by Amber Nimocks
photographs by Robert Willett
Kazem Yahyapour,58, started running to keep his heart beating. He kept running because it feeds his soul.
Yahyapour was 48 when he had a heart attack, five years younger than his father had been when heart disease killed him. The condition runs strong in Yahyapour’s family. Uncles, aunts and a brother all had died of it before they turned 60. The path was clear.
So Yahyapour got moving.
Four months after his diagnosis, he ran the Myrtle Beach Marathon with a time of 4:02. The physical effects were evident. He lost weight, firmed up, and his heart beat more easily. But the emotional benefits – the runner’s high – hooked him.
“Running brings you some joy for yourself,” Yahyapour says.
Merely running wasn’t enough. He wanted to share the joy. So he did what came naturally as a small business owner and former corporate vice president: He got organized.
First, he founded a race to help raise awareness about the perils of teen drinking and driving and raise money for Wakefield High School. That 5K is in its eighth year, and proceeds have funded the statewide distribution of anti-drug and alcohol abuse videos.
Then he turned his energies toward a larger goal. He helped found the City of Oaks Marathon in 2007, an event that put Raleigh on the national running map. In 2009, he helped create a third local race. The Tobacco Road Marathon includes 21 miles of Durham’s American Tobacco Trail and has raised $300,000, he says, benefitting the trail, the Wounded Warrior Project, and local chapters of the Red Cross and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
“I have a tremendous organizational background,” Yahyapour says.
A runner through and through
Everything about Yahyapour says runner. His taut, compact frame, bright eyes, and almost-sunburned complexion speak to the hours he spends logging miles in the open air each week. More than three days off and Yahyapour starts to get antsy. His silver hair is thick, and his smile easy. The accent of his native Iran marks his speech, but its rhythm is as steady and upbeat as the sound of feet hitting pavement, mile after mile.
Yahyahpour came to the United States in 1976 as an Iranian Navy cadet. He and his classmates studied at Norwich University, a military school in Vermont, as part of an exchange program. Three weeks shy of receiving his degree in April 1980, he and his friends were deported when U.S.-Iran relations deteriorated during the Iranian hostage crisis.
“I knew I wanted to come back,” Yahyapour says.
When he did return to the United States later that year, he stayed. Yahyapour met his wife, Karen, two years later, and put his electrical engineering degree to work at Nortel. A job transfer brought them to the Triangle in 1989. “We said we were going to stay for three years,” he says. “We’ve wound up staying for 24. We love North Carolina.”
His three children, now in their 20s, grew up here, and the family planted roots in the community. The Yahyapours found it an easy place to make friends, even more so after he took up running.
After more than a decade as a runner, Yahyapour has finished 18 marathons. His favorite is Boston, the jewel in the American runner’s crown. His goal is to run the race 10 years in a row. In April, he crossed the finish line on Boylston Street for the ninth consecutive year. About 15 minutes later, the first bomb went off. He and Karen got out of the city safely, and once back in Raleigh, Yahyapour felt moved to express solidarity with his fellow racers.
“We needed to do something,” he said. “It’s not going to stop the running community from running.”
As a practice, running is essentially a solitary act. The runner’s fiercest opponent is himself. Either he takes the first step, or he doesn’t. Every step from start to finish is a triumph of will over resistance, of the strength of heart and legs over terrain.
But running also creates a kinship matched by few other sports. To be a runner is to belong to an enormous family – one whose members reach out to one another over divides of culture, language and generation. Finding a fellow runner means finding someone who will encourage and challenge in ways only a runner knows how to do.
The power of that bond manifested itself in the three-mile race to honor the Boston victims that Yahyapour organized the week after the bombing. The announcement of the Sunday race went up on Facebook Wednesday morning. By Wednesday afternoon, 500 people had signed up. By Thursday morning, the count was 2,000. Friday morning, 2,500.
“Our intention was to get a couple hundred people,” Yahyapour says.
The race required no official registration, so no firm number is recorded. But Raleigh police told Yahyapour that they put the crowd estimate for the downtown Raleigh race that day at 3,000.
Yahyapour says he believes running has not only made him happier, it has also made him a better person. “As a runner, you always try to be as calm as you can be, and more thoughtful, more forgiving,” he says. It has also strengthened his family. All the Yahyapours run now, including and especially Kazem’s 11-year-old mutt, Inga, his favorite running buddy.
“To run with a dog is a great passion,” he says.
Last fall, the family competed in a marathon relay in Myrtle Beach.
Next year, Yahyapour will return to Boston, where he plans to run the marathon for the 10th year in a row. He’s too close to achieving his goal to let anything stop him now.