Zraunig remains ‘Paula Strong’

  • Paula Castine passed away on Sept. 11, 2016 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. In April, Tara Zraunig will run in her honor. Submitted photo

  • Tara Zraunig, shown after completing the Boston Marathon this past April, will run the marathon again in April in memory of family friend Paula Castine, who passed away from pancreatic cancer on Sept. 11, 2016. Submitted photo

  • Tara Zraunig, shown crossing the finish line at the Boston Marathon this past April, will run the marathon again in April in memory of family friend Paula Castine, who passed away from pancreatic cancer on Sept. 11, 2016. Submitted photo

  • Tara Zraunig, shown crossing the finish line at the Boston Marathon this past April, will run the marathon again in April in memory of family friend Paula Castine, who passed away from pancreatic cancer on Sept. 11, 2016. Submitted photo

Monday, December 04, 2017

Greenfield native Tara Zraunig knew that she would need a little luck to win the lottery twice in a year’s span. Perhaps it was because of her intentions, or divine intervention or something else entirely, but she recently got her wish when she was selected as one of the winners for a bib to run in the 2018 Boston Marathon.

Zraunig entered the lottery through the John Hancock Financial Company, where she has worked as a Senior Sales Compensation Analyst for the past year and a half, helping to calculate commission and bonuses for employees of the company. Zraunig entered and won a bib to run in the 2017 Boston Marathon through John Hancock, but this year she had an extra-special reason. Last September, her sister-in-law Kelly (Castine) Zraunig lost her mother Paula Castine to pancreatic cancer. Tara had been close with the Castine family long before her brother Matt had even known his future wife, and Tara knew that running in Castine’s memory was something she wanted to do. 

“Paula had passed away a few months before I finished the 2017 marathon,” Zraunig said last week from her home in Belmont. “I discussed running again over the summer with my family. They knew I wanted to do this. After I got selected, I spoke to Kelly and her brother Ryan and their father Dan and asked them if I could run in memory of Paula.”

I have known the Castine family my entire life. Paula and Dan both attended my wedding in 2014, and one of my daughter’s favorite books was one given to us by Paula at our baby shower, shortly after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015. Family and friends came up with the motto “Paula Strong” during her battle, and battle she did. The cancer finally claimed her life on Sept. 11, 2016. 

Zraunig knew Paula and the Castine family for years. When she was at Greenfield High School, the 1997-graduate Zraunig was a three-sport star, playing field hockey, basketball and softball. Kelly Castine was a couple years behind her, but was a star athlete in field hockey, basketball and softball as well and the families got close.

“I knew Paula well before Kelly and my brother even knew each other,” Tara said. “Paula and Dan attended my high school graduation party and my college graduation party, and my parents attended both Kelly and Ryan’s high school and college graduations.”

Kelly said that Tara was always someone who she looked up to on the athletic field.

“She was always an upper-classman I looked up to and I couldn’t ask for a better person to run for my mom,” she said. “Our parents were always together, cheering us on and they really appreciated the friendship that Tara and I have had.”

Years later, Tara helped set up Kelly and Matt and the two are now married with three kids, Chase, Bryce and Danielle. Last September, Tara said she had a feeling that she needed to get back to Greenfield to see Paula, who was not doing well at the time. She came back on Saturday, Sept. 10, and Paula passed away the next day.

“I’m so glad I got to see her before she passed away,” Zraunig said. “She was such an amazing person.”

Seven months after Paula’s passing, Zraunig completed her third marathon ever, including her first-ever Boston Marathon in a time of 5 hours, 31 minutes, 7 seconds. She figured that would be her first and last Boston Marathon, possibly her final marathon altogether.

“My goal was to run it once in my life,” she wrote on her fundraising page. “After I crossed that finish line and really thought about my experience, I knew I wanted to do it again. But this time, for a different reason.”

There is a lot more that comes from running in memory of someone other than just finishing the marathon, which is a grueling endeavor all on its own. John Hancock raffles off the bibs throughout its company as well as other companies it’s involved with each year, which means that anyone who wins one does not need to record a qualifying time as most runners do nowadays for the right to run in the world’s oldest annual marathon.

Those picked must also raise money for charity, of which there are two types. The first is the charity chosen by the company, which is the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston, and runners must fundraise $2,500, or else pay the difference out of pocket. Runners also have the choice to run for a charity of their choosing, such as Zraunig’s choice of the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation, but in the case of choosing their own charity, runners must raise twice as much money, which means Zraunig needs to hit her goal of $5,000 or else pay the difference out of pocket. 

“It’s such an honor to have someone running in my mother’s memory,” Kelly Zraunig said. “I don’t really have words for it. She could be running for any cause, but she chose pancreatic cancer. It’s nice to see some recognition for the Pancreatic Cancer Foundation.”

The fact that Zraunig is even running marathons is a story in itself. After graduating from GHS, Zraunig moved on to Bentley University where she played field hockey and after graduating in 2001, she continued playing club hockey with friends.

“I’ve always been more of a team-sport athlete,” she said. “I was never really a runner.”

That was until she saw her cousin running. Shortly after she graduated, Zraunig’s cousin gave birth to twins. She went back to running after giving birth, and Zraunig used that as motivation.

“I figured if she can do this, I can do this. I have more time than her and I get more sleep than her,” Zraunig said.

She began with 5-kilometer road races and progressed to 10Ks and eventually half-marathons. She did her first full marathon in Philadelphia in 2007 but said the experience was not a great one. She tried to do all the training herself and said she didn’t know exactly what to do. A few years later, she ran in the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington as part of a team relay and that gave her the bug to try her second full marathon. In 2011, she decided to run in Burlington, this time in memory of her friend Royston English, who had been battling cancer but passed away in Feb. 2011. She ran the Vermont City Marathon in his honor in May 2011.

While the experience went better, Zraunig said she still wasn’t sure if she would run another marathon, although Boston was tempting. Problem is, with so many people wanting to run Boston, it’s difficult to get into the field and many people need to record qualifying times. After a year and a half spent at John Hancock, a co-worker told her that her best chance to run Boston was through the company, which sponsors the race and receives bibs to donate to hundreds of individuals, who in turn select non-profits. In 2017, over a thousand John Hancock-sponsored runners raised $12.3 million for charity.

John Hancock takes things very seriously for those running under its banner. Zraunig said that the company has two coaches to help the runners. Greg Meyers, who won the Boston Marathon in 1983, is one coach, and Becca Pizzi is the other coach. Pizzi, who is from Belmont, is famous for becoming the first American woman to complete the World Marathon Challenge, which is a series of seven marathons taking place on seven continents in seven consecutive days. Together, the two coaches offer feedback to all the runners, as well as motivational Facebook posts, and they occasionally meet the runners for group runs, which take place at least once a month.

The VIP treatment doesn’t end on race day, as all runners under the John Hancock banner get to meet at Hopkinton High School, where they have a place to eat and — perhaps most importantly — a bathroom. After the race, Kristine Aristide, the Program Lead for Employee Training, is there to congratulate the runners at the finish line and help point them in the direction of the post-race tent where there are refreshments and massages.

“The are very invested in their runners,” Zraunig said.

And plenty of other people will be invested in Zraunig when she runs this April. Each member of the Castine family is planning to go and cheer Zraunig on that day, and plenty of others will be investing in her financially as she tries to hit or exceed her $5,000 goal. Zraunig said that she has up to and even slightly past race day to come up with the money, and she has set up a fundraising account for anyone who would care to donate in Paula’s memory. To donate, go to www.crowdrise.com and search “Tara Zraunig” to bring up her page. As of Monday evening, Zraunig had raised $1,715.

Zraunig’s goal actually reminded Kelly of a story about her mother. Paula lost her own mother at the age of 52 and that year she took part in the Relay For Life and walked 52 laps around the Franklin County Fairgrounds, one for each year of her mother’s life. 

“My mom would be honored,” Kelly concluded. “It’s the perfect sort of activity to do in her memory.”

One more example of someone being “Paula Strong.”

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com. Like him on Facebook and leave your feedback at www.facebook.com/jaybutynski.