Co-workers go the distance to honor their retiring friend

Runners pay tribute to cancer survivor Marsolais in Alaska Run for Women

Posted: Tuesday, June 10, 2003

ANCHORAGE - As her final day with the Anchorage School District neared, Mary Marsolais warned her colleagues not to plan any retirement luncheons or going-away parties.

And though the 65-year-old woman weighs all of 98 pounds, Marsolais is not to be taken lightly. She says what she thinks, she means what she says, and even though she seems to punctuate every sentence with a joke, she is a no-nonsense woman.

So the staffers at Denali Elementary School, where Marsolais worked for 25 years as a teacher's assistant, paid heed. Then they conspired. If they couldn't send her away with cake and balloons and gifts, they would break a sweat in her honor.

About 20 of them signed up for Saturday's Alaska Run for Women, the annual footrace and breast cancer fund-raiser, and raised more than $500 to donate in Marsolais' name.

It was the perfect send-off for a woman who is one of the top age-group runners in Alaska - and a nine-year survivor of breast cancer who lost one breast in 1994 and the other two years ago.

Marsolais thanked her friends by defeating them.

"She could be missing four or five body parts and still race past us," said Celia Foley, a teacher at Denali Elementary.

The Denali group included some, but not many, runners. Gail Somerville has a bad knee and a limp and never enters races.

"But I love Mary so much there's no way I was going to miss this," she said. "She's just my hero."

Marsolais worked primarily with special-needs students during her 35 years with the district. She was among the first to work with students who came to the district from Alaska Psychiatric Institute, and twice she was sent to the hospital with injuries inflicted by students.

"I was bitten twice by children," Marsolais said, "and then breast cancer bit me."

Teachers who have worked with her said Marsolais works wonders with students.

"I have high-needs special education students," said Robin Walker, "and Mary can make them function."

"She tells those kids, 'You get up and do this,' and that's just the way it is," Somerville said.

Marsolais has a knack for making things happen. When she started running, at age 42, she was denied entry in a popular running club because she couldn't run 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) in the required 42 minutes.

So she and some friends started their own club, and Marsolais went on to run a sub-42. When she told someone of her desire to run the Boston Marathon, the person said she'd never meet the qualifying standard. She did, and she is a two-time finisher of the world's most famous marathon.

When Marsolais learned she had breast cancer at age 55, she worried the disease would slow her. She told colleagues she would work one more year. One year turned into nine.

Her time Saturday in the five-mile race was her slowest ever - 42 minutes, 50 seconds - but she still placed eighth among the 257 women entered in the survivors category. She ranked 272nd in a field of 1,942 girls and women who raced in the competitive five-mile race, and she won her age division.

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