When Mary Ann Zemla was in her mid-40s, her mail carrier asked her a simple question: "Will you run a marathon with me?"
That was 1998, and Zemla wasn't a runner. She admits she didn't really know what a marathon entailed. About six months later, the mail carrier again asked the Libertyville resident to join her in a marathon.
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"I had run a 5K and 10K at that point. I knew what a marathon was," Zemla said. She didn't feel quite ready to take on a 26.2-mile run.
When the mail carrier asked again a year later, she mentioned the marathon was in Alaska. That piqued Zemla's interest. She completed a half-marathon in Libertyville, and on New Year's Eve that year, she called the mail carrier and agreed to run the marathon.
Now 58 years old, Zemla completed her 50th state marathon -- Vermont -- in May. It was her 74th marathon.
"I feel very lucky and blessed that my life went in that direction," said Zemla, a former emergency room nurse at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital who now works at Northwestern's Grayslake facility. "I feel really blessed that I found running. I love it."
Zemla said she never set out to run so many marathons. That first marathon in 1999 offered her the opportunity to run with the Leukemia Society's Team in Training, and she raised about $7,800 for the cause.
"It had a very, very emotional impact on me," she said.
After that first marathon, Zemla joined Lake Zurich's Alpine Runners Club, whose members gather for runs every Saturday, year-round. She subsequently ran Lake County's marathon that same year and joined the Alpine Runners in training for -- and completing -- the Chicago Marathon that fall.
She learned from online research about the 50 States Marathon Club, an organization that recognizes runners who have completed marathons in all 50 states. She started traveling to marathons with the club.
When three of her Alpine Runners friends received certificates of completion from the club in 2010, Zemla tagged along to see the ceremony in North Carolina.
"Friends and family can get up and say something. I said, 'I think you are all crazy,'" she said. "My friends were dying for me to eat my words."
Nearly two years later, Zemla had completed 30 state marathons. She ran her 31st marathon in Hawaii in March 2012. Her best friend, Mary Papreck, helped Zemla plan out the remaining 19 marathons. Zemla completed 13 in 2013 alone, and Papreck traveled with her to most of them.
Zemla ran her 50th state marathon May 23 of this year.
"Mary was my running friend, my travel planner and a coach," Zemla said. "I could not have done it without her."
Papreck is proud of her friend.
"It was a pleasure and adventure going to these destinations with Mary Ann," Papreck said. "Not only was she consistent in her marathon times, she managed to pick up some age group awards along the way. I'm proud and lucky to have her as my friend. Her energy and enthusiasm is contagious."
Zemla said a particularly rewarding aspect of running marathons is she "got to see the entire United States." While she doesn't have a favorite marathon, she noted that Missoula, Montana, "was one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen." She admits she had never before had a desire to visit Montana. Now she can't wait to return.
"What I learned was that we have a beautiful country right here," Zemla said, noting she doesn't plan to tackle marathons in other countries.
"It's a passion. I enjoy running. And it's social. I always try to run with someone else," Zemla said. "It's as much social as it is healthy."
Zemla became an "ultramarathoner" in 2002 when she ran her first 50-mile race. She hopes to do more of those events in the future, along with more marathons.
"I have absolutely loved every bit of my journey," she said. "It's been a great ride."