Running in Memory of a Friend

By Rima Butto
BU News Service

Five years of running the Boston Marathon and raising more than $60,000 for cancer patients has not worn Ashley Zolenski out. Her sixth marathon may be the most important as she is running in honor of her friend, Jamie Riehle, who died from cancer last fall.

Zolenski, 30, of Cleveland Circle, is to raise money for the Cancer Patient Support Services Fund at Boston Medical Center (BMC). Since 2008, she has raised more than $60,000 for the cause.

Ashley Zolenski is set to run her sixths marathon. (Rima Butto/BU News Service)
Ashley Zolenski is set to run her sixths marathon. (Rima Butto/BU News Service)

“The biggest inspiration for me is thinking about all the people who are going to benefit from the money that’s raised,” Zolenski said.

When she worked in BMC’s development and fundraising office in 2008, Zolenski organized the hospital’s charity marathon team. After first cheering on the runners, she decided to participate in the run the following year and started training in December.

It was through organizing the team that Zolenski met Riehle, a cancer patient who founded and ran one of the patient support groups. The two were friends for three years before mouth cancer took his life in 2012.

Hesitant about running for her sixth time, Riehle’s passing motivated Zolenski to continue the tradition. “He was always really strong and would never complain,” she said. “If Jamie could go through all that, the least I could do is run a marathon and raise money for the fund that was really important to him.”

Cancer patients at BMC frequently come from low economic backgrounds, and the money she raises helps provide patient transportation to and from the hospital.

“I think of how lucky I am because I’m healthy and I can do this,” she said.

Though it was difficult to train in the middle of winter, her hard work paid off when she completed her first marathon.

“It’s incredible how many people come out and support you and cheer you on,” Zolenski said.

Challenges have come to Zolenski in the form of injury. But even an undetected stress fracture one year ago did not stop her from running the full marathon trail.

However, Zolenski does not consider her achievements particularly extraordinary. “I always like to say, if I can do it, anyone can,” she said. “I don’t try to make a big deal out of it.”

Zolenski garners support from her friends and family in her fundraising efforts, and said she is amazed at her peers’ generosity. Though she has to raise a minimum of $5000 to run, she has reached double that goal every year.

She explained that though her peers are willing and happy to help, she finds that she needs to be persistent in her efforts as people often forget to donate. “It’s kind of a challenge, but it’s worth it,” she said.

No stranger to encouraging donations to a good cause, Zolenski works in fundraising for higher education institutions. She reaches out to alumnae who can donate major gifts to the school, which improve campus programs and ultimately encourage student success.

Before her embarking on her professional career, Zolenski served as president of her class at Westfield State College, where she was in charge of canned food drives and other events to raise money.

“I’ve always been used to helping raise money and philanthropy work,” Zolenski said. “So I guess I’m meant to do this,” she adds with a smile.

Zolenski says if Riehl were still living, he would be happy she was still running the marathon. “It’s fun. I can’t wait for Monday.”

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