Visalia running partners celebrate 50th marathon Sunday at Two Cities

The Fresno BeeNovember 1, 2013 

Visalia residents Julie Serjak and Richard Rodriguez are each running their 50th full marathon Sunday in Fresno.

But just like the 1,310 official marathon miles they'll have tallied up after Sunday's Two Cities Marathon & Half, the journey that brought them here is just as long.

Serjak, 66, and Rodriguez, 68, each took up running late in life, first simply to lose some weight. They didn't start marathoning until the 1990s.

Their path to becoming running partners was random, brought together by every runner's nightmare.

One evening in 1992, Serjak was running the streets of Visalia and was grabbed by a man. Serjak reported the incident to police, but insisted the officers let her finish the three miles she had left on her run.

While she finished her run that day, the incident left Serjak shaken so she compromised. She started running laps in her cul-de-sac.

She might still be running in circles if not for running into Rodriguez at an elementary school open house. Serjak and Rodriguez were acquainted because their sons attended school together; at the open house, soon after the attack on Serjak, Rodriguez offered a warning:

"I told her to be careful because I heard a woman got grabbed."

Serjak told him that she was the victim.

She remembers Rodriguez offering to team up on runs, "and I thought, 'I can't train in the cul-de-sac again.' "

Those early training runs were five or six miles every morning before heading off to work -- Serjak as a school psychologist for Visalia Unified, Rodriguez as a school principal in Lemoore.

"Running just became a part of our lives," Rodriguez says. "You wake up, throw on your running clothes, go out, run, come back, get ready, eat breakfast and go to work. It's who you are."

Serjak and Rodriguez have run thousands of unlogged miles together, accumulating sores on their feet but also relieving the stress from the outside world while building an unbreakable friendship.

"We feed off of each other really well," Serjak says.

Serjak and Rodriguez each completed their first marathon at age 47: Rodriguez in San Francisco in 1992; Serjak in Big Sur in '94.

They ran their first marathon together in 1994 at the California International Marathon in Sacramento with a group from Visalia Runners. Each has become a fixture in the club, serving terms as president and earning running nicknames: Queen Bee (Serjak) and Papa Rich (Rodriguez). Rodriguez often tells runners to "meet at the hive at five" for an early morning run starting from Serjak's house.

Good friend and fellow runner Michele Figueroa has seen their friendship blossom firsthand, running alongside them in the 100th Boston Marathon in 1996.

"It's just something that's in their heart and they're dedicated to," she says. "They've run through thick and thin, through the ups and downs of life that the running keeps them sane, basically. We live our lives and have issues in our families and the thing they were able to turn to was running."

In 2003, Serjak was diagnosed with melanoma cancer and had multiple surgeries to treat it.

"I was off and on," Serjak says. "But overall the running helped me because it kept my mind straight."

Rodriguez also used running to push Serjak and deal with his own issues -- his son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

"When we're running, we talk about everything but running," he says. "We developed a second family. We talk about our families, life in general and have gotten to know each other pretty well."

Growing up, Cara Serjak remembers her mother and Rodriguez constantly running.

"It didn't seem weird to me, because that's what my mom did all the time. But it wasn't until I was older that I realized it takes commitment, dedication, persistence and going outside even when you don't want to."

That will was evident in the 2011 Two Cities Marathon & Half.

"I split my chin open and was in the ambulance for 45 minutes," Julie Serjak recalls. "I was so determined to finish. I told myself, 'I'm not running 17 miles and not getting credit for it.' "

Serjak was allowed to finish but only because the paramedics checked her out to Cara, who had run a half-marathon and then ran the final nine miles of the marathon with Mom.

"She ran through that and she's run through all these things in her life, and it's really motivated me," Cara says.

Cara says she won't become a marathoner like her mother, but is willing to run 100 half-marathons to reach that goal.

"Those full marathons take up too much training time," Cara says.

Rodriguez and Serjak have trained for the past 16 weeks for their 50th marathon.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, they'll do an "easy run" of four to six miles. On Tuesdays they train for speed. Thursdays are for timed tempo running. Fridays and Sundays are for personal runs or resting and long runs of 15-20 miles are saved for Saturdays.

Their best marathon times are in the distant past -- Rodriguez ran Bakersfield 1992 in 3 hours 12 minutes; Serjak did 3:44 at the California International in '95.

"We do age and we do have the soreness. It takes us a little longer to run and recover than we used to," Serjak says. "But that's been nice about us being the same age. We're slowing up together bit by bit."

"I was a hare, now I'm a turtle," Rodriguez jokes. "I never thought I'd be here. Here I am, 68 years old. If you were to tell me I was running at 68 and doing my 50th marathon, I wouldn't believe it. It's a milestone in my life."


Two Cities Marathon & Half

When: Sunday (7 a.m. marathon, Clovis half marathon; 7:15 a.m. Fresno half marathon run & walk, half marathon relay)

Start: Friant Road and Audubon Drive

Finish: Woodward Park

Health & Fitness Expo: Saturday (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) at Chukchansi Park (1800 Tulare St., Fresno) includes running expert panel (noon to 12:45 p.m. and 1:45 to 2:30 p.m.)

Registration: In person at the Health & Fitness Expo through Saturday, if space is available; no signups on race day. Fees are $110 for the marathon; $95 for either half marathon; and $180 for the marathon relay

Road closures: See the race map for details

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6401 or amoreno@fresnobee.com

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