‘It’s for Pop’

Sometime this week, Kathy Yeager will stop by Garland Brook Cemetery to visit her father, just as she has pretty regularly since he passed away three years ago.

She will show him her finisher’s medal from the 120th Boston Marathon and smile through the tears, knowing that Prentice Neal would be proud.

After all, this was all his idea.

Yeager, of Nashville, doesn’t have that medal just yet — she still has to navigate the world’s oldest and most prestigious marathon course Monday to earn it. But those who know her have absolutely zero doubt that Yeager will reach the finish line.

Given what it took to get into the race in the first place, those 26 miles and 385 yards should be a breeze.

The promise

Back in early 2013, Yeager would drive down every other weekend to visit her parents in Tennessee, where her father was still trying to fight the good fight against lung cancer.On one visit, she mentioned that she had recently taken up running — and Neal suggested the Boston Marathon.

“He said, ‘Do you ever think you’d want to do that?’” Yeager recalled. “And I said, ‘Dad, I can’t even run a quarter mile.’ …

Neal persisted, though, reminding his daughter that she’d always been a good natural athlete.

“He said, ‘I’d like for you to try this for me,’” Yeager continued. “And I said, ‘Try and run the Boston Marathon? Dad, you have to qualify. I can’t do that.’ And he said, ‘You know, Kat, you’ve always been really strong-willed. … Promise me that you’ll try this.’

“I said, ‘OK. OK. If you want me to, I will.’”

When Neal passed away on April 1, 2013, Yeager was still nowhere near ready to honor her father’s request — but she was determined to get it done.

Her first stab at an actual road race was a 10-kilometer run in Seymour, which she completed in about 55 minutes.

Not bad, she thought. That was six miles; now I just need to do 20 more on top of it.

Training with her youngest son, Zane — a 2011 Columbus East graduate who took up running after his senior football season and dropped 100 pounds — Kathy Yeager gradually built herself up to compete in the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in the fall of 2013.

With Zane by her side, she finished in 4 hours, 34 minutes and 57.8 seconds.

Pretty good for a first try, but still well off of the 4-hour mark that women ages 50-54 need to break in order to qualify for Boston.

Undeterred, Yeager continued training vigorously.

Just about every morning, she wakes up at about 4 o’clock and puts in about seven miles on her treadmill. Then, on her lunch breaks at work, she’ll take off and put in another three to five miles, usually running from her office at the Cummins Child Development Center to Mill Race Park and back.

A couple of times a year, she’ll even run into work, trekking the roughly 18.5 miles from her Nashville home.

When the Monumental Marathon came around again in 2014, Yeager was ready. She lopped nearly 40 minutes off of the previous year’s time, finishing in 3:55:12.

“I was like, ‘That can’t be right,’” she recalled.

But it was. Less than two years after promising her father she would run Boston, Yeager had punched her ticket.

Can’t slow down

The daily workouts have become such a regular part of Yeager’s routine that she can’t seem to stop. She estimates that she put in a total of about 3,500 miles last year — an average of nearly 10 a day.Whatever punishment her body is absorbing is more than made up for by the rush Yeager gets from running.

“The endorphins now are kind of kicking in to where I love it,” she said. “I do. It makes me feel better. I’m 55 years old, and I feel as good as I did when I was in my 30s.”

Zane, who isn’t even halfway through his 20s yet, has been thoroughly impressed — but not surprised — with his mother’s level of dedication.

“It’s been really neat kind of just seeing her latch on to something like this,” he said. “I knew if she started to do it, she would make something, almost an obsession out of it, because that’s just part of her personality.”

Kathy’s obsessive nature forces Zane Yeager to throw the caution flag up sometimes — particularly during the past few weeks, when he knows his mother should be tapering down to give her body a little bit of recovery time before the big race.

For one, he notes, Kathy Yeager might be better served at times using her lunch break to actually focus on lunch rather than squeezing those extra miles in. But her energy appears to be boundless.

“I’ve been trying these past couple of weeks to get her to sit down and eat something,” Zane said, “but she’s always up.”

Doing her homework

Kathy and Zane Yeager run together a couple of times a week, usually for about 10 to 12 miles up and over the hills of Brown County State Park.Those hills, both say, should help Kathy prepare for an unforgiving Boston course with plenty of elevation changes.

Most of the first half of the course runs downhill, which Kathy Yeager says can actually be worse because of the pounding on the quadriceps. But the uphill portions later in the race, including the famed Heartbreak Hill during the 21st mile, are more challenging because of how tired runners already are when they get there.

Because she’s been taking on such big hills in Brown County, Yeager is confident that she’s physically prepared to handle whatever Boston might throw at her.

The challenge, she believes, will be primarily mental.

“I think running is more a mind thing than it is a physical thing,” she said. “It can really play with your mind. You can go, or it can really shut you down.”

Yeager has been studying the course map and has selected a handful of markers to break the race up into shorter intervals. By conquering one section at a time instead of contemplating the entire task, she theorizes, it won’t seem quite so daunting.

Team Kat

By the time most people get into their 40s and 50s, they’ve become fairly immune to excitement. Almost anything life can throw at you has already been experienced, so it becomes harder and harder to reach that same level of euphoria that’s felt during childhood and adolescence.Yeager isn’t most people.

Mention Boston and she immediately lights up, displaying a giddiness that’s usually reserved for small children waking up on Christmas morning. She’s equal parts eager and anxious, confident and scared. It’s an uncertain journey with numerous challenges (especially since Yeager doesn’t like to fly) — but it’s also the source of a very noticeable excitement.

And if Yeager’s seemingly boundless reserves of energy and effervescence ever do start running low, she’s got a pretty substantial support system backing her up.

For starters, there’s her family. In addition to training partner Zane, there’s her husband, Kevin, and her oldest son Dylan, constantly offering encouragement.

Yeager also has a sizable cheering section at Cummins, where her co-workers have dubbed themselves “Team Kat” (there may or may not be T-shirts).

Milestones are tracked on a whiteboard, and when Yeager does her occasional run-to-work days, her colleagues have chocolate milk waiting there for her.

According to Cindy Reed, director of the Cummins Child Development Center, Yeager’s willingness to share her progress made it easy for everyone to get on board as a cheerleader.

“She would say, ‘I ran again a couple of miles last night,’” Reed said, “and we were like, ‘Wow, that’s great!’ Then she always shared it with us, because that positive feedback … kept her going.”

Yeager’s co-workers have pitched in over the years for a new set of running shoes at White River Running Company, and they also gave her an engraved bracelet that she wears at all times.

The bracelet, which includes Kevin and Zane Yeager’s names and phone numbers (just in case), also includes the message “It’s for Pop.”

That reminder helps Kathy Yeager remember what she’s running for and gives her a little extra boost during the toughest parts of a race.

“I just look down,” she said, “and I’m thinking, ‘My dad laid in a bed. I just watched him just wither away to this 120-pound person. I’m going to do this. Quit feeling sorry for yourself.’”

Having run countless miles with his mother, Zane Yeager knows perhaps better than anyone what Kathy has accomplished. When the two cross marathon finish lines together, she’s surrounded primarily by runners half her age.

“I see all these girls on Instagram that are posting — ‘Oh yeah, I’m so fit, I ran my first marathon,’” Zane noted, “and it’s like, ‘Yeah, well my mom beat you by like 40 minutes.’”

The home stretch

Even though she’d never been to Boston before this weekend, Kathy Yeager has been picturing the finish in her head for quite some time. She’s talked to a handful of area Boston finishers, including friends Lisa Stadler and DeAnne Weaver, and she feels like she has a reasonable idea of what to expect.Except that nothing can fully prepare you for the real thing.

What Yeager does know is that her husband bought her a Boston Marathon jacket for Christmas and she hasn’t put it on yet. Once she completes the course, she says, Kevin will be waiting there to put the jacket on her.

During the race, though, Kevin will be partaking in another long-standing Patriots’ Day tradition — the 11 a.m. Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

“He said, ‘I may go to the game while you’re running,’” Kathy recalled. “I said, ‘Well, no, that’s not fair, because I want to go, too!’”

Knowing that Kevin has a lot of idle time to kill Monday, Kathy relented — but, she noted, he’ll be on call throughout the game.

Getting the jacket from her husband will be a nice treat, but what’s really driving Yeager is that medal — the one given to every finisher.

Once it’s around her neck, she admits, it’s not coming off for a while. Well, maybe when she’s going through airport security. But that’s it.

When Yeager makes her next run to the cemetery, she’s bringing that medal with her — tangible proof that she made good on her last promise to her father.

“I’m scared,” she said of Monday’s race. “I have a lot of doubts. But I just want to finish, so I can at least have him know that I did it.”

Memorable moments

Some notable moments in Boston Marathon history:

1897: Inspired by the success of the 1896 Olympics, the Boston Athletic Association held the first Boston Marathon. The original course was 24.5 miles long, and 10 of the 18 entrants finished the race.

1924: The starting line was moved from Ashland to Hopkinton in order to conform with the international standard of 26 miles, 385 yards.

1966: Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb was recognized as the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon. Women were not allowed to officially enter until 1972.

1975: Boston became the first major marathon with a marathon division when it recognized Bob Hall as a finisher.

1980: Rosie Ruiz ran her way into infamy when she appeared to win the women’s race, only to have it found that she had skipped over most of the course and jumped back on with about a mile left.

1986: In an effort to remain prominent, Boston became the last of the major road races to begin offering prize money to its winners.

1996: A whopping 38,708 entrants, 36,748 starters, and 35,868 finishers took part in the 100th running of the race.

2013: The event was marred when a pair of explosions near the finish line killed three spectators and injured an estimated 264 runners and onlookers.

The 120th Boston Marathon

Distance: 26 miles, 385 yards (42.195 kilometers)

Start: Hopkinton Green, Hopkinton, Massachusetts

Finish: Copley Square, Boston

Television coverage: 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on NBC Sports Network

Entrants: 30,000 (estimated)

Spectators: 500,000 (estimated)

Course records

Men: Geoffrey Mutai, Kenya, 2:03:02 (2011)

Women: Rita Jeptoo, Kenya, 2:18:57 (2014)

Don't forget...

The Mill Race Marathon is coming on September 24 — and if you’re planning to compete, we’d like to tell your story. Drop us a line at sports@therepublic.com.

To sign up for the race or to find out more about it, visit www.millracemarathon.com.

Author photo
Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.