Her blonde hair tied back in a ponytail.
Steam rising with every breath.
Kaitlyn Kiely pushes a racing wheelchair filled with three 50-pound bags of salt through the cold streets of Boston. She runs mostly, but she also walks.
She has miles to go and a promise to keep.
On Monday, Kiely will run all 26 miles of the Boston Marathon course, fulfilling a pledge she made to her boyfriend Matt Wetherbee last year, after she ran the race for the first time.
Kiely, a 30-year-old graduate of Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan, NJ, promised Wetherbee that the two would run the race together – no mean feat, considering Wetherbee is paralyzed.
Two years ago, one week before Wetherbee was to get on one knee to pop the big question, he suffered a catastrophic accident. He fell head-first into a gym wall while playing league basketball with friends, a freak accident that would leave him paralyzed from the shoulders down.
So, every day, as she has done for months, Kiely lifts the bags of salt, places them into the three-wheeled black and yellow racing chair and pushes on in preparation for the race. It has been too cold for Wetherbee to sit in the chair, so the 150 pounds of salt will have to do until race day.
She pushes the chair and the salt, sometimes more than 15 miles and some days up Heartbreak Hill. It’s more than just the name of the toughest uphill section of the Boston Marathon course for Kiely. Sometimes it’s about her and Wetherbee.
“People tell me I’m crazy,” Kiely said. “I’m told I’m the first female to run the marathon route pushing an adult male. I’m preparing. I’m not going to half-ass it, I won’t take no for an answer and I won’t give up.”
Kiely and Wetherbee did not qualify to run the official Boston Marathon on April 16. Unlike most races, runners must qualify to participate. The couple was told six duo teams, the maximum allowed, had already made the cut.
That’s OK, Kiely said. “If the Boston Athletic Association won’t let us in, screw you, we will run it anyway,” she said. “Can’t stop us.”
Instead, Kiely and Wetherbee will run the race course one week early. It’s part of her not taking no for an answer.
On Monday, the couple, along with friends and strangers who have promised to join them, will kick off their race at 9 a.m. from Hopkington, where the official race will begin a week later.
The race, Kiely said, is unfinished business she must see to the end.
So, as she pushes the 150 pounds of salt in the chair days before the event, she listens to music or digital books to be distracted. It doesn’t always work. Some days, as she runs, her thoughts are on her boyfriend and their life before and after the accident.
Love at first sight
“I first saw him at the Jersey Shore. I walked up to him and told him…you know you are adorable. He turned real red, he blushed, and then followed me around like a puppy dog the rest of the night,” she said of the first time they met almost seven years ago.
She had just graduated with a degree in speech therapy and he with a degree in sports management. The two hit it off immediately. Eventually Kiely moved to Boston, Wetherbee’s home state, where she would pursue her master’s degree at Northeastern University.
Things were great and Wetherbee planned to propose.
Then the accident.
Kiely had just put squash in the oven on the night of June 7, 2016. They had plans to eat dinner together. Then the call came that would change their lives.
“I remember that for some reason I asked him not to play basketball that night…I don’t even know why,” Kiely said.
Wetherbee’s fall caused a spinal cord injury, similar to diving into a shallow pool. There were no breaks, but ligaments were torn and he was not moving.
The next few months were a blur. Wetherbee underwent surgery and Kiely remained by his side. There was the pneumonia and the time Wetherbee “actually died for 2 minutes.” It was an emotional roller coaster full of heartbreak, Kiely said.
Three days after the accident Wetherbee turned 29 and doctors told him they could “guarantee that he would be able to eat and breathe and talk on his own. That’s it,” Kiely said.
The couple moved to a one-floor apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts, and they are learning to adapt to their new lives, Kiely said. It includes sharing a motorized mattress that turns Wetherbee every 3 seconds all night long to prevent sores, his body spasms, urinary bags, fear of catching a debilitating cold, and living with health aides, wheelchairs and special equipment in their home.
Kiely said life is moving forward. She works during the day and comes home to Wetherbee at night. He spends four days a week at a rehabilitation center where he has gained strength and is making strides. His round-the-clock care and rehabilitation is expensive. Hotshot, a muscle cramp company, is Kiely’s marathon sponsor and will donate $25,000 to Wetherbee’s care. The sponsor hopes others will also donate. A fundraising page in Wetherbee’s name was set up. Sports celebrities who met Wetherbee when he worked in the sports management field have made donations, and some will join the run.
Post accident, there are many moments of happiness. Vacations, dinner out, watching movies together and spending time with family and friends.
There are also many moments of sadness and heartbreak.
She wonders what the future will bring. Will the man she loves ever be able to hug her again? Will they ever have children? Will he ever walk again?
When she dreams of him, she said he’s not paralyzed. He’s walking. Waking up brings with it the reality of the situation, which makes her sad, she said. Wetherbee, too, at first dreamed he was not paralyzed. Now, he only dreams that he has use of his arms. The future is unclear, she said, except for their love for each other.
In the present, Kiely pushes a chair with bags of salt through the cold streets of Boston — she, after all, has a promise to keep.