This ‘Zem' is for Gail: Bennington Road Race honors former teacher
BENNINGTON -- Gail Harwood loved to run.
She loved the empowering feeling that running gave her, and she spread her enjoyment of the sport to those around her. She encouraged everyone she knew to run -- including Pat Zemianek.
So when Zemianek and her daughter, Kathy, attended Gail's funeral earlier this year, Pat knew that this year's edition of the Steve Zemianek Bennington Road Race should be ran in her honor.
"I approached my daughter, and we thought of it at the same time," Pat Zemianek said in an interview earlier this week. "She was such a spirited lady and such an inspiration. It is so appropriate for this race to be dedicated to Gail."
The ‘Zem', as the race has become affectionately known, will run for the 36th time this Sunday at the historic Park McCullough House in North Bennington. And the memory of two community legends in Zemianek and Harwood will be remembered by those that attend.
"Gail was a friend of mine, she was my inspiration," said Pat Zemianek. "She was the one who inspired me to run a half-marathon when I was approaching 70. She had all this confidence in me that I could do this."
Even in death, Harwood has had a major impact on the local running community. A local non-profit, Girls on the Run Vermont, promotes empowerment of pre-teen girls through running to develop physical, emotional and social well-being.
When Harwood passed away in January, GOTRVT received an envelope filled with more than $1,200 in donations, which the community had raised through Gail's memory. The lone stipulation for the money was that GOTRVT would start a program in Bennington.
"She promoted for a really long time girls, younger girls, girls in high school, having that level playing field of being able to participate in sports," said Harwood's daughter, Melissa Senecal. "She kind of advocated for that in her own, gentle way."
Harwood was a born-and-raised Benningtonian. Born on Thanksgiving Day in 1951, Harwood was raised in the Bennington community and was part of the first graduating class at Mount Anthony. A gifted athlete, Harwood left to get a college education, but came back and taught in the Bennington school system for the rest of her life, mainly at Molly Stark Elementary School, before retiring in June.
In many ways, she was a female version of Steve Zemianek. Harwood also coached at MAU, assisting with the field hockey program, and like Zemianek, the Mount Anthony track coach for a quarter-century, Harwood loved being able to give back to the community that helped make her what she was.
"Steve was a humble man, and to honor someone like Gail, he would have been proud of this," Pat said. "I feel fortunate that the Zemianek family has the opportunity to give Gail the recognition she deserves."
Senecal reciprocated the thought when asked what her mother would have said about being honored.
"I know she would appreciate it very much and be humbled by it," Senecal said. "But she also loved the fact that it is a community event. She was all about giving back to the Bennington community."
Senecal said that she and her mother competed in the Road Race last year. And, true to fashion for Harwood, Senecal recalled that her mother talked mostly about the community atmosphere the race had.
"Seeing the little kids doing the race and making healthy choices, that is what she would appreciate," Senecal said.
Harwood ran in marathons and half-marathons up until last May, when she completed her final marathon in the midst of chemotherapy, while also nursing a broken foot.
"She just persevered through all of that," Senecal said. "She set a goal, and she wasn't going to complain about it and she was going to see it through."
On Sunday, area runners will have one of their first chances of the year to see a race through. As has been the case with the ‘Zem', the race will actually be three races. There will be the 3.8-mile race that will be a loop around town and a 10K race that takes runners across the Walloomsac River and through a covered bridge twice. In addition to those races, a kids' 1K fun run will also take place. The 1K will start at 9:30 a.m., while the 3.8-mile and 10K races will start simultaneously at 10 a.m. The race also welcomes walkers to participate. Awards will be handed out to the top male and female finishers, along with first through third prizes in all age categories.
Today is the final day for the $15 pre-registration, which runners can access through www.runreg.com. The cost bumps up to $20 after May 1. Race day registration will be available starting at 8 a.m. The lead sponsor for this year's race is SVMC Orthopedics and proceeds fund a scholarship in Steve Zemianek's name at MAU.
For more information on the race, contact David Newell at 802-442-9124 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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