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Racing through Death Valley

Runners from 9 countries participate in long distance race

Posted: July 16, 2008 1:56 a.m.
Updated: September 16, 2008 5:03 a.m.

Cheryl Zwarkowski and 79 other untra-marathon runners from nine countries and 19 states raced across 135 miles of Death Valley on Monday. Zwarkowski, from Victorville, finished the 2007 Santa Clarita Half-Marathon in one hour, 34 minutes for third place.

DEATH VALLEY — A wiry Victorville ultra-marathon runner, now competing in a 135-mile foot race through Death Valley, credits the Santa Clarita Marathon with having helped her accomplish some of her running goals.

Cheryl Zwarkowski, 50, talked to The Signal Tuesday morning, 24 hours after she had set off from the starting line at Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.

She was about three miles outside Panamint Springs, running into the Panamint Mountains as puffy white clouds with darkening underbellies gathered above her, when she extended her hand.
All the taut sinews of her arm muscles went into the handshake.

With a quick smile she wasted no time reflecting how Santa Clarita helped her accomplish some of her recent goals.

Zwarkowski said she finished the 2007 Santa Clarita Half-Marathon with a personal best time of one hour, 34 minutes — third place.

“Two weeks after running a 100-mile race in Kansas I got a personal best time in Santa Clarita of one-34 which in the old ladies’ division qualifies me for the New York Marathon,” she said while running, and with hardly any difficulty breathing. “That was important to me because it is more difficult to qualify to get into the New York Marathon than the Boston Marathon.”

Zwarkowski, who has run the Boston Marathon twice, calls Santa Clarita and Victorville “definitely neighbors” separated by only a “one and a half-hour drive.

She’s run in the SCV Marathon or half-marathon at least three years.

On Monday, she and 79 other ultra-marathon runners, from nine countries and 19 states — runners for whom a marathon is only a quarter of the race — set out from Badwater at three different time intervals: 6, 8  and 10 a.m.

Zwarkowski, a veteran runner but first-time Badwater participant, spent much of the first day climbing out of the crucible of Death Valley, the first 20 miles of which requires running uphill to sea level.

She started running at 8 a.m. Monday and by 12.41 p.m. she had run 17 miles to Furnace Creek.
With temperatures cooler this year than those logged two years ago at 130-degree temperatures, Zwarkowski was able to reach Stovepipe Wells at the 50-mile mark at dinner time, 6:15 p.m.

“I was fortunate to be able to train in 100, 105, 110 temperatures, in a very dry climate,” she said about running in Victorville. “Usually it would similar to the weather as in Death Valley but it’s a little more humid this year.”

In fact, heavy rains in the Owens Valley Monday evening sent mud sheeting across the highway at two or three sections of road 15 east of Lone Pine near Keeler, forcing race organizers to re-route the race.

Initially, organizers informed runners about the detour, telling them that they would turn around Darwin Falls — about the halfway point — and run back to the starting line.

Within an hour of the news, however, organizers returned to the original race route, telling runners that bulldozers had moved the mud off the road.

Zwarkowski, who had arrived in Panamint Springs at 1:52 a.m. Tuesday, wasn’t fazed by the route debate; others, however, were thrown off their game by the flip-flopping.

The 50-year-old was just concentrating on running.
Why does she do it?

She was inspired, she said, by a reporter who wrote a book after becoming inspired himself by the runners he had interviewed.

“When I read that book I knew that someday I was going to do this little race out here in Death Valley,” she said, adding that her friends all considered her mission odd.

“I mean, it did have the word ‘death’ in it,” she said, trying to explain the reservations expressed to her by her friends.

Zwarkowski was expected to keep running throughout her second night on the race route without sleep.
The race continues today.

Runners have 60 hours to cross the finish line halfway up Mount Whitney.


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