Family inspired marathoner

Published 12:30 am Sunday, May 8, 2011

On Mother’s Day, Zena Keen credits her family with helping her prepare and run the Boston Marathon last month.

Her family, however, thinks it’s high time she hit the spotlight.

“She is so inspirational,” said her younger daughter, Kyt Bonner, a Vicksburg physical therapist. “She is one of those people who, when she sets her mind to do something, she does it.”

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Keen, 56, ran Boston in 4 hours and 35 seconds, her personal best for the 26-mile, 385-yard distance. She finished 87th in her division, beating more than 78 percent of the women in her age group in the run on April 17.

“I do it because I enjoy it,” said Keen, a personnel administrator for the Vicksburg Warren School District. “It keeps me in good physical shape and makes me feel good mentally. I’ve been able to meet a lot of good friends through running. And it makes you disciplined.”

That discipline keeps Keen lacing her running shoes every day — in the sweltering summer, the dark and chill of winter and the steep hills and hollows of Vicksburg and Warren County.

Keen also happens to be gifted enough that in her very first marathon, in Baton Rouge in 2009, she ran fast enough to qualify to compete in one of the world’s elite marathons, Boston.

“I probably would not have gone had my family not been there for me,” she said, including in that group not just those who went with her to Boston — husband David, transportation manager for the school district; Bonner and her husband, Mike; and sister Tommye Barnett and her husband, Greg, who traveled from Denver — but also the ones who stayed behind, older daughter Dru Holdiness and son Dusty, who sent text messages and called.

“Boston was cold, but a great experience,” David Keen said. “I was so pleased and happy for her that she did so well.”

Sports has been a priority for Zena Keen all her life, and she kept it that way while raising a family.

After playing multiple sports in high school and afterwards in city recreation leagues, she and David often coached their children’s teams — basketball, baseball and softball, soccer — in addition to shuttling them to practices many nights during the week.

“As an adult I look back and realize how much she sacrificed for us,” Bonner said. “She always put herself last. She was going to take care of everybody else’s needs first and then her own.”

“Getting your kids involved in anything — athletics, band, any extracurricular activity — makes them well-rounded,” Zena Keen said. “It’s like life; sports is like life. It’s getting along with other people, overcoming your differences, realizing you are not always going to be first but doing the best you can. It’s what life is all about.”

In recent years with the children grown, she began entering some of the local races in Vicksburg. She won the overall women’s masters category twice in the Chill in the Hills race and completed the Over the River Run and Run Thru History multiple times. All are 10K races, or 6.2 miles.

Then her friend Beth Krapac asked Keen to help her train for some longer runs, she said, and the two women began running longer distances. Keen ran her first marathon in Baton Rouge in December 2009, finishing in 4 hours and 7 minutes.

She followed it February 2010 with the Rock and Roll marathon in New Orleans, and then the Gulf Coast marathon at the Stennis Space Center in Nov. 2010.

“Beth and my other running buddies realized my times had qualified me to run the Boston Marathon,” she said. They told her she simply had to go for it.

“And I don’t like crowds,” Keen said with a laugh, pointing out that with more than 25,000 entrants, there is no avoiding crowds in Boston.

Keen said race day was chilly and began early, with her getting in line at 6:30 a.m. for the bus to Hopkinton, Mass., for the start of the race. Other than some leg cramps at the 20-mile mark, going up Boston’s famed Heartbreak Hill, a nearly half-mile ascent, she was thrilled with the experience.

Once the race was over, she took a few days off from running but then wanted to get back into her running shoes. “The hard part is getting her to rest,” said Bonner.

Looking back on the race last week, Keen said she is happy with her accomplishment but is keeping it in perspective.

“As exciting and challenging running Boston was for me, I realize how very insignificant it really is in the scheme of things,” she said. “With all the issues in the world today and the current natural disasters that folks have been dealing with and are dealing with, I do know how blessed I really am.”