Triathlete, 63, killed doing what she loved — cycling

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Karen McKeachie, a 63-year-old triathlete from Ann Arbor, was killed in Washtenaw County doing what she loved: riding her bike.

She was in the middle of a three-woman pack of cyclists at about 10:40 a.m. Friday on Dexter-Chelsea in Lima Township when the driver of a 2005 Chevrolet Avalanche, a 70-year-old man who was heading east, pulled into the westbound lane to try to pass a car, according to police.

McKeachie was hit and died from “multiple traumatic injuries resulting from a bike vs. SUV crash,” according to the Washtenaw County Medical Examiner. The other two cyclists were not hit.

State police are investigating the crash and no charging decision regarding the driver has been made, said Sgt. Mark Thompson of the Brighton post.

The first time Lew Kidder saw McKeachie, he ran past her. It was at the Dexter-Ann Arbor Run in 1979.

“She was not the most fluid runner,” said Kidder, McKeachie’s husband, on Tuesday, “and she was pretty exhausted. She runs at a tilt when that happens, like a dog trot. I looked at her and wondered, ‘How did this woman get in front of me?’ ”

She would remain in front of him for the next 37 years. The two formally met in a running group. With the connection sparked, they traveled together to a triathlon in Traverse City in which Kidder was registered. McKeachie tried to participate, but was told registration had maxed out.

The day of the race, though, it was about 50 degrees, and the water was even colder.

“I’m not getting in the water,” Kidder said. “Why don’t you take my number?” he asked.

McKeachie took the number, and finished high among female participants. It was the start of a passion she would carry until her final days.

“That hooked her immediately,” Kidder said of the triathlon experience.

Her speed would improve over time, driven by what Kidder described as an iron will that led her to bike 250-300 miles a week, to swim 21/2 to 3 miles a week, and to run 25-30 miles a week. In the ’90s, before being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, her training suffered.

“She had a number of physical mountains to climb,” Kidder said, but did so successfully. In 2013, 2014 and 2015, Kidder said, she was at her best, winning the Olympic distance and shorter sprint events at the USA Triathlon events held in Milwaukee.

“She was always in training for her next race,” said Kidder, 74.

Knee issues kept her out of triathlons this year. Ten days before her death, McKeachie had an operation that resolved a problem in her meniscus.

“It was like a miracle; she could run again,” Kidder said. “She was all enthused about that.”

The operation took place at St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea, just miles from where she died less than two weeks later.

Physical fitness mattered to McKeachie, which is why she was on the road Friday. But so, too, did equality for women. On that count, things had come full circle this year.

During part of the time when McKeachie was competing in volleyball and basketball at the University of Michigan, in the early to mid-1970s, women weren’t considered full varsity athletes. Football coach Bo Schembechler believed that to give women the full varsity designation would diminish the efforts of UM’s male athletes, and athletic director Don Canham agreed, until 1973.

“I do not see how intercollegiate athletics or any form of a scholarship program can continue as we know it,” the late Canham said at the time regarding Title IX, which ultimately forced the university’s hand.

“Bo was an interesting guy, but on that subject he was troglodyte,” Kidder said.

Rather than the varsity jackets the male athletes got, with the beige sleeves and large maize block M on the chest, women competing from 1973-91 got jackets with blue sleeves and an orange block M — separate but equal, at least in theory.

This year, the UM athletic department made things right with those women by delivering real varsity jackets — the same ones the men wore in her time on campus, the same ones granted to all varsity athletes at Michigan since 1992.

McKeachie was one of about 700 women to receive the jackets they’d earned years ago.

“When she got the jacket, she was so proud. She kept asking me, ‘Can you take my picture?’ ” Kidder said.

In that picture, McKeachie posed holding a basketball and a volleyball.

McKeachie also was an advocate for safe roads, Kidder said. The trained civil engineer had once worked in accident reconstruction for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Locally, she pushed for the road funding millage that will be presented to voters in Washtenaw County in November.

“We took a ride Thursday night, and she’s taking photos (of the road conditions) at 5:30-6 at night,” Kidder recalled. “I said, ‘You gotta watch for cars.’ She said, ‘This is my job, this is what I did.’ ”

Kidder is planning to cremate his wife’s body and is scheduling a memorial service for her in the Ann Arbor area. Details are still coming together.

Ultimately, Kidder wants to establish a scholarship at the University of Michigan that would be given each year to a female distance runner. Doing so will require a great amount of money and it will take time to pull together.

“This was her passion, and (a scholarship) is our way to pay it forward,” Kidder said. “Legacy is, in a sense, your afterlife. Each person has an opportunity to contribute, and she certainly did.”