Heather King recently became the first African American woman in Georgia to earn the Six Star Major Marathon Medal, well before her 50th birthday goal.
King is a running community rock star, known for encouraging more than 500 African American to join Team Take Down Publix Marathon 2017 (#TTDPM2017) and other “parties on the pavement.” Behind the medals and the parties, she is humble and revenant for the sport that gave her an escape, focus, and grace to move forward.
“My story is filled with broken pieces but also a major comeback and peace in my soul,” King said during her recent photo exhibit, Running with No Filter – A Six Year Journey, held at Peter Street Station in Castleberry Hill.
In high school, during a difficult time for her mother, King lived with her aunt and ran cross-country for a break from babysitting her three younger cousins. In 2012, thanks to Black Girls Run Atlanta, she rekindled her love of running as she coped with her oldest leaving for college.
“I met amazing women and have led the ‘Midtown get-down run’ every Thursday for the past four years, ” King said.
For her first marathon, King chose the 2013 Marine Corps Marathon to pay tribute to the Marines in her life – her then husband, brother and deceased cousin. But it was Tony Reed’s book Marathon Adventures on all Seven Continents that inspired King to dream bolder.
“I wanted to do what he did, especially because no one in my family ran or had a passport. I am a planner, a dreamer and a doer,” King said.
She would tackle one marathon per year per continent before age 50 with two years of wiggle room.
With North America in the bank, she headed to Europe for the 2014 Paris Marathon and, while “trained up,” ran the Chicago Marathon six months later. She was on track for her seven continents until she literally hit a wall in Beijing.
The Great Wall Marathon is a challenging course with 5,164 steps, cobblestone paths, unpaved terrain in small rural villages, and steep elevation changes.
As she trained on Clayton County’s public stadium bleachers, King’s stair challenge spread.
“People started posting their steps and creating memes. It became a party,” said King, who awarded medals to standouts. She left for China pumped up after a pre-race party with head-to-toe gear from Phidippides.
Race day was hot with horrible air quality. Runners tackle The Great Wall east to west after 5km and west to east after 34 km if they reach it within six hours. King missed that deadline by 17 minutes and was not allowed to finish.
“I would get a 2015 medal but not a marathon finishing time. It wasn’t going to count. I came all this way and failed. My first DNF [did not finish]. I cried a lot, “ King shared.
Other runners consoled her and told her to find another race. By faith or by fate, King saw a “Tokyo 3” shirt in the mall.
“It spoke to me because that would be my third continent. I bought that shirt and let that be my focus,” King said.
That’s when she learned about the six major world marathons: Boston, Chicago, New York, Berlin, London, and Tokyo. After Tokyo, she needed three more. This new goal would see her through the loss of her mother and the end of her marriage.
As with #TTDPM2017, she put out the call for Berlin, dubbed #BerlinBlackish.
“We were rolling 52 deep. Ain’t no party like a Heather King party cause a Heather King Party don’t stop,“ King mused.
Only Boston and London remained. “Two marathons in one week in two different countries – I could do it right? I had nothing to lose but everything to gain,” King said.
In Boston, King faced heavy rain, severe wind and freezing temperatures.
“Boston broke me all the way down to my core,” she recalled. “I arrived in London three days later sore, limping, dehydrated…you name it I had it. But I believed in myself.”
London would be one of the hottest on record. At mile 21, she could barely walk. That’s when she saw Roosevelt, a friend she had met in Beijing during the Great Wall Marathon, and together they made it to the finish line.
“When they put that Six Star finisher medal around my neck, I couldn’t wait to bring that baby back to Atlanta,” King said.
“We all fall in life, but it’s how you get back up that counts. Give yourself a pity party. Sit for a second. You will get up a lot stronger than you went down,” King said.
Her story continues with four more continent marathons to go.