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posted: 5/4/2010 12:01 AM

One for the aged: Lombard grandma wins her group at Boston Marathon

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  • Doris Schertz, 71, came home from the Boston Marathon with a first-place medal in her age category. Her proud grandchildren filled the front window of her Lombard home with handmade congratulations.

      Doris Schertz, 71, came home from the Boston Marathon with a first-place medal in her age category. Her proud grandchildren filled the front window of her Lombard home with handmade congratulations.
    Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer


Doris Schertz crossed the finish line at the grueling Boston Marathon in 4:25:04.

The time and Schertz's appearance - she looks much younger than her 71 years - prompted a race official to joke at the awards ceremony that a check of Schertz's birth certificate might be in order.

Schertz, matriarch of a family of runners, placed first in her 70-74 age group in what many consider the most prestigious of marathons. Her finish in the April 19 race bested the combined average time for women of all age groups.

"Any time you win your age group in a marathon, it's a huge accomplishment - but especially Boston, because you have to qualify to be there," said Kathy Daniels, communications coordinator for the Chicago Area Runners Association.

Schertz, a 5-foot-2, 105-pound dynamo from Lombard returned home with a first-place medal, an engraved crystal vase and some very tired legs.

"The older you are, the longer it takes to recover," she said.

But only a week later, she was running on the Illinois Prairie Path and looking forward to her next event - the Soldier Field 10 Mile Race on May 29 in Chicago.

Her story is an inspiration for anybody who ever woke up at age 50 or so and thought "I've got to start taking care of myself."

Schertz had her "Aha!" moment when the youngest of her six children left for college. Her husband Dave, a math teacher at Glenbard East High School, had taken an early retirement. And though she was still working at the College of DuPage, she had some time to herself - for the first time in decades.

She signed up for an exercise class at the YMCA in Glen Ellyn. The workout included a 1-mile run. "I would get back before everybody else finished," she said.

Running is a family tradition. Dave Schertz has completed 19 marathons. Several of their children ran cross-county and track.

And three of her granddaughters - Erica, Jamie and Adrienne Schertz - were on the seven-member Naperville North High School cross-country team that placed third at state in 2007. "Half the team were Schertzes, " she said proudly.

Doris started out slowly, running two or three miles before work. She ran her first 5K and did well. Those were followed by 10Ks, too.

She coped with blisters, shin splints and other runners' maladies. She doesn't have a coach or a trainer, but she does have a podiatrist, a chiropractor and her husband, who became a licensed massage therapist after he retired.

In 2005, the Chicago running group offered marathon training in Wheaton.

"I asked my husband, 'Do you think I could ever run a marathon?'" she recalled. "He thought for five or 10 seconds, and said 'Yes, I think you could.' "Knowing he was in my corner, I gave it a shot," she said.

She met the woman who would become her running buddy at the first training meeting. Gale Wiedman, of Glen Ellyn, had just retired as principal of Schiesher Elementary School in Lisle and was looking for a new challenge. Schertz asked her if she'd like to run together sometime.

Weidman, about 10 years Schertz's junior, recalls with a laugh, "I'm thinking, I don't know if I want to run that slow."

"We became quick friends, and we run together two or three times a week. She always smokes me," Wiedman said. "Someday I'm going to catch Doris. She's good. She's really good."

Schertz's best marathon time is the 4:15 she ran last year in Chicago. A few weeks ago, she ran a 5K in Oak Park in 25:15.

She ran the Boston Marathon for the first time in 2008, finishing in 4:40. She wasn't satisfied.

"I thought, I've got to come back and do better than that," she said.

This time, she went out fast, clocking a 2:03 at the halfway mark. She loves the course for its beauty and the crowds of fans and the little kids handing out orange slices. "There's very little of the course where you don't hear cheering all the way," she said.

Just about when Schertz was thinking she might PR (set a personal record), she was slammed by Boston's famous, beastly hills. The hills start around mile 16.

"My aspirations just kept getting lower," she said. "I thought, if I'm really lucky, my time is good enough for third place."

When she found out she won, "I just stood there with my mouth hanging open."

She came home to find her front window filled with colorful signs made by her proud grandchildren.

"She's always very encouraging, and her stories about her races and the runs she goes on really motivate me to do well, too," said Adrienne Schertz, 17, a junior cross-country runner at Naperville North and one of Schertz's 15 grandchildren.

Doris Schertz said she learned much from her oldest son Larry, who died of brain cancer in 1998.

He was "an absolute genius" - a brilliant neuroradiologist, accomplished pianist, and in the family tradition, a high school runner, she said. "His spirit to do everything he could for others, it was something I'll never forget," Schertz said. At age 37, he was told he had a year to live, "and how he lived that year was just incredible."

His family learned from his example not to put off their dreams, to make the most of their time and talents.

"If we can all just look at ourselves," Doris Schertz says, "and just try it."