Maria Rivera did not participate in athletics while attending Mt. Whitney High School in Visalia and considered herself a lazy girl. That has changed dramatically for the 5-foot-2, 115 pound single mom with a big goal to qualify for the Olympic trials in the marathon in 2016.
She took up running five years ago to "lose the baby weight" after having her daughter and soon found herself running in the Visalia 5K Race Against Hunger. She placed second overall in the women's division and first in her age group.
That was the start of what has grown to 14 first-place finishes in a variety of races including 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons, and marathons since 2009, including back-to-back wins in the Smokey Bear 10K. She finished last Saturday's race 9th overall out of a field of 217 men and women with a time of 36:46.
She finished this year's Sept 28 race at Bass Lake in 36:46. The closest competitor was Ashlee Drady of Santa Rosa who crossed the finish line at Recreation Point five minutes behind her. Katherine Botterill of Fresno finished third with a time of 43:08.
A waitress and assistant manager at Applebees in Visalia for seven years, the soft-spoken Rivera said she strives to do her best in everything she does and is motivated by her family, her community, and God's strength and power.
"I'm very excited and proud of winning this race two years in a row," Rivera said.
Jules Tuggle, 40, of Oakhurst placed first in her age division and 31st out of all runners in the race. Katie Burns, 28, of Bass Lake placed 35th among all participants.
Winning the men's 10K was former Fresno State standout distance runner Sean Marzolf, 29, of Fresno, with a time of 32:25. Placing second was Jesus Campos of Tulare (33:23) with Samuel Silva of Los Angeles crossing the finish line in third place (33:52).
Marzolf, who now teaches science and coaches cross country at a middle school in Fresno, is a past winner of the Central Valley Runner of the Year series, a 15-race series, including the Smokey Bear event.
"This is a great event," Marzolf said. "I can't believe how many people come out of the valley and beyond to run in this race. I felt strong today and had a god race."
Campos, who finished second in the men's race, is a boxer who recently turned pro and runs to stay in shape for boxing.
"I'm not a cross country runner, so I was a little surprised to place second," Campos said.
"We had an incredible turnout this year," said co-chairman Eva Busto. "The weather was pretty chilly in the early morning, but that's perfect running weather. We had a total of 110 children in all three races ... our highest number to date. In fact, all race numbers are higher than last year. There was lots of stiff competition in the 10K race, and it was exciting to watch the runners cross the finish line."
On behalf of co-chairman Sheriff John Anderson, and the Mountain Area Runners, Busto said she wanted to thank everyone in our Mountain Area, as well as all the valley runners and sponsors that support the event.
"We are so very fortunate to belong to a community with such a giving spirit," Busto added. "We hope to see everyone returning, as well as some new faces at next year's run on Sept. 27, 2014."
Proceeds from the event will go to Cal Fire and USFS Fire Prevention Programs, Madera County Search & Rescue, Madera County Sheriff Explorer's Post 104, Citizens On Patrol, and the Yosemite High School Cross Country Team.
For complete race results, see smokeybearrun.com