Cary News

Raleigh marathon organizer makes his mark after heart attack

Kazem Yahyapour, photographed in 2013, is an avid runner and the co-founder of several charitable marathons, including the Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary and the City of Oaks Marathon in Raleigh.
Kazem Yahyapour, photographed in 2013, is an avid runner and the co-founder of several charitable marathons, including the Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary and the City of Oaks Marathon in Raleigh. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Kazem Yahyapour knows he shouldn’t have left Atlanta on March 16, 2002.

Yahyapour remembers the deep pain he felt in his chest as he walked toward his gate in the Atlanta airport, where a plane was scheduled to take him to Birmingham, Alabama, on a business trip.

Yahyapour, then 48 and overweight, was having a heart attack but he didn’t know it.

“I should have gone to the hospital but I didn’t,” he said. “I got them to change my flight so I could go back to Raleigh.”

He drove to a doctor immediately upon returning home, and was told that he could have easily died at the airport.

“Life is in your hands right now. You need to do something about it,” the doctor told Yahyapour shortly after surgery to implant a stent in one of his arteries.

Today, the Persian immigrant is well-known as the president of the Iranian Cultural Society of North Carolina, an avid runner and the co-founder of several charitable marathons, including this Sunday’s Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary and the City of Oaks Marathon in Raleigh.

But it wasn’t until his heart attack that Yahyapour, a 59-year-old who lives in Raleigh, decided to change the course of his health and family history, enabling him to become the leader he is today.

Yahyapour said he shouldn’t have let his health deteriorate.

“Most of my family – my brother, my father, my aunt, my uncle – all died before the age of 60 because of heart disease,” he said. “(The cardiologist) told me I had a 98 percent blockage.”

Running seemed like the easiest and cheapest way to improve his health.

“All you need are shoes, a shirt and some pants,” he said.

Persistence pays off

Yahyapour knows how to do a lot with a little.

The Tehran native entered the United States in 1976 as an Iranian Naval cadet-in-training under an exchange program at Norwich University in Vermont, but was one of 80 cadets who were sent back to Iran in 1980 during the Iranian hostage crisis, according to the Norwich Record.

He returned to the United States the following year to finish his degree in electrical engineering.

Upon graduating, Yahyapour began his search for a job in Boston after a friend offered him a place to stay. Yahyapour said he walked door-to-door along Route 128 to introduce himself at various tech companies.

“I spent $25 to have a resumé made, used $15 to put gas in the car and had $10 to live on until I got my first job,” Yahyapour recalled in an interview at his Six Forks Road business, Auto Dealers Investments Inc., which finances small car dealerships.

The first four days yielded nothing. On the fifth day, a Friday, he left his suit behind and walked into ITT, an engineering firm, wearing jeans.

“I thought I would just drop off my resumé and go,” he said. But the company’s human resources director called Yahyapour back to his office. Within minutes, he was sitting before a panel of higher-ups.

“When can you start?” he recalled them asking after a lengthy interview. “I said ‘Whenever you want.’”

Yahyapour, then 26, couldn’t believe he had secured his first real job after five days of searching. And yet, the day was about to become even more memorable.

When he returned to his friend’s house that afternoon, Yahyapour noticed an unfamiliar car sitting outside. A girl named Karen, whom he’d never met, was sitting inside the house visiting with his friend.

“That’s how I met my wife, Karen,” Yahyapour said with a smile.

They married in 1983 and now have three adult children. Yahyapour joined Nortel, a telecommunications and data equipment manufacturer, in 1988, and the company transferred him to Raleigh the next year.

A change of pace

By 2002, he had become Nortel’s vice president of sales and marketing. He quit that job shortly after his heart attack, citing the need for a lifestyle change.

Yahyapour didn’t waste any time in changing his ways. That September he ran a 5k hosted by his church, St. Luke Evangelist Catholic, in North Raleigh.

He ran his first marathon about four months later in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, crossing the finish line after 4 hours and 2 minutes.

Yahyapour ran the Boston Marathon for the first time in 2004. He enjoyed it so much that he set a goal to run it 10 years in a row.

And he set out to help others along the way, too.

In 2006, he founded the Just Think First 5k in Raleigh after four Wakefield High School students died in a car crash on Poole Road. Proceeds from the race go toward raising awareness about teen drinking and driving.

In 2007, Yahyapour co-founded the City of Oaks Marathon in Raleigh. Proceeds go to the Rex Healthcare Foundation and YMCA We Build People Program.

He established the Tobacco Road Marathon in 2009, and the proceeds have gone toward the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, Red Cross, Wounded Warrior Project and the Triangle Rails to Trails Conservancy, which maintains the American Tobacco Trail.

Marathon organizers expect cumulative donations to surpass $500,000 after this year’s race. Yahyapour said $5,000 of this year’s donations will go toward ALS research in honor of former ABC 11 anchor Larry Stogner, who recently left the station after being diagnosed with the disease.

Rocked at marathon

On April 15, 2013, Yahyapour ran his ninth Boston Marathon and was only a few yards away from the finish line when bombs went off on Boylston Street. His wife had been standing next to the bombs only 15 minutes before they detonated.

“We were about 100 yards away at a crossroads and saw the smoke going up,” he said. “About that time, people started screaming.”

Back home in Raleigh, he led the effort to organize a memorial run to benefit victims of the bombing attack.

Organizers hoped to rally a couple hundred people, Yahyapour said. But that Sunday, more than 3,000 showed up for the 3-mile run through downtown Raleigh. The race raised nearly $20,000, he said.

Yahyapour stood in front of the starting line, offering encouragement as runners passed by.

“Boston! Boston! Boston! Be strong!” he chanted at the runners, according to a News & Observer story. “Keep running, and don’t let anybody take your dream away from you!”

Yahyapour ran the Boston Marathon the following year, reaching his goal of running it 10 years in a row. Of the 10 marathons, he reached his best time in 2007: 3 hours and 22 minutes.

He’s shed about 40 pounds since his heart attack.

Yahyapour and his German Shepherd-mix, Inga, run about 3 miles every morning. Now, he’s training his wife to run the Boston Marathon next year.

His new goal: Help people qualify for the Boston Marathon and continue giving back to the country he adopted after the Iranian Revolution.

The Tobacco Road Marathon is a Boston Marathon qualifier.

“If I can do it, anybody else can,” he said.

Specht: 919-460-2608;

Twitter: @AndySpecht

Tobacco Road Marathon

▪ The Allscripts Tobacco Road Marathon and GNC Half-Marathon start at 7 a.m. Sunday, March 15, at Thomas Brooks Park at 9008 Green Level Church Road, Cary. Runners should arrive by 5:30 a.m.

▪ Registration for the half-marathon is closed, but registration for the full marathon is still open. For information, go to tobaccoroadmarathon.com. Organizers expect more than 4,000 runners.

▪ The race, which Runner’s World magazine last year named one of America’s best new marathons, will be run on the American Tobacco Trail between Cary and Durham.

▪ Spectators and runners who have not yet secured a parking spot at Thomas Brooks Park should park at the NetApp office building at 7301 Kit Creek Road and plan to take a shuttle bus to the event. The best place to watch the race is the start-finish line at the park.

▪ While most of the event takes place in a park, motorists can expect sections of Green Level Church Road and Morrisville Parkway near Thomas Brooks Park to be closed between 6:50 and 7:40 a.m. Traffic will be slower throughout the morning because one lane will be closed. Cary Police will be directing traffic.

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