Sacred Heart University engineering professor Tolga Kaya learned in January that he had just 12 weeks to train if he wanted to run in April’s Boston Marathon and raise funds for student scholarships.
The opportunity came through Todd Cassler ’01 of John Hancock Life Insurance Company, which is a major Boston Marathon sponsor. Cassler also is a member of the Jack Welch College of Business Board of Visitors and, for the second consecutive year, he presented the college with a runner’s bib for the marathon. This allowed SHU to have a participant in the race without that person qualifying beforehand.
“The Boston Marathon is the ultimate goal for a runner,” said Kaya, 41, just 24 hours after he completed the race. “You have to qualify for it…I’m not a fast runner, and I knew I’d never be able to qualify.” But having the bib from Cassler gave him the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete.
Though Kaya participated in basketball, table tennis and squash during his youth in Turkey, he said, “I was never a runner until I came to the United States.” Then he became an avid runner and even participated in triathlons, which involves running, swimming and biking. “I like endurance sports,” Kaya said.
Starting training in January didn’t give Kaya much time to prepare mentally or physically for the arduous run. “People usually train for 16 to 20 weeks. It was tough, but I did it,” he said.
Kaya ran four to five times a week, but due to a calf injury he sustained last autumn, he said, “I took extra days off to make sure I was healthy, and I did a lot stretching.” Two weeks before the race, Kaya ran 20 miles. “It was my longest run and I felt good. I was ready,” he said.
Besides training for the big day, Kaya set a goal of using his run to raise $7,500 for student scholarships. “As soon as I learned I was going to run, I told my family, friends and colleagues,” he said. “Every time I spoke with someone, I mentioned the race.” Kaya said he was checking the fundraising page every day. He ended up raising $8,200.
As a college student, Kaya revealed, he was involved in a protest, fighting for more opportunities for students. A professor told him if he really wanted to help students, he should become a professor. “So, I always try to help students when I can. The marathon was not only a great opportunity, it was a dream for any professor who wants to help students. It was worth all the sweat,” he said.
On race day, Kaya awoke at 3 a.m., ate breakfast, dressed and made his way to the marathon tent. At 6 a.m. it was only drizzling outside, but a downpour started as soon as he entered the tent. Kaya was wearing his rain poncho, but that wasn’t enough to protect him from the heavy rain.
“We were all digging through the trash to find plastic bags,” Kaya said, laughing as he recalled seeing athletes rummage through garbage bins, looking for any type of plastic material to protect their sneakers from getting soaked.
By 11 a.m., when the race started, the sun was shining and started to dry everything out. “It was beautiful,” Kaya said. But he wasn’t prepared for the 70-degree race day. “I was ready for rain,” he said. The race started off well: people were cheering the runners on, and Kaya said seeing and hearing the spectators’ enthusiasm was heartening. But by his 10th mile, he said, he started to feel overheated. “I was really exhausted by the heat. I thought ‘Am I going to finish this?’”
Kaya pushed through and, at the halfway point, the spectators’ cheers were overwhelming. “You couldn’t hear yourself breathing, they were so loud,” he said.
As he reached his 20th mile, the weather changed again. The wind picked up, rain started to come down again, and the air turned cold. But again, the onlookers kept him going. Seeing his red and white SHU T-shirt, they cheered, “Go Sacred Heart!”
“They didn’t know me,” he said. “It was so nice, so uplifting to hear them.”
After five hours and 18 minutes, Kaya crossed the finish line with a smile on his face. His wife and daughter were there to congratulate him on his accomplishment. Kaya said his time was slower than when he ran the Chicago Marathon in 2014, and he believes his calf injury slowed him down.
“Obviously, running in the Boston Marathon was a great opportunity,” Kaya said. “I will always remember running with 20,000 people—some of the best athletes in the world—and hearing so many different languages being spoken. But I think what kept me going in the marathon was thinking of why I was doing this. I wasn’t doing it for the sake of running; I was doing it for the students. That was a big motivator for me. That’s what will stay with me forever.”
Later, Kaya met up with other runners connected with SHU at an event sponsored by the University’s Office of Alumni Engagement at Trillium Brewery Company in downtown Boston, which an alumnus owns and operates. “Some of the alumni at the event also ran the marathon, and we had never met before, but as soon as we saw each other, we hugged,” Kaya said.
A day after the race, Kaya said he was tired. He was being cautious going down stairs and had a hard time bending. “But I am okay,” he said. “I am happily tired.”