Franklin Regional graduate completes marathon feat
Molly Zalewski's love affair with running began when she joined the track team as a freshman at Franklin Regional High School.
“I did it to make friends, and I started running then,” she said. “But I was terrible. I came in last in every event — the one-mile, the two-mile. But I loved it. I loved running.”
Zalewski graduated in 1996 and a few years later began a 16-year journey that would lead her to where she is today.
Family and friends were there to cheer her on when she crossed the finish line at the MVP Health Care Marathon Sept. 21 in Rochester, N.Y., making Zalewski the 320th woman runner ever to complete a certified 26.2-mile race in every state in the continental United States, plus Hawaii and Alaska.
Having met her goal, she's calling it quits on marathons.
“Unless Puerto Rico becomes a state, there's no reason to run a marathon again,” she said. “I started this as a 19-year-old, and I saw it as a hobby. I don't see it as anything other than my hobby is done.
“I think it has its place as an accomplishment. With my love for travel and adventure, it kind of all fit.”
Zalewski has traveled all over the country to run marathons over the years, but she didn't have to go far for her first one. She was a sophomore at Penn State when she ran the Pittsburgh Marathon in 1998.
It was there that Zalewski found her inspiration to run a marathon in every state. She met another runner who had done it.
“This guy was wearing a t-shirt that said he was 77 and this was his 77th marathon, and he did one in all the states,” she said. “So I thought I would do it, too.”
Zalewski had wanted to run the Pittsburgh Marathon since she was young. Her mom, Margaret, often took her to the city to watch the race, and it remains one of her favorite courses.
Zalewski, 36, has lived in North Carolina since 2008. She works as a nurse anesthetist at the Cardina Medical Center in Charlotte.
For years, she was employed as a traveling nurse and often ran marathons in whatever part of the country she was working in. She ran as many as four or five races a year.
“If you name a place where I've done a marathon, I have a clear memory, an experience, and it's all positive,” Zalewski said. “That's kind of what I was going for.
“I ran one in Burlington, Vermont, with a sister and another one in Crater Lake (Oregon) with another sister. With both of those, we had such fantastic weekends, and that's all part of it.”
She often was able to connect with friends, relatives or fellow nurses to run marathons together.
“I actually didn't run many by myself, which is surprising,” she said.
Zalewski's best marathon time was four hours, 10 minutes and 13 seconds at the Myrtle Beach Marathon in South Carolina when she was 24. For most races, she set a slower, steady pace.
“My motto is quantity, not quality,” she says.
For the most part, she was able to avoid injuries and illness. She hurt an ankle on a trail run while training around the time of her 41st marathon and had to take some time off from running.
“I wasn't sure if I was going to get the next 11 done, and I had to get to 52,” Zalewski said. “But I took three months off, and it was okay.”
Over the years, Zalewski cut back on her training, focusing more on the actual races.
“With my mental capacity, I knew I could finish 26 miles no matter what,” she said. “So I was relying on that more.”
Zalewski's cheering section for her final marathon included her mom and dad, Murrysville residents Fran and Margaret Zalewski, along with her brother, Tom, sisters Anna and Maureen, and a niece, Tom's daughter, Madeline.
Also on hand to lend support was Zalewski's friend from high school, Amanda (Kastanek) Nadig, and Amanda's sister, Darcie Young.
“It was very nice to see them. They had signs and they were all wearing matching t-shirts,” Zalewski said. “It was a lot of attention. I was like, ‘Woah!'”
Her marathon journey is over, but Zalewski will continue to run several days a week. She also plans to create a memento of her experiences, a quilt made of pieces of all the t-shirts she received from races.
She's entertaining ideas for a new hobby, maybe something with biking or hiking.
“That curiosity is still there,” she said. “This is a big world, and it's fun to explore.”
Dave Schrecengost is a freelance writer.