50 in 50

New York man's quest to run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 weeks to honor late wife and raise awareness for cancer takes him through the Flathead Valley

By Tristan Scott
Yasir Salem and his late wife, Gweneviere Mann, celebrate after a race. Courtesy photo

Yasir Salem had been running for hours along a ridge overlooking Flathead Lake when it occurred to him that he might not make his return flight to New York City later that afternoon.

A travel snafu that might throw any other weekend itinerant into a frenzy washed right over Salem, 42, who calmly reasoned he would find a later flight as he padded down the trail, nothing to worry about but miles of forested single-track between him and the finish line — nothing to think about, that is, but Gwen.

Gweneviere Mann proved to be an irreplaceable running companion for Salem, who ran countless marathons with his beloved wife before she passed away in July 2018 of a rare form of lung cancer. She was 47.

The pain of her final fatal struggle was compounded by her earlier recovery from a procedure to remove a brain tumor, which left her with memory loss. As part of her rehabilitation, she ran, completing the New York City Marathon with Salem every year between 2010 and 2017.

The race course tracks through all five boroughs in New York and concludes in Central Park, where in 2012 Salem proposed to Mann, her friends offering a clutch assist when they spelled out “Gwen Will You Marry Yasir?” on their T-shirts.

It was a cherished memory the couple shared, even as Mann’s memory loss made marathon running an activity beset with challenges — she would frequently inquire of her husband how much longer until the finish, to which he replied, “only 15 minutes.”

Running, which helped Mann throughout her difficult recovery, continues to connect the couple as Salem perseveres in his marathon running, taking it a giant step further in November 2018.

During Mann’s final hospital stay, the couple came up with the idea for the Gweneviere Mann Foundation to raise awareness for and promote early detection of lung cancer, intent on promoting the foundation and its values after Mann went into remission.

After her death, Salem was determined to honor his wife, and devised an arduous challenge to draw attention to the cause.

His goal: to run 50 marathons in all 50 states in 50 weeks.

While that may seem like an unattainable goal for most, Salem, who works in sales and marketing for Hearst, which owns Runner’s World magazine, has found catharsis in his project celebrating his wife.

On Sept. 22, he finished his 42nd marathon in Kalispell, completing the Foy’s to Blacktail Trail Marathon and dispatching more than 5,000 feet of elevation gain in the process.

For the 50 runners who participated in the second-annual trail race, which showcases a trail network connecting Blacktail Mountain and Herron Park, the conclusion of the marathon marked a monumental physical achievement.

For Salem, it also marks another step closer to his goal to raise money and awareness in Mann’s name.

On Oct. 27, he’ll run his 50th marathon at the Marine Corps Marathon in Arlington, Virginia and Washington, D.C. On Nov. 2, he’ll celebrate the completion of his goal at the Gweneviere Mann Foundation 50in50 Brunch and Fundraiser event at Papillon Bistro in New York City, one day before the New York City Marathon that launched his marathon mission.

His goal is to raise $35,000 to help fund and support the first cohort of program recipients in 2020, and he will be joined at the event by Dean Karnazes, the famed ultramarathon runner and author whose feats of physical endurance have wowed the public since his best-selling book, “Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner,” swept the country.

But the star of the show is Gwen, who Salem credits with carrying him through his most difficult races, particularly the grace with which she carried herself through the race of life.

“Her perseverance really inspired me,” Salem said.

Through the foundation, Salem has partnered with radiologists to bring mobile CT scan units to races, offering screenings of up to 50 people per day.

Statistically speaking, he says, scanning 300 people can save a life, and even fitness-conscious types who frequent marathon events can be prone to cancer.

“Just like Gwen, you can be physically fit and do everything right and still develop cancer,” he said.

Stopping along the Foy’s to Blacktail Trail Marathon course to snap photos and make journal entries on his phone, Salem doesn’t act like someone who’s in a hurry to catch a flight.

Even though he’s spent the past year running, he’s careful to stop and enjoy every moment.

Just like Gwen.

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