Running Saved The Day For Kathi Wagner

Long-Time Runner Still Enjoys Time On The Road

Thursday, August 14, 2014 - by John Hunt

Running has always been an important part of Kathi Wagner’s life, but it really made a difference back in 2007 when she went through one of the toughest times.

That’s when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  She endured those long and difficult chemotherapy treatments and she had a mastectomy.

  And she eventually lost all of her hair, which may have been the worst part of all.

There were plenty of days when she felt just horrible and barely had the energy to get out of bed, but short runs on a treadmill sustained her and she was able to somehow get through it.

Wagner is a pre-school teacher at Bright School where she’s been on the faculty for the past 19 years.  She has a class of 16 darling four-year-olds.  Half of them reported today with the other half set to appear on Friday.  All of them will be present on Monday when it all starts for real.

Kathi says that she celebrated her 60th birthday on April 27, but she doesn’t look a day over 25.  And it’s hard to believe that she has any aggressiveness in her personality at all, but she says that her whole outlook on life changes when the horn sounds at the start of a race.

“When that gun goes off at the start, I always take off too fast, but running has been one of the best things I do for myself,” the East Ridge High School graduate who later earned a degree in elementary education from UTC explained Wednesday afternoon in her brightly decorated classroom.

Kathi started her running career back in 1975 when she was a student at UTC.

“I used to run around Chamberlain Field late at night when nobody could see me and my lungs really burned.  I ran with my roommate Sherrye Jackson.  My first race was at Missionary Ridge in 1977 and I had never run further than three miles.

“Sherrye was waiting for me at the halfway point in her car in case I needed a ride back to the start, but I’ve been hooked on it ever since.  I don’t remember much about that first race, but I took off too fast as always.  I’m better about that now,” she smiled.

Kathi and her husband Les have been married for 33 years.  They are the parents of two children, a son named David who is 26 and a civil engineer for TDOT.  Laura is 23 and waiting to continue her education after graduating from Rhodes College in Memphis.  She’s currently working at Center For Sports Medicine, but her intentions are to become a physician’s assistant.

Laura has that competitive spirit when it comes to running and she’s the one who got her mother back out on the road a few years ago.

“Laura is the one who got me motivated when I was sick in 2007.  I had my annual check last week and everything is clear, so I don’t have to go back for another year.  Running helped me through those tough times and it was really a gift at such a critical time.  Losing my hair was devastating.

“I have always eaten right and done the things I was supposed to do, so I was wondering why this had to happen to me.  But I’m stronger today than I’ve ever been and I don’t take any medication at all,” she said proudly.

Kathi has run 20 marathons, including half at Chickamauga.  Her first one came in 1984 when she posted a time of 3:09, which is also her fastest.  She was the women’s overall winner at Chickamauga in 1986 and 1989.  She ran her last one at Disney World with Laura last year and she’s already signed up for Chickamauga in November.

“I’ve been running a lot of half-marathons and that’s about the perfect distance for me.  I try to do my long runs on Saturday and I average 25-30 miles a week.  These days I run with Laura if she’s going to take it easy as I can’t stay with her now,” she smiled.

Kathi won a bunch of races back in the 80s with the first one coming in 1983 at the Choo Choo Classic, a five-mile race in downtown Chattanooga that was held at night during the hottest part of the summer.  She really liked the Great Heart Run, which was an annual 10K that started and finished at McCallie’s track.

But her favorite race course in this area is at Chickamauga Park.

“I love the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon as I really like that loop around the park.  I’ve done it so many times that I believe I could run it blindfolded,” she nodded.

While Chickamauga has been the location for 10 of her marathons, she’s also been to Boston four times, Disney three times and to New York and Huntsville once.  She also completed the Seven Bridges Marathon in Chattanooga a couple of years ago.

“I went to Boston the first time in 1985.  I started crying when I made that last turn and could see the finish line.  That’s a runner’s dream to be able to say that I’ve run the Boston Marathon,” she added.

While she runs three or four days each week, she’s also actively involved in cardio dance classes.  She would do one of those every day if time allowed.

She also enjoys working in her yard and reading a good book from time to time, but she really likes her job as a pre-school teacher.

“I just love my job as I’m in heaven when I’m in this room.  I’m so fortunate to be able to teach in this environment.  I hope to keep teaching as long as I’m able, but I don’t have any plans to retire any time soon,” she suggested.

Kathi Wagner is enjoying the best days of her life right now.  Everything has fallen into place.

Running continues to play a vital role in her life, just like it did during the toughest times back in 2007.

(This is the 25th in a series of runners in the Chattanooga area.  If you know of someone who would make an interesting story, email John Hunt at

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