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Memorial run raises $9K for Smith Falls trails

People present a big check
The family of Tyler Vanderheiden and annual memorial run representatives present a check for trails upgrades at Smith Falls State Park to Nebraska Game and Parks Commission representatives on Sept. 17 at the park near Valentine. Pictured from left are: Tyler’s family — Benjiman Keller, brother-in-law; Embrey Keller, niece; Tim Vanderheiden, dad; Sydney Keller, sister; River Keller, nephew; and Shannon Vanderheiden, mom; and Tommy Hicks, Nebraska Game and Parks regional park superintendent for the central region; Kristin Carder, Nebraska Game and Parks digital media manager; and Trudy Merritt, of the Platte River Fitness Series. Julie Geiser, Nebraskaland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

The Tyler Vanderheiden Memorial Run, an annual race aimed at raising awareness and understanding of mental health, raised more than $9,000 for Nebraska Game and Parks state park trails in 2023.

The donation could trigger access of up to $32,000 in matching federal Recreation Trails Program funds, if a grant application by Game and Parks is successful this fall.

Event organizers Shannon and Tim Vanderheiden, Tyler’s parents, and Trudy Merritt, Platte River Fitness Series director, presented a check to Game and Parks on Sept. 17 at Smith Falls State Park near Valentine.

“I find solace in knowing that the funds donated will breathe new life into the park we once explored and treasured as a family,” said Shannon Vanderheiden. “The rushing waters of the falls remind me of how our love for Tyler continues to flow within us and forever has carved a path through the cherished moments we shared together.

“I hope our annual efforts will continue to inspire others to discover the beauty and unity within themselves and within the wonders of Nebraska’s breathtaking parks.”

Funds donated from the memorial run will be used to support trail upgrades at Smith Falls State Park, home to Nebraska’s highest waterfall. In addition to recent improvements to the boardwalk to the falls, the park also is expected to see park improvements in 2024, including to the Jim MacAllister Nature Trail, a 1.5-mile hiking path through the Niobrara River Valley.

“Because of the generous donation by the Memorial Run, Game and Parks will be able to improve the MacAllister trail, making it a more sought-after hike at Smith Falls,” said Parks Division Administrator Jeff Fields. “The Niobrara River Valley is the crossroads of biological diversity, and this trail offers a great way to view the abundance of wildlife.”

Runners from every state in the nation participated either virtually or in-person in the May 20 race, which brought together hundreds of people united around raising mental health awareness. Participants used the hashtags #PreventSuicide and #Run4TJV when they shared their race stories, memories of Tyler and their connection to the outdoors.

“Memorial races like this one resonate with runners in a special way. Attaching something bigger than ourselves to a hard effort creates space for meaning making, something necessary for human flourishing,” Merritt said. “Physical activity is essential to good mental health, and this race speaks to their interrelated nature.”

The annual run began in 2020 with the intent of being a space for healing and support for those who struggle with mental health or know someone who has. People across the state and nation have connected with its message, helping to spread the word and shine a light on mental health and available resources.

“Ty’s life has allowed us to hold a space for those who struggle with their mental health,” said Sydney Keller, Tyler’s sister who also helps organize the race. “My hope is that this continues to be a catalyst for bringing awareness to the importance of mental health and remains a space to recognize and honor the struggles and fight of others.”

The run is organized by the Platte River Fitness Series, run by Merritt, with support by West Central District Health Department, where Vanderheiden serves as executive director. The 2024 race is set for May 25.

Proceeds will continue to be donated to the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation for the creation, maintenance or upgrade of trails at state park areas across the state. To learn more, visit and search for “Tyler Vanderheiden Memorial Run.”

Updated Sept. 18, 2023, to correct typo.

About Shawna Richter-Ryerson

Shawna Richter-Ryerson is an assistant division administrator for communications at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. She can be contacted at or 402-471-5565.

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