93 Counties and Beyond: Tyler Vanderheiden Memorial Run honors superintendent’s son, brings awareness to mental health

93 Counties and Beyond: Tyler Vanderheiden Memorial Run honors superintendent’s son, brings awareness to mental health

By Tyler Dahlgren

No matter where he went, Tyler Vanderheiden always came back with a story to tell.

“You’ll never guess what happened!”

For Tim and Shannon Vanderheiden’s son, every day was an adventure, and every adventure came with a story, all of which were told with a sparkle in his eyes and a contagious energy you might as well not even try to shake. 

His mom and dad loved those stories. They loved their son’s passion. When the great outdoors beckoned, Tyler always happily obliged. It’s where he was happiest, where he felt the most like himself.

“Tyler was at home when he was out in nature hunting, fishing, just being outside,” said Tim, who serves as superintendent of McPherson County Schools in Tryon. “He was also an old soul. When he was just a little tyke, he was able to sit down and carry a conversation with the elderly, or anybody, really. He was a friend to everybody and everybody was his friend.”

At North Platte High School, Tyler played football and was in the choir and band. His senior year, he decided to go out for track, where he fell in love with running. He was charismatic and charming, a natural-born prankster who fiercely loved his family and friends.

“He just had this infectious personality,” said Shannon. “He was funny and always trying to make everybody laugh. If you had six hours, I could tell you a million stories. He just had a way about him that others were drawn to.”

On the outside, it appeared that Tyler’s future was bright. He was empathetic and made everyone feel seen. He embraced everyone around him with open arms.

Under the surface, however, he was battling depression, and fighting for his life.

“We did everything we could do,” said Tim. “It was just something that people who knew him would never suspect, that he was having to battle those demons every day.”

Tim and Shannon lost their son to that battle on May 2, 2015. He was just 20 years old.

For years, the Vanderheidens and their two other children, Cole and Sydney, journeyed through grief and, eventually, into healing. They had long wanted to do something to honor their son while bringing awareness to mental health when the perfect idea came about near the onset of the pandemic. 

Shannon, executive director for the West Central District Health Department, was taking part in a virtual marathon for the Platte River Fitness Series, which her good friend Trudy Merritt has been coordinating for more than 20 years. While logging her 13 mile-long laps around Cody Park in North Platte, each one dedicated to one of her staff members, she shared with Trudy an idea she had for a “Tyler Vanderheiden Memorial Run.”

“You’ve absolutely got to do this,” said Trudy.

Despite her friend’s encouragement, Shannon was still feeling hesitant when she made her final turn into the last lap, a mile she’d dedicated to Tyler. Just then, a light snow began to fall in Cody Park.

“It was the coolest thing,” Shannon said. “It was almost like a Hallmark movie. That’s when I said, ‘Okay, I can do this.’”

And so, with the help of Sydney, who is currently on track to receive her doctorate in psychology, Shannon began planning. One day, she crossed paths with the director of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and an incredible partnership was formed. 

All of the race’s proceeds, the two parties decided through collaborative planning sessions, would go towards rebuilding and developing trails across the state of Nebraska.

“We feel by doing that, we’re creating an environment for people to just get out and get into nature,” said Tim. “Walking and running has been proven to be a helpful tool for people. It was for Tyler.”

Along the way, the connection between the Vanderheidens and Nebraska Game and Parks became something stronger than a collaboration or a partnership.

“They are invested in us as much as we are in them,” said Shannon. “They’ve meant so much to us. Everything from their kindness and their thoughtfulness around how they market something. I truly feel like they’re a part of our family now. They do more than just their job with Game and Parks. They truly participate, and we stay connected with them through the year.”

The same can be said for Merritt, the first person to nudge Shannon down this road.

“She’s our family, too,” Shannon said. “We’ve formed a connection I’m just not sure I have the right words for. And then all of the people who sign up. There’s just a bond that you feel through their support, or that you feel because they need that support as badly as we did as a family. It’s definitely been a part of our healing journey.”

The first event was held virtually, meeting Shannon’s lofty goal of drawing participants from every state in the country. In 2022 and 2023, the run was held both in person (with proceeds going to Platte River State Park’s Stone Creek Falls Trail and Smith Falls in Valentine) and also offered virtually. This year's Tyler Vanderheiden Memorial Run is scheduled for 8:00am on May 25th at Cody Park in North Platte.

“The one goal that I so desperately want to achieve, and I’m hoping we reach it this year, is to have all 93 counties in Nebraska represented,” said Shannon. “We’ve gotten 73 or 74 in the past, but I’m hoping for all 93 this year.”

In fact, virtual runners have checked in from all over the globe, from far away places like Canada, Scotland and even Dubai. 

“We’ve made some great friends that have started to travel to North Platte to take part in the run, people who’ve done it virtually in the past but wanted to be a bigger part of it,” said Tim. “It’s redefined how I look at community. It’s expanded ours and brought people to us in a way that we could have never fathomed.”

The event has also created an environment where crucial conversation can be had, said Shannon. Advocacy is one of the three pillars of the Tyler Vanderheiden Memorial Run. Remembrance and unity are the other two.

“When that many people come together for one cause, you can’t help but to be united,” Shannon said. “And through unity is how we change things. It’s how we bring something as important as mental health and wellness to the forefront. The only way we can do that is together and through community, whatever that looks like.”

What that looks like on race day is a sight to behold. The energy, Tim said, is amazing. 

“I just look around and smile, because I know it’s because of Shannon and Sydney and all of their work that we’ve been able to bring that awareness out,” he said. “They’ve gotten it outside of our family and have been able to, with Ty’s help, help other people.”

The Vanderheidens feel Tyler’s presence in their hearts. Through every step they take, he’s always there. On race day, they know he looks down on hundreds of runners with one of those famous smiles.

“On race day, it never fails, he’ll send a sign,” said Shannon. “And it just grabs your attention. Even in the middle of all that energy and everything going on, it stops you in your tracks. It’s like all of a sudden he just says, ‘Hey, I’m here.’”

Shannon thinks back to that half marathon in 2020. Back to the 13th-mile, the one she’d dedicated to her son.

She remembers the gentle, early spring snow suddenly falling from the sky. How she put one foot in front of the other, all the way through the finish line. 

Then she thinks about last year’s race, about a man who matched her stride and asked, “Are you Shannon?”

She learned the man had lost his son to suicide only months before. He thanked the family for lending a voice to all of the people suffering in silence.

“As sad as it was,” she said, “there was a peace with knowing Tyler not only touched our lives, but that he’s impacting and touching lives of people that never knew him.”

In Tyler’s story, there’s no such thing as a final lap.

To learn more about the Tyler Vanderheiden Memorial Run, visit www.TylerVanderheidenMemorial.com.