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A buckle for Zwarkowski

Victorville runner completes Badwater Ultramarathon in less than 48 hours

Posted: July 17, 2008 1:29 a.m.
Updated: September 17, 2008 5:03 a.m.
The coveted Badwater Ultramarathon belt buckle is only given to those who finish the 135-mile race in less than 48 hours. The coveted Badwater Ultramarathon belt buckle is only given to those who finish the 135-mile race in less than 48 hours.
The coveted Badwater Ultramarathon belt buckle is only given to those who finish the 135-mile race in less than 48 hours.

DEATH VALLEY — Cheryl Zwarkowski would have stopped running 135 miles and started crying a million tears if pressed to explain her performance, she said.

“When you popped up out of the car and called my name, it was such a boost,” the ultra-marathon runner said Wednesday. “You didn’t say the name of any of the star runners, it was my name.”

Zwarkowski, 50, had suffered severe pains in her feet due to blistering, and bad heat cramps having tried painfully to find the proper calorie/fluids mix to sustain energy.

When she was met by The Signal just outside Panamint Springs, she had suffered the deepest setback of the race, falling behind her goal by more than half.

“I didn’t even mention my goal to you when I saw you because I didn’t want to verbalize it,” she explained later. “My goal was to get the (coveted) belt buckle at the end of the race and I knew then that I wasn’t going to do it.

“I had given up on the buckle, but when I was talking to you, I didn’t want to say it. I set out instead, on day two, to just finish.

“If I would have explained, I would have started crying, I would have been reduced to tears.”

At 4:26 a.m. just before the sun had come up on Mount Whitney and the final stretch up 4,000 feet to the Whitney Portal, Cheryl Zwarkowski — who started running at age 42 — crossed the finish line to complete one of the world’s most grueling footraces.

It took her 44 hours, 26 minutes and 15 seconds, but she did it.

And since she finished under 48 hours, she was given a medal — and the coveted Badwater Ultra-marathon prize, the belt buckle.

“When I start to think about it, I start to cry,” she said. “I just can’t believe it.

“This race is everything I expected it would be and more,” she said Wednesday, after a day of sleeping. “In so many ways, there were so many emotional highs and lows.

“It was phenomenal. I’m still blown away. I think I’ve inspired four out of six pacers (crew members who help watch over and care for runners competing in the race).

“You don’t get it until you get here, up close and personal,” she said.

Zwarkowski took the bold step 8 years ago of going for a run after working out.

She ran her first 5-kilometer race in June 2000.

Then she started running 10 kilometer races, half marathons — including the ones in Santa Clarita — and marathons including the annual one in Santa Clarita.

The Victorville resident set off from Badwater Monday as part of the early 6 a.m. pack of Badwater rookies.

It took her about three and a half hours to run 17 miles to Furnace Creek, making good time averaging 5.12 miles an hour.

Then she spent the rest of the day climbing out of the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere to Stovepipe Wells, just a couple of hundred feet above sea level, 42 miles from the start line.

She got there at 5:49 p.m. with a good average speed of 4.27 miles per hour.

Runners at that point hit a wall — the 5,000-foot Amargosa Mountain Range which they have to ascend overnight in the dark. Zwarkowski’s average time slowed to about three miles an hour.

She arrived in Panamint Springs at 6:37 a.m. Tuesday.

“I was in really bad shape, dehydrated, muscle cramps,” she said. “(The crew) spent 45 minutes to an hour putting me back together.”

One very significant problem for Badwater runners is finding the tenuous proper balance between water and salt.

Zwarkowski had a painful time trying to find that balance.

“Just beyond Panamint Springs, they put needles in my feet to drain the blisters. In my mind, there was no way I was going to finish.

“I put away my buckle goals and I thought, ‘I’m just going to get through this one step at a time, trekking forward. This was my very lowest point, the lowest of the lowest of the lowest point. That’s when you popped up. That was very positive.”

What were the highest times compared to the lowest ones?

She said it wasn’t the buckle presentation.

“The highest, best times were those times with my crew,” she said.

They are: her husband, Ski; “poppa bear” patriarch John Marnell; Arizona paramedic David Bremson; paramedic Daniel Rodriguez (who applied the needles); Arnold Begly, a Navajo man from Oklahoma whom she met while crewing at Badwater last year, and Dusty Holland.


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