First female to win Rock 'n' Roll Nashville Marathon twice in a row eyes higher prize

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Melanie Kulesz

Virginia Commonwealth University MBA student Melanie Kulesz never imagined she would go from a little-league soccer player to winner of the St. Jude Rock ‘n’ Roll Nashville Marathon — let alone a two-time winner. But this year, cheered on by family, friends and spectators, Kulesz became the first female to win the 26.2-mile race in consecutive years.

Kulesz’ passion for running began during her days playing midfield on a youth soccer team.

“I was very unskilled, but I could just run and run,” the 25-year-old said. “Soccer made me realize I have a lot of endurance, but my older sister is the one who really got me into trying cross-country and track.”

Encouraged by her sister, Kulesz joined the UNC Asheville track and field team, running cross country and indoor and outdoor track. While she ran everything from the 800-meter all the way up to the 10,000-meter, her specialty became the 5k and 10k. Although Kulesz graduated in 2013, she still carries a piece of her alma mater with her today. Jesse Norman, the head coach at UNC Asheville, has been Kulesz’s trainer the past two years. Kulesz credits his support and knowledge for her success.

“He’s so smart and really brilliant,” she said. “Not only is [he] a full-time head track and field coach, but he has agreed to continue to coach me. I’m really thankful.”

Kulesz worked to conquer the 26.2-mile marathon course as well as her graduate school courses, training for two hours a day and even longer on the weekends. Balancing a full-time graduate school workload was hard, Kulesz said, but the flexibility of the Master of Business Administration Program at VCU made things a lot easier.

“VCU's MBA classes all take place in the evenings to cater to full-time workers, so I am able to do all of my training in the morning and do additional training — weights, core, second run — in the evening before class,” she said. “I have a graduate assistantship at VCU, so my work and studies are flexible and I can work them around my training schedule and vice versa.”

Kulesz was drawn to the VCU School of Business because it was one of the few schools to offer a Business Analytics concentration. She also was in search of a graduate program close to her hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., VCU was the perfect choice.

“I love Richmond and I love the program so far,” she said.

Why not go for it now?

Kulesz will graduate next May. She hopes to find a job in Richmond and continue training. But she isn’t planning a hat trick in Nashville. Bigger things are in her future. Kulesz is training for the 2020 Olympic trials, aiming to achieve the qualifying marathon time of 2:45. While her current official time is 2:58, she remains confident that with the right training block with Norman, she can shed minutes.

Although the two-time Nashville winner doesn’t see herself competing in the Olympics, she believes “the trials are in reach.”

“It’s good timing and it’s my passion,” she said. “Why not go for it now?”


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