running to remember

People exercise for many reasons: to lose weight, to blow off some stream, to find Zen. Sarah Olesky exercises to grieve. Olesky, of Bloomfield, took her coping mechanism to a new level this year, participating in a Pittsburgh Marathon half marathon team in honor of her best friend Jessie Egan Smith.

Smith, who graduated from Seton-La Salle High School and attended Duquesne University before transitioning to a career in retail fashion, died suddenly in 2013 at age 23. Olesky and 18 others the Pittsburgh Half Marathon or Marathon Relay in May on Team Jessie to honor her memory and raise money for the Catholic Charities’ Summer Lunch program in Pittsburgh. The program also receives all proceeds from the Jessie Games, an annual event held at Seton-La Salle High School, McNeilly Road, to commemorate Smith. This year’s Jessie Games are July 9.

Olseky and friend, Alex Henry, after the Pittsburgh Half Marathon in May

Smith and Olesky often ran together, and Smith even raced in the Pittsburgh Marathon before she died. “Whenever we were home on break, we would always meet for a run and coffee to catch up,” says Olesky, who is a nurse at Shadyside Hospital and the cross country coach at Seton-La Salle. “After Jessie passed away, I found that I channeled my grief into work and into running.”

Olesky met Smith, the daughter of Matt Smith, an editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Clare Ansberry-Smith, a Wall Street Journal columnist, in homeroom freshman year and “became inseparable to the point that we went on each other’s family vacations,” Olesky says. Smith had a lively spirit, and was a reliable and supportive friend. “[Running] was the time I could just focus on her and really feel her presence,” Olesky says. “To this day, my runs are still my ‘Jessie time’ and I dedicate different miles to her whenever the training gets tough.”

Smith’s family and friends, some her former sorority sisters from Duquesne’s Sigma Kappa sorority, came to this year’s marathon to support Olesky and the other runners, wearing green tank tops that read “I Run for Jessie.”

Though she did not participate in the marathon, Amanda DeConciliis Weber, Smith’s big sister in their sorority, thinks the marathon was a great way to honor Smith’s spirit. “[Jessie] was a very kind person, she was always making sure she would do little things to appreciate her friendships,” says DeConciliis Weber. “One time, I was sick with a cold, she made up a basket for me. She was always doing little things for me and everyone.”

The third annual Jessie Games are Saturday, July 9 from 1 to 4:30 p.m at Seton-La Salle High School. The afternoon will include relay races with the Pittsburgh Pierogies, carnival games, a watermelon eating contest, cookout and more. All proceeds from the games benefit Catholic Charities Summer Lunch Program which provides daily meals and enrichment activities for children around Pittsburgh. The marathon Team Jessie raised more than $2,000 for the program and over the past two years the Jessie Games has raised more than $50,000 for the Catholic Charities.

Both Olesky and DeConciliis Weber say that with Smith’s love for children, the Jessie Games couldn’t benefit a better foundation. “Jessie has a large family, tons of kids. She was always very passionate about spending time with her family and her little cousins,” Weber says.

“No matter what she was doing,” Olesky says. “If you needed her to be there, you could count on Jess.”

For more information and for registration go to the Jessie Games site. Individual tickets are $10 and family tickets are $40.