University City

Teacher finds new will to train for half-marathon

Being out of shape and complacent for several years, and believing she was too busy to do much about it, Michelle Zelaya willed herself to join a running training group last February.

Her simple goal was to complete a 5-kilometer run.

Five long-distance runs later, Zelaya said, she's is a new person.

She recently created an exercise and health program for herself and her fellow teachers at Mallard Creek High. She also is training for the first N.C. Half Marathon, an event to be held at Charlotte Motor Speedway in March.

A triathlete up until seven years ago, Zelaya, a UNC Charlotte graduate, completed her only marathon in 2002, the Marine Corps Marathon in Arlington, Va. She competed in a handful of half-marathons in the ensuing three years but a life change shortly after took her off course.

Zelaya, now 33, got married in 2005 and had her first child a year later. Her conditioning took a hiatus during her pregnancy, but she vowed to pick it back up after giving birth.

Gabriel Zelaya was born to Michelle and Melvin Zelaya in December, 2006. She said the winter's dreary, cold weather gave her an excuse to remain dormant. Their second child, Danilo, was born in 2009, making it even more challenging to return to her physically active ways.

Late in 2010, Zelaya started watching her diet again and had lost 37 pounds by last February. She was ready for a "new level of fitness," she said, and joined trainer Tommy Snodgrass' Couch to 5K training program.

Her goal was simple: to get in shape for Concord Parks and Recreation's annual springtime Bunny Run 5K.

Zelaya was so invigorated by her new training routine that she preceded the Bunny Run by running the Charlotte Racefest 10K with a friend in mid-April.

"Once I started feeling successful," said Zelaya, "... I just got more hooked. I just wanted more and more and more."

As with most runners, Zelaya was eager to improve her times with each race. She said she never cared about how well she finished against other runners, but her results at a 5K run in Concord last July inspired her. Zelaya finished third in the 30- to 34-year-old female division at the midsummer Streetlight 5K, making her believe she was onto something.

At the Charlotte SouthPark Turkeytrot 8K on Thanksgiving, Zelaya finished 77th out of 385 women in the 30-34 age group. In December, she placed 13th among 36 runners in the female 30-39 division at the Speed for Children in Need 5K at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

In the meantime, her newfound zest for healthy living motivated the high school Spanish teacher to found "Monday Movements." The weekly meetings involve about a half-dozen Mallard Creek High teachers who share Zelaya's desire to improve their wellness.

The group started in September and meets once a week after school to discuss proper nutrition; they also run or walk on and around campus. Their course often takes them through adjacent Mallard Creek Park.

Francine Romain, a UNC Charlotte alumnus, University City resident and Mallard Creek calculus teacher, said Zelaya has inspired her to live a healthier lifestyle.

"There have been some Mondays when I woke up thinking I wasn't ready to work out," said Romain, 27. "But I felt there were others there, and Michelle, that expected me to do it. We are supporting each other."

In late December, Zelaya took up Snodgrass' offer to join his group, which is training for the N.C. Half Marathon. Zelaya has already committed to the March 24 event by registering early. Her goal is to average nine minutes or less per mile over the 13.1 mile course.

A year after she re-dedicated herself to running, Zelaya is now interested in coaching others. A National Board certified teacher, she would also like to obtain a certification to teach health to high school students.