Storm clouds which threatened for hours finally unleashed a downpour minutes before the race. More than 200 masters women on the starting line in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park could only laugh at the timing, and no one laughed or smiled more than Liz Zaragoza Guerrini.

To dampen Guerrini’s spirits takes more than icy rain. Racing at the 2022 national cross country championships in her hometown, she beamed and hugged friends before and after her six-kilometer romp through the mud. Guerrini clocked 25 minutes and 25 seconds to place in the top 20 percent of the field, helping her Cal Coast Track Club finish in the top ten teams.

Liz Guerrini races in the 2022 national masters cross country championships.

Liz Guerrini races in the 2022 national masters cross country championships.

“Cross country nationals in San Francisco was wet, windy, cold, messy, uncomfortable and yet so much fun! I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be out there playing with the other kids my age,” shared Guerrini, then 54.

Running and positive thinking rank among Guerrini’s greatest talents. Both helped her overcome cancer on her way to a breakthrough marathon at age 50 and a national masters championship at age 52.

She exhibited both qualities early. Guerrini ran her first race at age 7 at her father’s company picnic in San Francisco. Finishing last didn’t bother her a bit. “I was just so excited that I got to run,” she recalled. “I’ve carried that feeling throughout in races even to this day.”

Liz Guerrini races in the 2022 national masters cross country championships.

Liz Guerrini races in the 2022 national masters cross country championships.

Much later, Guerrini found more success in running almost by accident while taking a jogging class at San Francisco State University in 1987. Her mile time trials improved from 7:30 to 5:05 from the semester’s start to finish. Soon she was a top performer on the cross country and track squads, breaking the university’s 1,500 meters record with a 4:42 effort in 1989.

After graduating with a Spanish degree, Guerrini ran still faster in the 1990s when she moved to Albuquerque and trained with other elite athletes at 5,300 feet. “I lived in a house where everyone was an Olympian,” Guerrini said. “I realized that I could do their workouts and race faster, too.”

High-elevation training with world-class competitors like Olga Appell helped Guerrini set lifetime bests: 800 meters in 2:09, a mile in 4:36, 5,000 meters in 15:54, 10,000 meters in 33:05 and a half marathon in 1 hour and 14 minutes. A highlight was racing 5,000 meters in 16 minutes flat at Mt. San Antonio College to qualify for the 1996 U.S. Olympic track trials.

Liz Zaragoza Guerrini manages a smile while racing in the Ventura Half Marathon.

Liz Guerrini manages a smile while racing in the Ventura Half Marathon.

Because her parents emigrated from Latin America, Guerrini found opportunities to compete internationally. Guerrini won gold in the 5,000 meters and silver in both the 800 meters and 1,500 meters at the 1997 Central American Games in Honduras.

By this time, she had returned to California and trained at Stanford with other Olympic hopefuls. There she met Steve Guerrini, another runner who had competed for Wake Forest University. They married in 2000 and planned a family. Liz stopped competing and considered her athletic career over until her father died in 2002.

“I thought I was doing him a favor by retiring,” she said. “In Latin culture, you should be thinking about babies, especially if you’re a woman. But at his funeral, all people could talk about was how proud he was of my running. I didn’t know that before because he never talked about it.”

With renewed motivation, Guerrini began to train and compete again. “Every race I entered, I felt like I was running with my dad,” she said.

Guerrini’s Olympic moment arrived during the Athens Games in 2004. She thought about her father as she lined up for the 5,000 meters. “Facing the Olympic torch in Athens, right before the gun went off, I thought, ‘Okay Dad, you got me here, what’s the message?’” The answer would astonish her.

Seven laps into the race, Guerrini vomited and had to stop running. But disappointment turned to joy when she learned the reason for her illness. “It turns out I was pregnant! We had been trying to get pregnant for four years, tried everything and couldn’t do it until then. What greater way for my father to tell me. I got to run, and what I really wanted, both at the same time. After the Olympics, there’s depression galore from athletes, but for me it was the opposite. I got to be a mom finally.”

Guerrini became one of only a few dozen women to ever compete in the Games while pregnant, a group far smaller and more exclusive than winners of Olympic medals.

After the Olympics, she gave birth to her son in 2005 and shifted her focus from running to family and career. Though she had been teaching humanities at Santa Rosa Junior College since 1999, she began a new career path in speech language pathology to help her son overcome speech disabilities known as dysarthria and apraxia.

But a great hardship lay ahead.Guerrini was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2013. The prospect of leaving her husband and seven-year-old boy challenged her positive thinking like nothing before. Still, she considered herself fortunate to detect the disease as early as she did. “Between storms of tears, I am treating this like war,” she vowed. In the coming months, Guerrini underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, experiencing the usual side effects like hair loss, nausea, and cold sweats. “Definitely not fun,” she said. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

Running might rank among the last activities most cancer patients would consider at such times, but Guerrini wasn’t like most cancer patients. Kristin Cobb, her friend and bridesmaid, showed her research suggesting that exercise would generate more red blood cells which would help her through chemotherapy. Guerrini’s doctor, himself a track and field Olympian in 1968, encouraged her to try it.

Guerrini credits community for helping her through this ordeal and other hardships like the many athletic injuries she has overcome dating back to college. Running improved her mental health during her treatment, she said.

“Right after the mastectomy, when I put on my shoes and went out for that first run, I felt so grateful,” she remembered. “I had a feeling of, ‘I get to do this,’ instead of ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna die.’ And if you keep doing it, you’re going to get faster. And when you get faster, you start being curious about how fast you can go.”

Even before her hair grew back, she resumed racing. Five weeks after chemo, Liz and Steve entered the high-elevation Ragnar Relay at Lake Tahoe, each running multiple legs between 7,000 and 9,000 feet. That year on her birthday, Dec. 8, the 45-year-old raced 5,000 meters in 19:16 and won her age group by 90 seconds.

“Life is not predictable, so sport helps us practice how to handle adversity and be resilient,” she noted.

In the coming years, the cancer survivor set and improved her masters-era personal records with a series of wins in her age group and even overall. These included 5,000 meters in 18:37, 10,000 meters in 38 minutes, and a half marathon in 1 hour and 26 minutes.

Liz Guerrini manages a smile while racing in the Ventura Half Marathon.

Liz Guerrini manages a smile while racing in the Ventura Half Marathon.

“She has incredible internal motivation,” said Steve. “You don’t see me getting up at 4:30 in the morning and running outside in the cold. She has this drive that gets her up out the door.”

Then she decided to try something new.

“My biggest regret from my 20s is that I never ran a marathon,” Guerrini said. “I think I would have been competitive in the U.S., maybe a medal contender. So 25 years later I decided, you know what, let’s try it, why not?”

Starting in 2014, Guerrini completed marathons in Long Beach, Sacramento and New York, improving her time from five hours to 3:14 and qualifying for the prestigious Boston Marathon.

Guerrini felt ready to run even better at the 2019 California International Marathon in Sacramento, one day after her 50th birthday.

“Each mile felt amazing. I was clicking 6:30 miles easily in the first half,” she said.

Actually, the start featured enough miscues to derail a less composed runner. Guerrini’s two water bottles both fell from her belt and disappeared in the stampede; she would have to rely on aid stations instead. Then her shoelace came untied, forcing a stop to retie it. But true to form, Guerrini managed to “smile and move on.”

Like most runners, she slowed in the second half when her miles averaged around seven minutes. But holding even that pace to the finish would produce a big personal record and maybe even a sub-three hour finish, a goal every marathoner covets.

Liz Guerrini sprints to the finish of the Surf City Half Marathon.

Liz Guerrini sprints to the finish of the Surf City Half Marathon.

When she crossed the finish line, her watch read 3 hours and 12 seconds, which would be highly impressive and yet disappointing. But 26.2 miles back, Guerrini had started her watch early, and a friend soon informed her of a happier official mark: 2:59:50.

“I started crying, bawling, sobbing,” Guerrini said. “I didn’t realize how much that time meant to me. That pretty much was the most emotional release of any race I’ve ever had in my life.”

That race remains her midlife favorite, though she has plenty of other contenders. Guerrini won a national championship at the 2021 USA Track and Field Masters National Championships, racing 10,000 meters in 42:09 to top all women in their 50s. In the same meet, she took second in the 1,500 meters in 5:32.

Guerrini has completed more than a dozen marathons, including Boston, San Diego and Los Angeles. She ran the Berlin and London marathons just eight days apart in 2022, traveling with her family as usual, and regularly wins road races closer to their home in Long Beach.

How does she do it? “A strong support group,” joked Steve. But Liz agrees, credits the running community for supporting her and returns the love: “I share what I learn and cheer others on when I can’t run.”

Besides running and positive thinking, she effortlessly exercises a third special talent: motivating those around her.

Liz Guerrini celebrates completing the Surf City Half Marathon.

Liz Guerrini celebrates completing the Surf City Half Marathon.

“Liz shows up every day with so much joy and passion,” said David Roche, her coach since 2018. “I don’t know exactly where that comes from, whether she was born with it or whether the adversity she has faced changed how she views challenges. All I do know is that Liz shows what’s possible when athletes face a tough situation and respond, ‘Believe!’ I am so inspired by her every day.”

Cancer-free since 2013, Guerrini continues training and racing, even in the rain. She’s striving to run in all six of the world’s major marathons, with just Tokyo and Chicago left to complete.

“I would hope that people would say I was positive about things,” Guerrini said. “When things happen, I’m human, I might cry and be sad. You have the emotional reaction that you have, and then you do something about it. When one door closes, another one opens. It’s easier to be positive when you know that.”


Main image: Liz Guerrini (left) and her teammates express pre-race enthusiasm in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

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