CLIFTON PARK — Despite these troubled and troubling times, it’s not hard to find heroes out there.
Making it all the easier is when she’s sitting right in your backyard.
Shenendehowa girls’ cross country coach Rob Cloutier introduced a new team-building exercise this season, in which each runner gets a designated day to talk about a hero of theirs. With all the choices available out there, many of them have kept it close and settled on a senior who can’t run during her final high school season, but is as much a part of the team as any of them.
A year ago, Yeva Klingbeil was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and continues to face a daunting recovery challenge that includes relying on a feeding tube for sustenance and a ventilator at night to help her simply get air into her lungs.
She still gets air out of her lungs on race days, though, with the help of a blowhorn supplied by Cloutier, to encourage the Lady Plainsmen.
Cloutier, meanwhile, will be working his lungs like never before on Sunday, Nov. 1, when he runs his first career marathon, not in an officially sanctioned race, but in a charitable effort to help Yeva and her family defray the cost of her medical expenses.
A miler since high school who has never raced longer than 15k (9.3 miles), Cloutier will leave his house in Ballston Spa at 7 a.m., and with the help of ultramarathoner friend Jared Bender, will try to keep a 7:00-7:15 mile pace for 26.2 miles over a course he designed.
That would put him on schedule to reach the terminus of his route — the Klingbeil residence in Clifton Park — shortly after 10 a.m. With any luck, Yeva will feel up to maybe walking the last few steps with him to the “finish.”
No matter what happens, the charitable effort continues to draw response from the public, as Cloutier has already moved the goalposts back once on his PledgeIt page target.
“Kids have talked about Yeva’s impact and just how her attitude about the whole deal is an example of being a hero,” he said. “So … pretty cool.
“She’s really a special kid, in that she’s always had such a great attitude about everything. She’s gained strength, she’s able to walk. I challenged her a little bit. I wanted to finish this marathon with her, whatever that would look like. Even if it’s the last few steps.”
Last October, Yeva was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a form of cancer that attacks soft tissue, particularly voluntary muscles connected to bones, hampering movement. In her case, it settled in her jaw, and after chemotherapy in November and radiation treatments from January to March, her brain stem was damaged to an extent that her ability to swallow and even breathe were affected.
While much of this was happening, Cloutier and the Shen team were in the midst of the winter indoor track season, a time of year when Cloutier essentially surrenders any notion of keeping himself in peak shape because of the time demands of coaching.
After helping the Plainsmen win a cross country state championship in 1998 and graduating in 1999, he ran for the University of Tennessee and has maintained a cycle since then in which he works his way into regular training in the spring, cranks it up in the summer, then looks to post a time in the mile — his specialty since high school — under 5:00. At almost 40 years old, he’s kept that streak going since running 4:54 as a sophomore in 1997.
As much as the COVID-19 pandemic has utterly disrupted routines and schedules, it actually accelerated Cloutier’s training cycle this year, since he was teaching remotely in the spring and was home more.
He kept his sub-5:00 mile streak alive in a time trial, but like most competitive runners these days with no concrete race goal to shoot for, he craved something else, something more.
“So then I had this summer, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with this fitness,” he said. “I need some kind of challenge. So, I don’t know, one of those runs out by myself, exploring somewhere, I just thought of this idea. ‘Hey, we’ve got a need,’ and I know a pretty decent amount of people, between coaching, my team, the community at Shen, and I thought, ‘I’ve never done a marathon,’ and I’ll be 40 this year.”
“I run marathons. He’s a speed guy; he’s got to slow it down,” Yeva’s mom, Gretchen Klingbeil, said with the hint of a wry chuckle.
“She’s excited about all this focus on her story, but she feels a little guilty, too. She says, ‘Mom, there are other kids with cancer.’ But I tell her it’s a good story.”
To say that a miler like Cloutier is getting out of his lane by trying a marathon may be an understatement, but he has a plan and some good strategy and support from his buddy Bender, as well as one of his former Shen runners, Kerry Caher, who will run with them from the start for as long as she can.
Cloutier also has all the motivation in the world.
“It’s kind of been a cool process, learning some things about myself and running after being involved in it for so long,” he said. “The idea is like, hey, it’s a challenge for me, but it’s an opportunity to do some good and build some community.
“I’ve got a great senior class, and Yeva’s a part of that. They’ve really come together and rallied around this, but used it as an opportunity to be grateful for everything you have and an opportunity to be a part of something, right? That’s kind of the idea behind this. It’s a simple thing. However you want to jump in, you want to get involved, you want to donate … it’s up to you. But here’s an opportunity. It’s been special.
“Obviously, we’re living through a period of time where I think a lot of people struggle with hope, and things to look forward to. I’ve seen this, in some ways, become that, especially for me and hopefully the Klingbeil family and the kids.”
Those who want to help can visit the PledgeIt website and search for “Marathon for Yeva.”