Yasir Salem has found a way to channel the heartbreak over the death of his wife in a way that is helping him and others as well.
He’s doing it through marathons.
Salem is running 50 marathons in 50 states over 50 weeks to honor his late wife Gweneviere, who died last July at the age of 47, two months after being diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. “It snuck up on us in a really cruel way,” said Salem, who runs with T-shirts and hats with a “50 in 50” logo.
The marathon tour is to raise awareness and fund programs for early detection of lung cancer and brain tumors through the Gweneviere Mann Foundation, which Salem created.
He has raised more than $42,000 from sponsors and donations through a GoFundMe.com page and has successfully spread awareness with press coverage from numerous outlets including Runner’s World magazine, CBS and ABC.
“I don’t need to just sit in my grief,” Salem said. “I can’t function that way. I need to do something and focus my energy on something and this is how I’ve chosen to harness all this energy I have.”
Myrtle Beach was his 13th marathon in the series. He finished in 4 hours, 38 minutes, then flew to Little Rock, Ark., on Saturday to run his 14th on Sunday.
The quest began with the 2018 New York City Marathon in November and will conclude in New York on Nov. 3.
“Everybody has lungs and everybody is at risk of developing lung cancer,” Salem said. “The majority of people like Gwen who are young and healthy and are runners, they just don’t get screened for lung cancer. To me that should just be part of standard care. When you go in for your physical a patient should be offered it, it’s a five-minute low-radiation scan.”
For the New York and Chicago marathons, at least, Salem has organized – with the help of a radiology sponsor – the presence of mobile lung cancer screening vehicles that are about the size of tractor trailers for free lung cancer screenings. He said between 40 and 70 people can be screened per day.
“Based on the prevalence of lung cancer, if we screen 300 people statistically we’ll be able to catch one person who is at some stage and we’ll hopefully catch it early, and that’s the whole point of his whole thing is education,” said Salem, who added cooperation from a local hospital is necessary for the screening vehicles.
“That’s a big reason why we’re going state to state to state, it has to be a localized, regional type of a campaign of working with a hospital,” he said.
Distance running became important to Salem and his late wife in 2008 following surgery to remove a large brain tumor that caused short-term amnesia. They completed eight marathons together, including the New York City Marathon seven times beginning in 2010.
“We both set out a goal to do the New York City Marathon in 2010, and it was our first marathon, as a way to help her realize she had plenty left in her,” Salem said. “It was a metaphor for pushing through . . . and that she can accomplish big things even with her memory issues she suffered after the brain tumor.”
After her brain surgery, Gwen recorded an musical album, was working on a memoir, earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, attended Julliard for music theory and was set to begin Columbia’s Master of Fine Arts program last fall.
Salem, 42, is a group marketing director for several Hearst Magazine publications including Esquire, Men’s Health and Popular Mechanics. He has run 43 marathons, including 13 in 2017, and completed a triathlon and four Iron Man competitions with Gwen as his inspiration, and he’ll continue to compete in her memory.