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East County Wednesday, May 12, 2021 1 year ago

Honorable run in Lakewood Ranch

Lakewood Ranch woman runs 5K to honor her father.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

Central Park’s Liz Gutierrez has been an avid runner since she was in high school.

She’s completed seven half marathons and 10 5Ks since 2016 and all of them have been in honor of her father, Joseph Zajac, who died after three open heart surgeries in 2018.  

Gutierrez is running another 5K with at least 30 members of the Lakewood Ranch Running Club May 22 at Bob Gardner Community Park in honor of Zajac. The 5K will be a way for Gutierrez to virtually participate in the American Heart Association Wall Street Run and Heart Walk.

Central Park's Liz Gutierrez can't wait to bring her friends, family and neighbors together to participate in a virtual 5K for the American Heart Association.

Gutierrez started running races in honor of her father in 2016, a year after Zajac had his first heart surgery. 

“He was just one of those guys who made you feel like you were the most important person,” Gutierrez said. “Whatever it was that you had to say, he just zoned on you and wanted to listen to every single thing you had to say.”

Gutierrez remembers coming back from her runs and her dad asking her how far she ran and what route she took, which showed her he cared.

When Gutierrez reached the finish line of her half marathon, her father saw she wrote “4 Faj,” which was the family’s nickname for him, on her arm in eyeliner, and he cried. 

Then in the summer of 2018, Joseph Zajac was in the hospital to have three open heart surgeries. Gutierrez told the doctors and nurses caring for her father that she would run a New York City Marathon for him. When word spread of her thought to run the marathon, she decided to fully commit to run the marathon in 2019 so she could have a year to train.

Joseph Zajac celebrates his daughter, Liz Gutierrez's completion of her first half marathon, with his wife, Nancy Zajac. Courtesy photo.

Gutierrez reached out to the American Heart Association to start fundraising for the nonprofit and run in the marathon as Joseph Zajac died after having a stroke on Oct. 1, 2018, after his final surgery. 

“My dad was a urologist, and put everyone before himself, so he kind of put himself and his health on the back burner because he was just that kind of guy," Gutierrez said. "He was so selfless. Not really caring so much about himself kind of resulted in him having to get open heart surgery and not taking the best care of himself. That’s what our message is, just living a healthier lifestyle, being active.”

Louis Zajac, Gutierrez’s older brother, found out about the American Heart Association Wall Street Run and Heart Walk in New York and encouraged the family to participate in the 5K in 2019.

The family created the Running4JRZ team and reached out to family, friends and people Joseph Zajac knew to see who would like to participate in the 5K or donate. They raised $2,600, and about 15 people participated.

Joseph Zajac, Liz Gutierrez and Louis Zajac run in honor of their father, Joseph Zajac, during the American Heart Association Wall Street Run and Heart Walk in 2019. Courtesy photo.

Gutierrez’s plan to run the New York City Marathon was canceled after she found out she was pregnant with her first child, AJ. She was deferred to the 2020 New York City Marathon, which was then canceled due to COVID-19. 

In 2020, the American Heart Association Wall Street Run and Heart Walk was conducted virtually, so Gutierrez and her family participated. They had at least 60 people participating in the 5K, and they raised more than $6,000.

Gutierrez hopes the run can become an annual event in Lakewood Ranch.

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