Best foot forward: Magnolia’s Don Zalenski a walking champ

Don Zalenski proudly displays many but not all of his walking competition awards at his Magnolia home. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Don Zalenski proudly displays many but not all of his walking competition awards at his Magnolia home. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

MAGNOLIA — Really, Charlie’s the one who started all this.

About 16 years ago, Don and Phyllis Zalenski’s daughter went off to college.

But she had to leave her dog, Charlie, behind.

Don Zalenski crosses the finish line for one of his many walking victories. (Submitted photo)

Don Zalenski crosses the finish line for one of his many walking victories. (Submitted photo)

That meant that now the Zalenskis had to take Charlie on long walks around the Ohio town where they lived at the time.

“My wife saw this advertisement for a 5K race,” explained Don. “I said ‘Do you realize what a 5K race entails?’ ‘Well, we walk all over the place, so I thought we could do this.’

“I said, ‘Well all right, we’ll do this,’” Don concluded. “That’s how it got started — because of a dog.”

Actually, the award that Don Zalenski received from winning the second walking race he entered had something to do with it, too.

“That felt pretty good,” he admitted.

A decade and a half later, Zalenski hasn’t stopped walking. The 70-year-old retiree has a garage full of medals and trophies in his Magnolia home to prove it.

Zalenski estimates that he has between 800-900 awards. Competing in walking races has become something of a passion for him.

Don Zalenski, his wife Phyllis and their dog Charlie (Submitted photo)

Don Zalenski, his wife Phyllis and their dog Charlie (Submitted photo)

Since moving to Delaware three years ago, Zalenski has competed in over 110 events. He estimates that he wins about 95 percent of the races he enters.

Not bad for a guy whose main form of exercise for years was bowling.

Zalenski was on his high school track team back in Ohio — but only as a manager. He had problems with his legs back then that prevented him from running.

“I didn’t think I was capable of doing stuff like that,” said Zalenski, who was a music teacher and trumpet player. “This (walk racing) was one thing I thought I could have some success in.

“I tried some running. But I just couldn’t run any more by the time I started. I was already in my 50s. Trying to start something like running at age 50 was a little too hard.”

Around Southern Meadow, the 55-plus community where the Zalenskis live, everyone knows the couple is usually off competing in some walk race every weekend during the summer.

“They’re always saying, ‘How did Don do last week?’” said Phyllis, who also walk races, although not as much as her husband. “I said, ‘He always comes in first. It’s so boring.’”

In 2015, Zalenski kept track of how many miles he walked in a year and got to around 750. This year he’s already over 600 miles.

Now, not only is Zalenski an avid competitor, but he’s become an outspoken advocate for the sport of race walking.

In Ohio, Zalenski felt like walkers were given the same amount of respect as runners in competitions. In Delaware, though, he believes walkers aren’t given nearly the same amount of recognition as their running counterparts.

Zalenski tries to make sure the walk racers aren’t forgotten.

“I do it just because I want to compete,” he said. “It’s not so much the awards anymore because I really don’t need them. But I like to get them.”
Even though he’s 70 now, Zalenski wants to keep competing as long as he can.

There are competitors that are in their 80s at local events. He’s going to try to be one of them someday.

“I thought, ‘Well, by the time I get to 60, I’ll probably be too old to do it,’” said Zalenski. “Well 60 came and went and I thought, ‘Well, 65, I can probably go until then.’

“So now I’m 70 and I feel pretty healthy. I mean I do have aches and pains but I’m still able to compete. I don’t plan on stopping yet.”

“He’ll keep going,” said Phyllis. “He’s going to keep doing it until he keels over at a race.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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