By Chris Rossetti
NEW BETHLEHEM, Pa. – For a pair of Redbank Valley graduates, April 18 is a day they have dreamed about for years.
It’s because on that day, Tristen (Rankin) Best, a 2006 graduate, and Nikki (Boyels) O’Neil, a 2009 graduate, will both run in the Boston Marathon.
“I guess from a senior in high school on I’ve always watched the Boston Marathon,” Best, who qualified for Boston in the first marathon she ever ran (Erie) in September, said. “It’s always something I had in mind that I wanted to do. I thought it would be pretty neat to make it. It was sort of a bucket-list thing.”
O’Neil, who will be running her sixth marathon, compares qualifying for the Boston Marathon as her Olympics.
“It’s a big accomplishment for a runner,” O’Neil said. “Boston is the Olympics for the non-elites in my opinion. It’s a very exciting thing.”
Best and O’Neil’s paths to marathon running having taken drastically different routes.
Best was a high-level runner at Redbank Valley and set school records in the mile and two-mile runs while qualifying for the PIAA meet as both a junior and senior, while O’Neil didn’t run track for the Lady Bulldogs but did play softball.
“I was the designated runner on the softball team,” O’Neil recalled. “I stole a bunch of bases. I learned I was pretty good at running then, and it kind of stuck. It was my stress reliever in high school, and it kind of stuck from there.”
O’Neil, who now lives outside of Rimersburg, was the first of the two – who didn’t know each other until recently – to take up marathon running running her first in 2014 in Pittsburgh. Since then, she had completed two Wineglass Marathons in the Finger Lakes area of New York, the Gettysburg Marathon and the Titusville Marathon.
“I did a half-marathon three years ago in Cook Forest, and I did well,” O’Neil said. “I was like, I can do this, let’s step it up a notch. I think before I did the marathon, I did a 12-hour endurance race where you ran as many miles as you could in 12 hours. I was hooked after that.”
Best, meanwhile, had run half-marathons, 5Ks and 10Ks before last year but had never found time to run a marathon, after all she is the busy mother of three children under the age of six.
“Last May, I started training for the Erie Marathon,” Best said. “It was something I’ve always wanted to do but could never find time time.”
Both runners are thankful for the support they’be gotten from their families.
“My husband, Dustin, have been very supportive,” Best said. “My oldest daughter, Emery, who will be six in May (Best also has a 4-year old, Kerrigan and a 1 ½-year old, Brogan), understands what I’m doing too.”
O’Neil, who is newly married – she actually submitted her application for Boston while on her honeymoon – said her husband, Jon, is very supportive as well even if he teases her that she is crazy for running marathons.
“He tell me I’m crazy all the time,” O’Neil said with a laugh. “I tell him I only have to run 10 miles today, and he says that’s crazy. But he’s been to all but one of the marathons I’ve run and to most of the half marathons. He always makes nice little signs for me and finds me midway through the race to cheer me on. With him not being a runner, the fact he is willing to wait around during a three-plus-hour race, it’s very, very nice.”
While Jon might not run with O’Neil, she does have a family running companion in her dog, Bentley.
“My dog runs with me most of the time,” O’Neil said. “I take him up to 10 miles with me and then take him home and finish.”
Both Best (3:24:48) and O’Neil (3:30:08 at the 2014 Wineglass) have run similar marathon times, but neither is aiming for a specific time in Boston.
“At this point, I don’t want to run it for a time,” Best said. “I want to run to enjoy it. I’ve already done the hard part for it. I just want to go out and have fun.”
“I’m excited just to go,” O’Neil echoed. “I don’t really care what my time is. I just want to take in the experience and soak it all in. Who knows if I will get to do it again.”
The milder winter experienced in Clarion County was a blessing to both runners.
“I don’t own a treadmill, so all my training is outside,” O’Neil said. “The weather has been very much to my advantage. There were only a couple of days where it was really, really cold. It’s definitely been a benefit.”
Best said a bad winter was her big worry after running the qualifying time in September.
“The milder winter extremely helped in training,” Best said. “I was really worried about it because I had done all summer training for the Erie Marathon. I knew what was involved in training, and the conditions worried me. The fact we had a mild winter helped a lot. I got lucky with that.”