Jacob Zelinski will line up for the L.A. Marathon on Sunday with a family story to inspire him. | Jacob Zelinski

Every runner attempting their first marathon knows that it’s important to get acclimated to distance so that they build up the endurance to complete 26.2 miles.

When writer and TikTok creator Jacob Zelinski made up his mind to run the Chicago Marathon this October, he knew he’d have to do something to prepare himself. Eventually, he found a unique way to train for it: running the Los Angeles Marathon.

On March 17, Zelinski will be moving up the timeline for completing his first marathon by seven months. Even knowing the toll a marathon takes on a competitor, he’s looking forward to the experience.

“I love race days,” he exclaimed. “I think humanity is just at its best when we’re cheering each other on and helping one another cross a finish line — metaphorically or physically.”

A few months ago, Zelinski decided to enter the Chicago Marathon after a particularly inspiring run. While researching the event, he contacted a fundraising team. When they saw that he had more than 200,000 followers on TikTok, they welcomed him on board right away.

About an hour after first having the thought, Zelinski found himself committed to running the marathon. Suddenly feeling trepidation about what he just decided, he talked it over with his parents. As a bit of encouragement, they reminded him that his late great uncle Edmund “Ziggy” Zelinski had completed the L.A. Marathon in 1990 at the age of 64.

It was the first time in years that Zelinski had remembered his great uncle’s feat. He looked up the details of the L.A. Marathon and realized it would be a great way to get a low-pressure race under his belt before attempting the one in Chicago.

Edmund “Ziggy” Zelinski ran in the L.A. Marathon in 1990 at the age of 64.

The L.A. Marathon would also have important personal significance. After coming out as gay and competing as a runner in high school, Zelinski would be running the same race as the only other gay relative that he knew in his family.

For him, it was a way to connect with a great uncle who he only got to meet once when he was four years old.

“He lived in a duplex in West Hollywood and we went to visit and he had a ‘roommate.’ And we spent a couple days with them and they showed us around,” Zelinski remembered. “I did not know that he was gay until I was a teenager. Finally, I was like, ‘Wait… that was not his roommate!'”

Zelinski also recalled a feeling that his great uncle lived a private life separate from the rest of his family. After growing up gay in a large Polish Catholic family of 12, Ziggy was the first to move out of their hometown and kept a distance from his siblings for the rest of his life.

But when Zelinski runs this year’s L.A. Marathon, his great uncle will be one of the most prominent people on his mind.

“I’ll think of him, I’ll think of my late grandmother, I’ll think of my late brother. I think of the race day itself and I’ll get chills. I might even tear up. It’s a very emotional experience.

“I don’t know what it is about running but I think that there’s great emotional release in the sport. It’s such a mental sport and I’ve always thought that. And I think it takes a lot of mental fortitude to get through 26.2 miles. But I have great people to think of while I’m in the race,” he noted.

Zelinski began running as a young man due to social pressure he felt early in his high school career — but not from his peers. During his first year orientation, the athletic director at the Catholic school he attended essentially told a room of assembled students, “If you’re not playing a sport, you’re doing high school wrong.”

What’s more, he came from a family of athletes with his parents and brothers heavily involved in sports. At the same time, Zelinski was starting to come to terms with being gay as he attended an all-boys private school in the Detroit area. He knew he wanted to pursue the arts but felt like several forces in his life were pushing him toward sports.

As he remembered, “I was sitting there — choir kid, musical boy. I was like, ‘I guess I’ll run? I’ll go run in the woods!'”

He joined the cross country and track teams and made several close friends. Eventually, he came out and, to his great relief, found that it made him more popular. As he got more experience, Zelinski also discovered that he didn’t care for the competitive aspect of running but was much more interested in doing it to challenge himself.

Jacob Zelinski will run in the L.A. Marathon
Zelinski says he finds a sense of ’emotional release’ in long-distance running. | Jacob Zelinski

In that way, running marathons is ideal for his mindset. Even though they’re ostensibly races, the real test is whether a runner has the endurance to finish.

As Zelinski embraces the challenge of distance running, he also finds comfort balancing his athletic side and his artistic side with his life as a writer and content creator.

“I’ve been super-fascinated by gender and the ways that one person is both masculine and feminine, both sun and moon energy, both athletic and creative. And you can be tough and tender, all of these things at once,” he said.

“You can do everything. You can be everything all at once. You can be a marathon runner and a poet. I can be a fitness coach and then go get a manicure. I can do the hardest workout of my life and then go home and knit myself a scarf.”

Although his athletic side will be on display while he crosses the finish line, the moment will ultimately be a celebration of Zelinski’s whole self. And his great uncle’s achievement as well.

You can follow Jacob Zelinski at @jacobxstephen on TikTok and Instagram.

If you’d like to donate to Jacob’s fundraiser for the Chicago Marathon in October, raising money for the Alzheimer’s Association in memory of his late grandmother, click here.