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GIRLS XC PREVIEW: Pinecrest's Zalzman is picking up the pace
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Pinecrest Academy senior Jessica Zalzman finished sixth at the Class A private school championship meet last season and is hoping to break into the top three this season. - photo by Brian Paglia


Katherine Aikins, Lambert: The Lady Longhorns sophomore ran a personal-best 19:03.82 last season and finished 27th at the Class 6A championships.

Savannah Carnahan, South Forsyth: The Lady War Eagles sophomore finished 13th at the Class 6A championships last season and had a PR of 18:31.83.

Bonnie McKinnon, Forsyth Central: The Lady Bulldogs sophomore finished sixth at region and had a PR of 20:25.20 last season.


August 24 — First race, Pickens Preview, in Jasper, Ga.

Sept. 21 — Lambert hosts the River Run, which will include Pinecrest, South and West Forsyth among other teams.

Oct. 3 — Mountain Invitational in Helen, Ga., where Central, North, South and West will compete in a large field of teams.

Oct. 26 — Last Chance meet in Carrollton. A tune-up for where the state championship meets will be held.

Nov. 2 — Region championships.

Nov. 9 — State championships.

Jessica Zalzman ran through Central Park in Manhattan, N.Y., this summer while on a trip of college tours up and down the East Coast. She ran past the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, a wildlife sanctuary and a zoo, carving through the park’s extensive system of walking and running paths.

Zalzman’s mom, Luisa, had started on the run with Jessica but knew eventually she wouldn’t be able to keep up. Reaching the limits of her endurance, Luisa told Jessica to go on. They picked a spot to meet when Jessica was done.

So Luisa waited. She did push-ups. She did lunges. At random, a stranger took a picture of her doing stretches.

"I waited and waited," Luisa said. "She leaves me behind. She will just go. I tell her if she wants to circle me, that’s fine."

Even in New York, Jessica made time for her summer cross country training.

"It was just awesome," Jessica said. "There were so many places you could go."

In years past, Jessica admits it might have been an occasion to take a break. Missing a run here or there couldn’t hurt, she used to think.

But, this summer, Jessica has been seized by newfound urgency. She is a senior at Pinecrest Academy. She finished sixth at the Class A private school championship last season. She returns as arguably one of the top runners in Class A and Forsyth County.

And so her summer training has been a reflection of this last opportunity – relentless and focused.

"This summer I’ve been killing myself hoping to do better," Jessica said, "because if I don’t do better I’m going to be really mad. I’m just really committed to it. This summer, I knew I needed to run every single day and I needed to do my best every single day."

Jessica has always been the fast girl. On her basketball team. On her soccer team. She was the guard breaking away for lay-ups, the forward rocketing up the field looking to take a pass and score. But all the guards and forward kept growing, and Jessica didn’t.

When Jessica entered sixth grade, her dad encouraged to try cross country like he had in high school.

"I was like, ‘What is that?’" Jessica said. "Do you travel across the country? I had no idea what it was."

But speed is speed no matter the sport, and Jessica’s translated well to cross country. By eighth grade, with Pinecrest still in the Georgia Independent Schools Association, she was winning every race. When Pinecrest moved to the Georgia High School Association the next season, Jessica stopped winning, but her consistent top 10 finishes kept her motivated.

"I was like, ‘OK, this is my sport,’" Jessica said.

By last season, she was one of the state’s best, finishing second at the Berry College Clara Bowl Invitational; fifth at the Battle of Atlanta; third at the Asics Invitational; and third at the Area 2-A championships. At state, her time of 20 minutes, 6 seconds was good for sixth.

And yet, all season long, Jessica never felt like she was progressing. She ran a personal record in 19:29.04 at the Asics Invitational, but she felt like she hit a wall. Maybe it was the bronchitis at the start of the season that took a while to subside. Maybe it was the nagging hip pain that came and went mysteriously.

"I’m not sure what it was honestly," Jessica said. "But I couldn’t get any better."

Her only option, she thought, was unyielding commitment to the summer training that Luisa, Pinecrest’s cross country coach, gave the team.

Jessica had six days to get in three one-hour runs, one 70-minute run, one 90-minute run and one faster 45-minute run in a week. She wouldn’t skip a day. She wouldn’t stack on runs one day to open up a day to rest.

She run as much as she had to, even in the cultural capital of the world.

"I’m literally doing everything I can do," Jessica said, "because I really want it this year."