at them.
What “policy” would you institute to make Philadelphia a healthier city?
Mandatory recess and physical education for every student.
What’s the most important part of your health or fitness regimen?
Breaking a sweat every day (except for the occasional off day!).
What is your number one piece of health-related advice or encouragement?
Regardless of the activity, you will be a more powerful person emotionally, mentally and physically if you push yourself beyond where you think your limits are.