Chelsea Lajko remembers feeling envious of her runner friends.

“Growing up, I always looked up to my friends who were in cross country and track. I always wanted to say, ‘I’m going out for a run,’ and have it be nothing. But that’s not been the case,” says the 25-year-old Michigan State University graduate from Kingsley, Mich. “I never really was a runner. Some people are natural at it. It was something I always struggled with.”

These days, however, Chelsea, who has served as the National Cherry Queen throughout this past year, has a different running story to tell: she finished her first half marathon earlier year, at the Bayshore races, and she’ll return to the start line this weekend when she runs the Festival of Races 5K on the final day of the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City.

At the finish of the Bayshore Half Marathon with her dad, Bob Lajko.
At the finish of the Bayshore Half Marathon with her dad, Bob Lajko.
Chelsea, savoring her half marathon finish.
Chelsea, savoring her half marathon finish.

Though she wouldn’t go so far as to say running is easy, Chelsea says she has a confidence she didn’t have before. “Most of it is mental,” she says, adding that she found during the half marathon “if I could get in control of what’s going in my head, my legs can do the work.

Saturday’s 5K will be the second 3.1-miler she’s tackled this year; during her reign as queen she also ran the 5K during the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. (As queen she travels throughout the year, attending festivals and other special events to promote the cherry industry and the Grand Traverse region as the “cherry capital of the world.”) “It was just the best run I have ever done in my life.”

To prepare for her first half, Chelsea ran with the Bayshore In Training group. “We started end of January, sometimes running in negative 20-degree weather,” she recalls.

She also had the support of her dad, who had run the race several times and encouraged his daughter to give it a try. They ultimately would run the race together.

She had a good race, she says. “I love being in that atmosphere, around people who are enthusiastic. Everyone is in a great mood … I finished and that was the most important thing to me.”

Chelsea says serving as National Cherry Queen "has changed my life ... It’s been overwhelming, all the things I have been able to do. I have kept a journal. I feel like I’ve lived five people’s lives.”
Chelsea says serving as National Cherry Queen “has changed my life … It’s been overwhelming, all the things I have been able to do. I have kept a journal. I feel like I’ve lived five people’s lives.”

As her reign comes to an end — a new cherry queen is crowned tonight — Chelsea is relishing the final moments of this year’s National Cherry Fesitval, including tomorrow’s 5K, which she will run with Trevor Tkach, the festival’s executive director.

Further down the road, Chelsea is eyeing a doctorate degree that will allow her to continue to work with military personnel and their families. She plans to attend graduate school specializing in psychological trauma.

She’s also considering signing on for another half marathon.

 

The Festival of Races takes place tomorrow, Saturday, morning. Events include a half marathon, 15K, 10K and 5K. I’ll be running the 15K with my 13-year-old son Andrew while the rest of my family is running the 5K. Hope to see many of you there! -MRG

 

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