Her joy of running trumps difficult pregnancy, cancer battle
At age 7, Liz Zaragoza Guerrini finished dead last in a race at her dad’s company picnic in San Francisco, where she was born and raised.
It would not be the last time she rebounded. Nor would it be the last time she saw finishing last as a negative thing. For her, it was all about being able to participate with her peers and learn something new that mattered.
She didn’t run competitively again until college when she took a class. Her first mile was 7:30 and by the end of the semester she hit a 5:05. Her teacher was also the track coach and invited her to join the team, where she met Olga Appell in 1988.
“Olga moved to Germany and we lost touch, but we both kept running,” Guerrini says. “Then, I think it was a world championship year when I saw in the newspaper that she was top 10 in the marathon! I was so excited — and I was convinced that I should also try the marathon. So, I contacted her, and learned she was training at altitude in Albuquerque.”
After graduation, Guerrini moved to Albuquerque and lived and trained with Appell, her husband Brian and other Olympians from around the world. “When I started racing with them, I was confident because I felt like if I could do their workouts, then I should be able to run fast, too. Through this experience, I met many awesome athletes who became mentors, like Misti Demko, Shelly Stealy, Jody Hawkins ... so many!”
While training at altitude, she nailed a series of lifetime PRs a 1:14 half marathon, 33:05 10K, 15:54 5K, 4:36 mile and 2:09 800 meters. In 1995, she was ranked fourth in the 8K. “Since I was injured a lot, I ran a lot in a pool. I think this alternative approach while also being in a supportive environment contributed to my PRs. The friendships I made during these times were more important than the results. My biggest regret when looking back was that I didn’t take as many pictures of my day-to-day experiences — and that I didn’t try a marathon. ”
After the 1996 U.S. Olympic trials — the first trials ever for the 5,000 meters for women — she retired from elite running. “My family wanted me to move on and get a traditional job. I thought my dad was not a fan of my running.”
A sign from her father
In 2002, Guerrini’s father, Salvador, died.
“It was traumatic for me. At his funeral, anytime someone came to me to say something — it was always about how proud of my running he was. I never knew this! They said that’s all he ever talked about. That made me both happy and sad.”
She used that motivation to not only return to running but to achieve elite status once again. In 2004, El Salvador — where her mother is from — invited her to be on their Olympic team a month before the Games. “Although I was American and was trying to make the U.S. trials again, I felt like this was a sign. I felt like my dad would show up somehow, after all his name was on my uniform! And, since my husband and I had been trying to start a family for four years at this point, we thought in vitro could wait a couple more months until after the Games.”
At the Games, Guerrini felt awful during the warmup for the 5,000-meter race in Athens.
“I remember being told I was probably nervous — but I wasn’t. I was actually very calm. I remember lining up in front of the Olympic torch and looking up, asking my dad — ‘OK, dad, you brought me here. What did you want to tell me?’”
Seven laps into the race, she threw up. “Probably the most humbling public experience I’ve ever had.”
Once she was able to get back on her feet, she received a standing ovation. But that was not the best part.
“I got tested and learned I was five weeks pregnant! I felt like THIS was my message. For a woman who could not get pregnant for four years, this was my miracle baby. And I thought this was my dad’s way of telling me that he was not only supported my running, he was supportive of anything I wanted to accomplish in this world no matter how difficult – like starting a family. I was soooooo grateful and ready for this next chapter of mommyhood!”
The pregnancy, however, was complicated.
“I learned the things you want most take time and the path is not always easy,” she says. “My son’s pregnancy was complicated; I was fighting for his life from 20 weeks through 42 weeks. He experienced many medical complications after his birth. Early in his life I learned he would not be able to talk or walk, or read or write, so I dove back into graduate school in order to become a speech language pathologist. Like my running, we took alternative paths to both speaking and walking.”
Just like his mom, Christian overcomes odds to achieve success.
“Fast-forward 14 years, he came in third in his category in one of the largest science fairs in the country and he’s working on his black belt. He and I have both started training for our black belts together three years ago, which includes a running test.”
When the goal is staying alive
That wouldn’t be the last stressor in her life. Guerrini learned she had breast cancer following a pregnancy during which her daughter died.
“It was the scariest alert experience I’ve ever had,” she recalls. “I say alert because four years prior, during what was supposed to be a routine baby delivery, I came down with sepsis which killed my daughter. I went into a coma and was in intensive care.”
As Guerrini emerged from the coma, she faced planning the funeral for Genevieve.
“This was the most heartbreaking experience I’ve ever had. I couldn’t talk about it without crying for the first couple of years. I couldn’t understand why this happened and what lesson I was supposed to learn. With time, I learned everything comes full circle,” she says. “And both my son and husband needed me which is what kept me going. With cancer, the thought of not being around for their lives was devastating. He would have lost his mom to cancer at age 7. I had to fight and throughout my fight I saw their faces. Luckily I had options: double mastectomy, chemotherapy and tamoxifen. The goal was staying alive. It wasn’t just for me; it was for all of us. We are a team. In this sense, life experiences and running isn’t just about me but about everyone involved.”
Chemotherapy kept her alive as it killed off cancer cells — but also killed off good cells and broke down bones. Thanks to a friend, Guerrini learned of a direction.
“One of my friends — who was one of my bridesmaids — wrote her dissertation on running and women’s bones,” she says. “From her dissertation, I learned that the pounding from running would help my bones and joints. All my early runs were at a 20-minute pace. I logged it as a run anytime my feet left the ground. Racing was never in the picture post cancer. I allowed myself to go whatever pace I could do which meant I listened to my body. Some days hurt more than others, and tamoxifen made the pain inconsistent at first. But it got better. Baby steps. New thresholds. New goals. The first goal was staying alive. The mastectomy, chemo and tamoxifen are never guarantees but in my case, these increase my odds. Once the cancer was out of my body, I worked on bone health with the pounding. Then I got faster with time with this pounding. I’m so grateful I had this option. Everything else was gravy.”
‘A blessing in my life’
Guerrini is now in her seventh year of being cancer-free. Her running has changed but her passion for the sport has not. She is coached, counseled and motivated by David Roche, who also is my running coach.
“David Roche is an amazing human being! Both he and his wife are amazing coaches and role models. After learning about David’s personality through his writing and approach, I really wanted to be his athlete. He keeps it real — we all know we will die at some point, so embracing the process is way more important than the end time or result of a race. Laughing and smiling through the races, thanking volunteers, making memories, living with gratitude, loving the process — these are all things I identify with. It’s never about the results it’s always about loving what we do. He’s a blessing in my life.”
When she started with Roche, she mentioned that she wanted to keep growing in the sport. Every year would be a new chapter. With Roche these past two years, Guerrini was able to run masters PRs of 18:37 for 5K, 38 for 10K, and 1:26 for the half marathon. In December 2018, her training indicated she could run a sub-3-hour at the California International Marathon, but she sprained her ankle nine days prior.
“My climb back in 2019 included three more sprained ankles and lots of pool running.” she says. “Luckily, my runner gal friends enjoy pool running so I’m always in great company. I look forward to conversation with them which always makes the time fly. And, if they are not there, I enjoy listening to podcasts or audible books while in the pool.”
A year later at CIM 2019, after starting the race with untied shoe laces and losing her water bottles in the first two miles from her new belt, she broke the three-hour marathon barrier. Because she started her watch when the gun went off while 30 seconds behind the line, she didn’t learn of her official time from the finish line clock.
“One of my friends who was tracking me had called me when I crossed the line and she told me my time of 2:59:50 — I cried so hard I couldn’t speak!!!! She kept asking if I was OK because I was just sobbing like a baby. I know the process is always more important — but it really felt sweet to run a time I knew my body could do and I’m so grateful for the entire experience.”
As a masters athlete she has expert advice that others in that demographic can learn from.
“Listen to your body,” she recommends. “I find with either aging or post meds, I’m more achy, more stiff. I have to respect what my body is telling me and be excited for being out there. Even during injuries, just keep going. Keep the training going even if it means doing it in a pool or on a bike or recovering with the legs elevated. Wear compression! Keep it fun — and take the extra time to warm up more, stretch, ice, nap. It’s a completely different chapter each year so treat each year as its own chapter.”
Looking ahead, she would love to continue her running and learning new things.
Guerrini isn’t finished with her journey that has literally taken her from a company picnic fun run to the Olympics in Greece. Along the way, she has clicked off some incredible times, inspired countless others and embraced the running community.
“My ‘why’ for running now is that it makes me feel alive! I love every part of the process — I especially love running with people. I almost never run alone — I’m always running with someone or a group and I just love the feel of conversation, of the feel of running on my body, I love the feel of breathing deep, I love the air through my hair. When I lost my hair, I was so excited when my first hair grew back! I remember saying, ‘I love the feeling of the air in my one hair! I love the sounds of music when I run — and the sounds of the crowds. I love the wind blowing the tree leaves, the grass, the clouds. I just love it all — and I hope to show my son that there are days that feel amazing and there are days that are testy, but it’s something I get to do! It’s something WE get to do! And, this in itself is amazing.”
Name: Liz Zaragoza Guerrini
Hometown: San Francisco
Number of years running: competitively on and off since I was 17. So ... 34 years
How many miles a week do you typically run: My coach usually gives me runs in time increments — so on average roughly an hour a day, 1 workout in the middle of the week, 1 long run, one day off each week.
Point of pride: Becoming Christopher’s mom and surviving an invasive breast cancer for 6 years now going on 7.
Favorite race distance: 800 meters.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Protein, electrolytes and caffeine! For me, this comes in the form of bananas, gels and coffee.
Favorite piece of gear: Compression socks and tights.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: The national anthem before the start of a running race. My favorite part. The words and experiences that inspired this song are so powerful. Then when the countdown begins, I turn on my Spotify danceable mix of 1960s through the present. Elvis, ABBA, Donna Summer, MC Hammer, Counting Crows, Depeche Mode, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, etc. If I can feel the percussion, I love it!
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: When I was younger, I loved Henry David Thoreau’s quote “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” To me, it meant my dream was doing the ‘thing’ that made me feel alive which brought me to ‘aha’ moments. The ‘things’ were running, dancing, any new class on any topic. Success was the ‘aha’ moment that popped up in the ending of the common hours of each experience — like the race finish line, the performance end, turning in a final exam.
Today, I feel like the advancing, endeavoring or attempting of each activity doesn’t necessarily have a chronological start or finish (unplanned things happen which make you take an alternative approach or activity altogether) — and it’s the entire experience that makes you go ‘aha!’ It’s the entire imperfect process that makes it a perfect success in common hours.
Today, my son’s shorter version reference to the Incredibles movie also sums it up: “Luck favors the prepared.” Be prepared to try new things. It’s humbling because it requires you to stretch into new thresholds while focussing on the present — but you never know what you’ll learn.
Where can other runners connect or follow you: A blog I started in 2013, mycancertrail.com, was something I started to keep me organized while facing my unknown cancer trial. I needed a place to think my thoughts out loud, sort through the options, stay organized, share the experience. When I was first given the news of a deadly invasive breast cancer over the phone on a Friday afternoon, I cried all weekend without the urge to do anything else. This blog was the first thing I did to take control, to fight and live the dream of living the process. All kinds of ‘aha’ moments popped up. I need to update this.