Several alumni are part of an elite group of 30,000 runners who qualified for—and finished—one of the world’s most challenging and prestigious races.
For one former Royals athlete, crossing the finish line of the 2023 Boston Marathon was a dream come true. Charging down the last 600 meters among the crowds on Boyleston Street was an experience Ryan Gehman ‘16 says he’ll never forget—and one he had visualized “hundreds of times” during his training.
Gehman ran a time of 2 hours, 27.31 seconds to place 85th among the men, taking more than 11 minutes off his personal best and inching ever closer toward his goal of qualifying for the 2028 Olympic Trials. The moment signified a huge step on his journey since the prior career highlight of winning the 2014 NCAA South Southeast Regional Cross-Country Championships—the cap on his breakout season earned him Southeast Regional Athlete of the Year honors as well. That win gave him both renewed confidence and a platform: Gehman, diagnosed with autism as a child, began to speak publicly about how running has helped him deal with anxiety and other mental health challenges.
He’s dealt with both since graduating from EMU, as well as injuries. But after success coaching at the high school and collegiate levels, the Millersville, Pennsylvania, resident has found time to train, as well as stability, support, and a new focus for sharing his passion for fitness as a wellness assistant at Landis Homes.
Three other EMU alumni followed Gehman across the line of one of the most challenging and prestigious races in the world. Also notching personal triumphs that day were Aaron Kauffman ‘01, MDiv ‘12, of Harrisonburg, Virginia, in 2:55.01; Abigail Shelly ‘20, of Tacoma, Washington, in 3:17.47; and Ashley Handrich Kniss ‘06, of Lovettsville, Virginia, in 3:27.14.
Running Boston is a unique experience: the race has both a storied history as the U.S.’s oldest marathon, with the first running in 1897, and a unique point-to-point course through the suburbs into downtown. But note everyone can toe the starting line. Unlike most other major marathons across the world, Boston has retained qualifying standards; all runners must meet specific times based on age and gender. That means simply getting to the start line, among 30,000 other runners from all over the world, means our Royals alums are part of an elite group.
Kauffman, now a two-time Boston finisher who ran a personal best, says there’s no experience to match “rounding the bend onto the final stretch on Boylston Street and hearing the deafening crowds. It honestly makes me think of the Christian life, with that great cloud of witnesses who have finished the race before us who are cheering us on.”
All four alums say another joy of the experience was sharing it with loved ones. Shelly, an All-American at EMU in triathlon, posted a personal best in just her second marathon. At one point, overcome by emotion, she chose to make a detour to hug family members who made the trip to support her. “I think my time could have been 20 seconds faster, but that doesn’t matter. Seeing people you know in the crowds of others cheering is deeply meaningful and not bound by the milliseconds of locked eyes on a race course. I wanted the people who came out to support me to know that and feel my gratitude.”
Kniss, an assistant professor at Stevenson University, is building back from an injury and logged less speed and tempo work than normal over the course of her Boston training. Despite this, she was just two minutes off her course best, and seven minutes from her personal best. She logged her slowest time in her first finish at Boston in 2009 and has come a long way since, even finishing a 50-mile ultra in 2019. Yet Boston pulls her back: “The crowds are fantastic and the energy in the city pre- and post-race is unbeatable,” she said. “The city knows and loves its runners.”
All four athletes are already looking forward to—and accomplishing—new goals. On her summer break from teaching middle school, Shelly walked the Camino del Santiago, logging an average of 17 miles each day. Having knocked out Boston, she’s interested in running the five other “Majors”—New York, Chicago, London, Tokyo, and Berlin.
Gehman is entered into this fall’s Chicago Marathon, where he hopes to click off some more minutes. Kniss has been buoyed by her strong recovery and is also looking for a fast course in hopes of running a personal best.
Kauffman, who juggles training with his work as president of Virginia Mennonite Missions, is on the fence. “I’m trying to decide whether to run Boston again or to train for a marathon on a less punishing course and see what I can do.”
But he sums up the quest for all: “I think I can still go faster.”
Note: We have since learned that Daryl Yoder-Bontrager ‘80 finished his first Boston Marathon—and just the third marathon he’s ever run—in 3:34:28. The time puts Yoder-Bontrager in the top 10 percent of his 65-69-year-old age category (51st out of 549 runners). Yoder-Bontrager, who worked for 25 years in various capacities with Mennonite Central Committee’s Latin America and Caribbean programs, said the experience meant he was part of a group of people from all over—a group cheered on by a crowd that radiated energy and yelled encouragement along the whole 26.2-mile route. “I live and run in hilly south-central Pennsylvania (Lancaster), and the hills in Boston were like the ones I run on every day. What made Boston different and fun was the excitement bubbling everywhere, the camaraderie of runners and their supporters.”