Yasir Salem arrived in his black, four-door Lincoln Mark LT to pick up Gweneviere Mann for their second date. The pickup truck, an odd sight in New York City, was a bit of a surprise to Mann, but Salem was from Texas, where driving and trucks are second nature.
The two departed from the Lower East Side, where they each lived, and headed for Madison Square Garden to watch a Professional Bull Riders event, sitting so close to the pen they could feel the ground shake whenever the one-ton bulls bucked and thrashed about. From there, they watched Night at the Museum in a theater, then ate pasta and ice-cream sundaes at Serendipity 3.
Any hesitation or skepticism between two strangers who met on Myspace a month earlier had long vanished. They both knew this was something special.
Less than three months after meeting in person in January 2007, Salem invited Mann to accompany him to a wedding he was officiating in Austin. She then brought him to meet her family in San Francisco, where she and her sisters used Salem as a guinea pig for a home waxing kit; he had a bare patch among the tufts of hair on his chest for months.
They were planning trips, brunches, dinners, a future.
“We never stopped moving,” Salem says. “We never stopped living. We never stopped dreaming.”
What they didn’t plan for was not one, but two major health issues Mann would suffer. In November 2008, as they were in the process of moving in together, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and needed a craniotomy, a major surgery that requires the removal of part of the skull to reach the brain.
“Not everybody would have made that commitment at that point or they would have run away because it would have scared other guys, but we were already deeply in love,” Salem says.
Following a successful procedure, Mann had a long road to recovery with rehab and short-term memory loss. Despite these obstacles, she graduated with honors from New York University with a degree in creative writing, attended Juilliard for music theory and was accepted into Columbia University’s MFA program. Having battled through a difficult time together, Salem and Mann solidified their commitment to each other, marrying in June 2014 in Austin. Then, in May 2018, they were hit with more devastating news: Mann was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer.
“We had already been through so much,” Salem says. “To me, it just wasn’t fair to her and to me and to her family and friends.”
Mann, a non-smoker, passed away on July 22 2018. She was 47.
The idea for the Gweneviere Mann Foundation came about during Mann’s fourth and final hospital stay over a seven-week period after her cancer diagnosis. Salem’s intention was for the two of them to spearhead the initiative together after Mann went into remission.
Unfortunately, she never recovered, and he was left to carry that torch alone. To help spread awareness for the foundation and its initiatives of early detection of lung cancer, Salem, a competitive eater, marathon runner and cyclist, is running 50 marathons in 50 states in 2019.
While that may seem like an arduous challenge mentally and physically to most, for Salem, marketing director of Men’s Health and the Hearst Men’s Group, it’s therapeutic. While he’s utilized the encouragement of therapists, mediums (he saw four in Austin shortly after Mann’s death) and support groups (he joined the Hot Young Widows Club), running has always proven to be a positive and uplifting action for Salem, who completed one marathon per month in 2017.
Salem began his 50 marathons in 50 states initiative with the 2018 New York City Marathon, a race near and dear to his heart. He and Mann ran the race together every year from 2010-2017 as part of her rehab from her brain tumor. Because of her memory loss, she would repeatedly ask Salem how much longer they had in the race, to which he would reply, “Only 15 minutes” as they chugged along the 26.2-mile course spanning all five boroughs.
The race concludes in Central Park, the site where he proposed to her in February 2012 with the help of some friends, who spelled out “Gwen will you marry Yasir?” on their shirts.
“Her perseverance and her ability to take this terrible experience and adapt to this ‘new life’ really inspired me,” he says.
Today, Salem uses that inspiration as motivation for his latest endeavor: spreading awareness. He trains three times during the week – he does weight training (upper body and core) and cardio – and flies around the country to participate in various marathons on the weekends. Along his journey, he’s joined by friends and strangers, who come to support his cause or are running for their own.
The foundation has raised over $42,000 so far. Working with radiology partners, Salem is bringing a mobile CT scan unit to some of his races, offering scans to approximately 50 people per day.
“Statistically speaking, if we scan about 300 people, we’ll save one life,” he says. “All it takes is five minutes.”
Running helped Mann after her brain tumor, and now it’s helping Salem following her passing. Shortly after her death, he went back to Austin for five weeks. Despite the grueling Texas summer heat, he would run a 14-mile path around downtown, pausing from time to time to wring the sweat out of his shirt. He wouldn’t listen to music because it reminded him of Mann – a singer who was in the process of releasing her new album. It was during this time he conceived the idea for running 50 marathons in 50 states.
“When I would run, I would face my feelings, not run away from them,” he says. “I would wear sunglasses and go on these long runs and cry.”
Salem also found solace in journaling. Mann began journaling and taking photos daily as part of her rehab following her brain tumor and craniotomy in 2008 to help trigger memories and thoughts, even of something that occurred just hours before.
Whenever he’s reminded of his wife or a fond memory crosses his mind, Salem takes out his phone and jots down his feelings and any recollections. He sometimes addresses entries to Mann, telling her about his day. He’s also made it a priority to document memories of his wife, who he says was a funnier version of himself and a fantastic storyteller.
“The idea that I will forget is terrifying to me because I don’t want to forget Gwen,” he says.
Six months after Mann’s passing, Salem continues to carry his wife’s legacy with each step he takes, not just on race day. In his wallet is a letter from Mann that she dictated from her hospital bed to her best friend, Elaine, that Salem consults frequently.
While he still gets emotional talking about her during interviews, he says it helps not only in the grieving process – of which he says he has good days and bad days – but also to spread the word about the foundation’s mission. Yet the man who helped a stranger on the internet, who would later become the love of his life, with her fish’s gas problems before even meeting in person still has visions and guilt that he could have done more. A believer of “If you try hard enough, you can accomplish anything,” Salem is still asking, “Why?”
“Just like Gwen, you can be healthy, you can be a runner and do everything right, but by the crappy role of genetics and how cancer works, it just happens,” he says. “Cancer is not predictable. You might not fit the profile and it still happens, but there is a way to find out if you have lung cancer before it’s too late.”