Sean Marzoff, María E. Rodríguez recognized among Valley’s best runners

The men’s division winners of the 2018 Valley Runner of the Year series are Víctor Lupián (masters), Sean Marzoff (open) and Nestor Ayala (seniors).
The men’s division winners of the 2018 Valley Runner of the Year series are Víctor Lupián (masters), Sean Marzoff (open) and Nestor Ayala (seniors).

Ken Takeuchi, who has been at the helm of the Valley Runner of the Year series since he launched it 32 years ago, is not bothered that one race drew only 47 runners this year or that one of the 15 scheduled races was eliminated.

The series, after all he reasons, has had good and bad years.

“This was a representative year,” said Takeuchi during a Saturday morning awards ceremony to recognize the top three finishers in six categories. “We’ve had better years; we’ve had worse years.”

There were several highlights this year:

▪ Sanger High School cross country and track coach Sean Marzoff won five races to score 144 points and capture the title.

▪ Tulare County Probation Department worker María E. Rodríguez added to previous women’s open titles by claiming her fourth consecutive title in a run-away.

▪ Kerman elementary school counselor Víctor Lupián, who used to weigh 260 pounds and found out last year that he has valley fever, eased into the men’s master division win.

▪ Selma kindergarten teacher Debra Ávila participated in her first series and won the women’s master division.

▪ Three years after a traffic accident that claimed the life of a close friend, Nestor Ayala returned to racing the series and capturing six races to easily win the men’s senior title.

▪ Veteran seventh-grade teacher Julia Johnson Soria thoroughly dominated the women’s senior division by winning seven races and scoring 167 points out of a possible 180.

▪ Members of the Reedley Roadhogz represented all the women’s division champions.

Winning top finishes in the women’s dvisions of the Valley Runner of the Year series were Lindsay Dozier, Marice Smith, Debra Avila, María E. Rodríguez, Kimberly Rose, Suzy Alvarez, Amanda Whitten and Julia Johnson Soria. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

Takeuchi, who was a competitive runner, was pleased to share time with the runners at the breakfast because there is little time at races to talk with runners.

“In today’s world, a lot of people have found other ways of entertainment, but still want to run,” said Takeuchi, referring to other types of races like Spartan or trail runs.

The series began as a nine-race event, which required runners to participate in each race. Later, a 12-race event with one absence was introduced and then a 15-race calendar with two allowed absences.

Despite the ups-and-down of the series, Takeuchi has not plans to quit.

Nor to end the series.

“I’ve had a long, running career,” he said. “To me, this is a lot of fun.”

The race has no sponsors, but remains the only one of its kind in California. Several years ago, Samuel Silva would drive up from Los Ángeles to participate in the series.

“I asked him why he would drive all that way to run,” said Takeuchi.

Silva’s response: “There’s no other series like this.”

Takeuchi gets requests to start a high school division or add a super-senior category. He hasn’t been persuaded.

“It it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” he said.

Sean Marzoff / Men’s open winner

Running has been a way of life for the Sanger High School chemistry teacher, who also handles head coaching duties for cross country and also coaches track and field. He was 6 years old when his mother would get him into running 5-kilometer races.

2018 VALLEY RUNNER OF THE YEAR SERIES JE VDA 11/03/18 Nestor Ayala and Dale Campbell were among the men’s winners at the 2018 Valley Runner of the Year series awards breakfast. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

Marzoff, who competed at Lodi High School and Fresno State, concentrated on the 800-meter distance.

Now, he is qualified for next April’s Boston Marathon.

“It’s been a while since I’ve run this motivated,” said Marzoff, 35.

He won five of the series races after figuring out he was “just getting back into shape.”

His high school girls’ cross country team has broken the school record and his boys’ team, while mostly young, is also ranked among the Valley’s top 10. His runners will be in action at the TRAC championships Friday (Nov. 9) at Woodward Park.

“It’s fun to get into the competition and score points,” said Marzoff about the series.

Also: J.K. Lundberg, a postal worker who was known as ‘Animal’ during his college years, was second with two race wins and 129 points. Veteran runner Jesús Campos won three races and finished with 100 points.

María E. Rodríguez / Women’s open winner

Winning never gets old for the Dinuba resident who also won in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

“I wanted to win it at least one more time but God has been very generous in letting me win one more,” said Rodríguez, who won seven races and compiled 150 points in the series.

Valley Runner of the Year series open women’s winners were Kimberly Rose (second), María E. Rodríguez (first) and Amanda Whitten (third). JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

Her favorite series race? The Mother’s Day race. “I always love that race,” said Rodríguez, who also finds time to paint.

A teen mother who is single and has four children – a son in the military, another son studying to be an attorney at UC Berkeley, a daughter at Georgetown, and “my baby” who will graduate from Orosi High School this upcoming spring – figures she’ll have more time for running once your youngest graduates from high school.

She is venturing into cubism with her art. “I have to capture the emotion,” she said about the Picasso-style drawing.

As for running, she wants “to do better.”

“I’m happy with the times I’ve had,” she said.

But, she is still unhappy that she missed qualifying for the Boston Marathon by two seconds at this year’s Mountains to Beach Marathon.

Also: Local schoolteacher Kimberly Rose was second with 101 points, followed by attorney/world traveler Amanda Whitten with 60 points.

Víctor Lupián / Men’s masters winner

The 43-year-old vice principal at Liberty Elementary School in Kerman has been running for less than three years. He started after visiting his doctor and discovering that his cholesterol level was inching into dangerous territory.

At the time, he weighed 260 pounds.

“I run for my girls,” said Lupián, referring to his 12- and 10-year-old daughters.

Valley Runner of the Year series founder/director Ken Takeuchi poses with division winners Víctor Lupián (masters), Sean Marzoff (open) and Nestor Ayala (seniors). JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

This year, Lupián won six races and chalked up 140 points to win his division.

Last year, he discovered he had valley fever, which made breathing while running a bit difficult.

“I was not sure if I would compete in the series,” said Lupián.

Now, he is back in the running game.

When he completed the End of the Trail Half-Marathon, the series’ second race, he “felt good” running a distance he had not completed in a while.

“I had not been able to run four minutes at a decent pace up to that point,” said the native of Michoacán, México, who grew up in Dos Palos.

Lupián figures to take a break from the series next year but continue to run to stay in shape.

He runs with the Bandoleros Running Club.

Also: Brian Thomas of Fresno finished a close second with 138 points, while Rogelio Ruiz was third with 106 points.

Debra Ávila / Women’s master winner

The 1992 graduate of Reedley High School dropped 50 pounds (she now weighs 123 pounds) after taking up walking with her father to get in better shape and train for a half-marathon in San Francisco when she was 37 years old.

Now, the 43-year-old, who ran the 2014 Two Cities Marathon in more than five hours blazed through the Big Bear Revel Marathon in 3:19 earlier this year.

Selma’s Debra Avila (first), Fresno’s Suzy Alvarez (second) and Fresno’s Lindsay Dozier (third) were honored at the Valley Runner of the Year series breakfast. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

She has 11 marathons under her belt.

“I love to run even though I suffer through the training,” said Ávila, a mother of three, who is driven to her races by husband Joseph Ávila. “He’s my lucky charm!”

Ávila, in her first year of the series, won five races and scored 154 points.

For years, her children, now ages 21, 19 and 15, have come first with ballet classes, martial arts, sports, choir, band and other activities. Ávila figures it is time to stay in shape for grandchildren.

“We need to do it now,” she said.

Her husband has lost 100 pounds through his cycling.

“This is the way to do it,” she said.

Also: Suzy Álvarez, a grandmother, finished second with 144 points, followed by Fresno police officer Lindsay Dozier with 129 points.

Nestor Ayala / Men’s senior winner

Han pasado tres años desde el accidente de automóvil en Bakersfield donde Nestor Ayala perdio su amigo Miguel Reyes. Los golpes sufrido en el accidente también dejo a Ayala marcado.

Él no pudo continuar a correr, su gusto, haste este año. Y, el trabajador de construcción está esperando que el sistema legal lo permite regresar a trabajar.

Sin embargo, Ayala dejo su marca en el serie Valley Runner of the Year este año, ganando seis carreras y acumulando 157 puntos en la división de 50 años y más.

“Para mí, tener esta serie y estar competiendo me gusta,” dijo Ayala.

Su meta es continuar a establecer récords personales en la distancias de 5 kilómetros hasta un maratón.

“Eso me inspira a mí a dar lo mejor de mí,” dijo Ayala, quien tiene tiempos récords de 1:10 en el medio maratón, 29:47 en 10 kilómetros, y 2:30 en el maratón.

Su primera carrera, una de 10 kilómetros, la cumplió en 36 minutos a la edad de 26.

El residente de Fresno estuvo muy contento con su tiempo en los 10 kilómetros de Smokey Bear “porque fue duro y pude terminar en menos de mi meta de 40 minutos.” Ayala busca ir por un mejor tiempo el próximo año.

Él busca competir afuera de Fresno para “inspirar a otros y mejorarme solo.”

Also: Dale Campbell, who underwent back surgery in September, finished second with 132 points; while Leo Castillo was third with 93 points.

Julia Johnson Soria / Women’s senior winner

She was in the seventh grade in Manteca when her family encouraged her to run an 8-mile Turkey Trot race in Tracy.

“I ran and walked, and I won a trophy!” recalls Johnson Soria, who dominated her division by winning seven races.

Marice Smith of Fresno finished third in the Runner of the Year women’s senior division behind champion Julia Johnson Soria of Reedley. Runner-up Eva Bustos of Oakhurst was not at the awards breakfast. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

She ran in high school but didn’t do much after that until she found out about the running series about eight years ago when she discovered her name among the points winners following a 10k race in Sanger.

“I’ve been hooked ever since,” said the seventh-grade English teacher at Washington Intermediate in Dinuba. That is a job she has been doing for 30 years.

Her favorite race of the series is the End of the Trail Half-Marathon in Visalia “because I like the course. It’s different than other races.”

Johnson Soria, who has run the Boston Marathon, figures she’ll be back for next year’s series.

“Why not?” she said.

Also: Eva Bustos of Oakhurst had 116 points; followed by Marice Z. Smith of Fresno with 104 points.