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Caiti Kean didn’t even know what time it was or how long she had been running when she approached the final leg of the Leading Ladies Marathon last August.

Coming off an emotional week that included the death of her grandfather and a personal heartbreak, Kean, 31, didn’t have high expectations for the race. It wasn’t until she reached the 24th mile that she checked her phone and realized she was well ahead — 34 minutes to be exact — of her last marathon.

When Kean crossed the finish line at 3 hours, 28 minutes and 30 seconds, she was told she had qualified for the Boston Marathon, a prestigious run that requires a qualifying time on a qualifying course.

“I grabbed my dad’s hand and we both started laughing and crying,” Kean said of the moment. “It was the most surreal moment I’ve had in running.”

Kean submitted her application for the April 16 race and remembers when she received her official invitation.

“I sat on my couch and cried,” she said. “It’s amazing. It’s a very elite group that gets to go to this race.”

It’s a far cry from where Kean was more than a decade earlier.

“I was very overweight in middle school and high school,” said Kean, who grew up in Rapid City and attended St. Thomas More High School. Her parents, Rosie and Tom Kean, are retired from the Air Force and live in Rapid City.

Kean, who said she “avoided exercise at all costs,” grew tired of being teased and uncomfortable, and set a goal to hit the treadmill three times a week. It was slow going at first, she said. She walked, and then ran 10 or 15 seconds, and then walked again.

But through consistency, and healthier eating habits, she lost weight. It was the encouragement of friends — and her parents — that helped her sign up for her first relay marathon.

“It was five miles and I wanted to die,” she said, laughing.

But she was hooked, and a friend encouraged signing up for a half marathon.

“I just kept at it,” she said, eventually losing 100 pounds. In college, however, she realized that she had gotten to an unhealthy weight and cut back on her weight loss.

Even while earning a doctorate degree in nursing from Creighton University and working, running remained a constant for Kean, who is now a nurse practitioner at Rapid City Regional Hospital.

“I’ve met so many people who have impacted my life,” Kean said. “Complete strangers have become lifelong friends. It’s just putting one foot in front of the other and we wouldn’t have crossed paths otherwise.”

Running, she said, is a way to challenge yourself.

“You have to get a little uncomfortable,” she said. “It’s one of the most beautiful types of pain. It doesn’t feel good, but who can say they’ve run 26 miles? And from barely walking a mile to running 26?”

Kean said part of her perspective comes from an experience she had two years ago, when doctors found a mass on her sternum.

“One morning I woke up and I couldn’t swallow,” she said. A chest X-ray revealed a growing mass and she underwent surgery the following day. “It was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. Waiting for the results, the minutes felt like days.”

The results revealed that the mass was cancer-free, but it was enough to remind Kean of the fragility of life.

“It just humbled me,” she said. “Every day is a gift.”

Running has reminded her that it’s OK to push yourself.

“Some days it’s great,” she said. “Some days it’s a struggle. There are some days when the last thing I want to do is get up at 4 a.m. in 20 degree weather and run 10 miles.”

But she does. And for those early, hard runs, her dad is right there with her, encouraging her, keeping the headlights on when it’s still dark out and giving a pep talk every now and then.

“My mom and dad have been to all my races, with drinks and a change of clothes at the end,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to do this without them.”

Not true, they say.

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“Caiti deserves all the credit,” Rosie said. “She’s just gone for it. It’s been great watching her progress and change, not just with her weight, but with her eating habits and positive outlook. Now she says, ‘I can do anything.’”

Tom agreed.

“We go out and drive the water wagon and cheer her on,” she said.

They have been counting down to the Boston race.

“We hope she enjoys it, and feels proud about where she came from and sets more goals,” Tom said.

One of her long-term goals, Kean said, is promoting the benefits of running.

“Running is a high, but it’s also really humbling,” she said, because it affects every part of you. “It’s mental clarity, physical health, being active. It’s doing something for yourself … I am a better nurse practitioner, friend, coworker and daughter because of it.”

Kean thinks back to the girl she was in high school and said there are several lessons she would pass on to another young person. “You can do anything you want,” she said. “Be willing to get out of your comfort zone. Embrace the pain. Anything that is really worth it, you have to work for.”

She does hope to inspire someone else.

“I’m running a marathon, but I started off walking on a treadmill,” she said. “You have to be willing to work.”

As the clock ticks down to the biggest race she has faced, Kean said she is focused on living in the moment.

“I never dreamed of this happening,” she said. “I just want to take everything in. I have friends who have run it and they say to just live it, breathe it. It’s an honor to be there.”

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