There are few people more deeply embedded in the local endurance sports community than Heidi Keller Miler. She has worked for the Minnesota Distance Running Association (MDRA) for the past 25 years — officially under the title “office manager,” but unofficially the organization’s jack-of-all-trades — and recently announced her retirement at the end of November.
Also the head coach of the WEST Express Swim Team in Chaska, Miler decided it was time to invest more effort in the burgeoning club.
Miler grew up in St. Cloud, and was a state competitor in swimming and track and field. At Hamline University, she racked up records as a three-sport athlete in swimming, cross country and track. She blossomed into an accomplished professional triathlete in the late 1980s.
Since then, Miler, 50, has served in a variety of coaching roles within the MDRA and, of course, as a mother to three children, ages 21, 18 and 16. For the largest running organization in the five-state area, she’s done everything from directing races, to coordinating and publishing MDRA’s magazine, to taking the lead on communications and marketing, to handling membership and community outreach.
During a recent interview, she reflected on her tenure with the organization and why she believes running and endurance sports are so transformative.
On the power of running
Everybody gets some value out of running. I’ve never seen anybody who has given it enough time and become a runner who didn’t end up liking it. Working for MDRA, I see it every day. It changes people’s lives — the fitness and the sense of accomplishment. You don’t have to be a fast runner. Everybody gets something out of it.
On the running community
I’ve been to a lot of running conventions, and I’m constantly impressed with Minnesota. It’s the best running community in the country, hands-down.
We have the best trails, the best running stores and great races. I can’t say enough. There are so many individuals who have risen to the occasion — Pat Goodwin with Team USA, the people behind Grandma’s Marathon and Twin Cities Marathon, John Storkamp’s trail races, USATF and their youth events, the running store owners — they all love running and support everyone. We’re so lucky. There is a sense of community and a feeling that everybody is working together to make it better.
On MDRA’s philosophy
Part of the reason MDRA was founded in 1961 was because there was a need for some organized events — they were probably the only ones at the time.
Our races have always been super low-key. You don’t get a T-shirt, but you pay 10 bucks — and some are free — and you get a timed race with fluids and food. It’s very grass-roots running.
On stepping down at MDRA
It’s bittersweet. I love the runners we work with, and the board is great. You meet so many great people and I’ve had the chance to go to the Olympic Trials and running conventions and to meet many elite runners and Olympians, so it’s been pretty cool. I never got to run the races over the years because I was on the organizational side of things, but moving forward, I’ll be at more races actually running them.
On being a coach
I think it’s the best job in the world. To see someone set a goal, put the work in day after day and accomplish what they aimed to do, it brings tears to my eyes. You might say, ‘It’s just a sport,’ but it’s also what you learn from it and the skills you gain for life. For these kids to have that sense of belonging and for them to feel at home with the team ... the confidence and self esteem they gain changes their lives.
On what keeps her coming back to compete in endurance events
I’ve probably done 200 races and I’ve never felt bad after. Every time you finish, no matter if it was a good race or a bad race, you always have a sense of accomplishment. I also like to have goals, which is why I signed up again for Ironman Wisconsin next year. You just have to find what motivates you, and that helps you keep at it.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.