Boston Runs in the Family For Sisters Katie Kay and Jen Dahler

From left, Katie, Jen, and their dad after they both BQd in 2012.
From left, Katie, Jen, and their dad after they both BQ’d in 2012.

In 2013, Katie Kay raced her first and Jen Dahler raced her third Boston Marathon. That year, the race was rocked by a bomb near the finish line. In the wake of the tragedy, sisters Katie and Jen vowed they’d go back. They would go back to prove that Boston was about running and triumph, not terror. They would go back to bring back happy memories of a future Boston Marathon to replace the tragic ones from 2013. And although they didn’t know it then, they would go back without one of their biggest cheerleaders, their dad.

After taking some time off to recover from a mild case of burn-out this past summer, and with Jen’s encouragement, Katie finally agreed to give Boston another shot. Both sisters jumped all-in despite intensely busy schedules, including caring for the five young children between them. Everything was going according to plan when, in mid-November of 2015, their father passed away suddenly, rocking their worlds once again.

Katie, in particular, wasn’t sure if she could keep going but, again with Jen’s support, she pushed on. And while he wouldn’t be there to cheer them on, Jen and Katie did what their dad would want them to do: they stuck with it, dug in deeper, and are going for their goals on April 18.

SR: Why did you decide 2016 was the year to go back to Boston?

Jen: Last summer, Katie and I both decided that it was time. We had both been in a running funk of sorts and it was just the perfect motivation. We needed to go back to celebrate all that the Boston Marathon stands for, and to honor those lives directly affected by the tragedy.

Katie: I always knew that I didn’t want that [2013] experience to be my one and only Boston, so when Jen and I talked about returning in 2016, it felt like a good time. I had run Grandma’s Marathon in June and coming back [to Boston] in April for another full seemed doable and enough time to recover and work on a little speed before going into higher mileage training. However, when my father passed away unexpectedly this November, I truly didn’t know if I had it in me to keep training. I stayed patient with myself and my training during that time and am now, finally, looking forward to race Boston one more time.

SR: What are your goals? 

Jen and Katie’s dad racing in high school; Jen racing in college.

Jen: This marathon means so much more to me than a finish time at this point. It was always going to have a different meaning for us being the first time back to Boston after 2013, but then we unexpectedly lost our father in November. To say he was a huge part of our running lives is an understatement. Our parents were there spectating in 2013 and had already had plane tickets and a hotel booked for this year. He supported us, believed in us and I know he’ll be with us in spirit, every step of the way. As runners we are always striving for our best, and I would love a PR [current PR is 3:19:15], but this race for me is about healing some wounds, and finding joy in a love I shared with my Dad.

Katie: I feel with how my training is going that a low to sub 2:50 is very manageable for April [cuurent PR is 2:56:27]. However, I know weather and the difficulty of the second half of the course itself will be variables, so my main goal is to run the strongest, smartest, fastest race possible on April 18th.

How’s training going? What kind of approach are you taking for training this season? Is it different from prior seasons?

Jen: My training has been going well but has not been all that different to previous marathons. With everything that has happened in our family, it’s nice to have something to focus on! I typically run six days a week with a tempo run, intervals or hills and a long run making up the staple workouts each week. The main difference this training cycle is the addition of cross training. I have started teaching group exercise classes and I teach two cycling classes and a strength class each week.

Katie: I have had some phenomenal training the past few months and while I have focused more on training than racing the past six months, I feel I am in great shape and looking forward to getting into racing again. I am being coached by Becki Spellman and her and I have a great momentum going into the second half of this marathon cycle, I have done several longer speed sessions with faster active recovery which has really helped my overall stamina.

Jen, you have kindergarten-aged twin daughters, teach group exercise classes, and coach high school track and cross-country; and Katie, you have three kids under thirteen, are a professor of nursing and pursuing your PhD. How on earth do you both manage to continue training and racing at a high level with your kids and everything else you do?

Jen: Running has always been a centering force in my life. I am a much happier and more relaxed person and mom when I am running! I ran CC and Track in high school and at Mount Union College and have run consistently ever since. It’s much easier for me to fit in training now that my girls are in Kindergarten. I work part-time teaching group fitness classes and as the Head Cross Country Coach and an Assistant Track Coach at Fairview High School so I have much more time to fit runs in this training cycle. I don’t have a treadmill at the house, so when I am in a pinch I will use our local Rec Center because the girls love being in their Kids Club. I usually try to pick one “Goal” race in the spring and one in the fall – either a half or a full – and then add shorter races throughout the year as they fit. Part of the fun for me in having a goal race is the training. I love having a plan set out in front of me and knowing exactly what I have to accomplish each week.

Katie: That is the million dollar question! I am fortunate to have a very supportive husband who respects my very ambitious attitude to most all things. With a tight schedule involving kids, school, and work, I have found I need to have a basic plan for when I am doing my workouts, double runs, and long-run at the start of the week. Sometimes life happens and you have to re-arrange. However, I have found if I stick to the plan and try not to think about it too much, it all gets done. Having a treadmill is also crucial. I average about 75+ mpw right now and there is no way I could get all those miles in without it! It is also important to having a running support system, Achilles [racing team and local running store sponsor] has been amazing in that regard and has kept me motivated to do the work on the days it seems impossible.

Katie racing a recent 5k, tying her PR of 18:09.

Do you train together at all? What’s the best thing about having a sister who runs? 

Jen: With the way our schedules are, we don’t train together a lot but do manage to fit in runs from time to time. We talk running all the time and I’m constantly texting or calling her with questions about workouts and asking for advice. Training cycles ebb and flow, and Katie is a great resource for me throughout. It’s nice to have someone close who understands when you nail a workout, or when you suffer through and are at a low point who can talk you off the ledge!

 In what way are you different runners and in what ways are you the most alike?

Katie: Jen is a much more middle distance oriented runner where I am more of a half marathon, full marathon/endurance runner. However, our training and work ethic are both very similar, if we are training, we put in the work and the miles to give ourselves the greatest possible race come race day. I am looking forward to another race with her and I know that we are both showing up on race day ready to roll!

Katie paced Jen to a big marathon PR at the 2013 Columbus Marathon.

Jen: As runners, Katie and I are diametric opposites. As Katie said, I am a middle distance runner by nature and as a race gets longer, I have to work that much harder to see gains and to mentally gear up. I used to joke that a marathon was 25.7 miles too long. For Katie, the longer the race the better. She is so mentally tough and strong and above anything she has helped me learn to push my limits in the longer races.

In the fall of 2013 I asked her to run with me in the Columbus Marathon in hopes of a PR. To this day it is one of my favorite running memories and I will never forget her “advice” for me in the later miles. Feeling like I was going to be sick she simply said, “Well then throw-up. But we’re not slowing down.” And that race taught me that she was right. You have to have mental toughness in a marathon and Katie has that perfected! I would say that we are most alike in the fact that we are constantly setting goals, especially running-related goals, and we do whatever we can to reach those goals.

What’s the best piece of advice your sister has ever given you or something she’s done that’s most inspired you?

Jen: I have adopted a Stop, Drop, and Run philosophy to squeeze in all my workouts and mileage, so truthfully, I don’t get to run with anyone much, except on a rare occasion! Jen and I seem to run the most together on vacation and we always find something to laugh about. I wish I did get to run with her more!

Katie: The best piece of advice she ever gave me was when I was going into my first race as an invited runner at the Akron marathon. I was nervous and was reading the list of other athletes in the field to her and saying how crazy it was that I was in the same group as some of these runners. She simply told me that I deserved to be there just as much as they did. That has really stuck with me, and calms my nerves when I decide to take a peek at any race competitor list.

We wish these tough sisters the race of their lives at Boston, we’ll be watching!

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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