ST. GEORGE – On Saturday, Debbie Zockoll will become the only person to run the St. George Marathon all 36 years of its existence. Aside from making history in the community, the feat symbolizes her ability to persevere through ups and downs, both on the race course and off.
A native of Richfield and a St. George resident since age 12, Zockoll’s introduction to competitive running happened abruptly, on a summer day in 1977. She worked for the City of St. George Parks and Recreation Department under Sherm Miller, who was organizing the first St. George Marathon and encouraged his employees to participate. Despite having no experience, Zockoll’s interest was piqued and she started training. She was among the 38 racers who crossed the finish line on marathon day, carrying with her a newfound love for the sport.
“(Running) is freeing,” she said. “It’s a part of me. I’m Debbie Zockoll, but I have names that define me: Mother, teacher, runner.”
Over the last three decades, she has balanced her running with a career as a first grade teacher for the Washington County School District and a busy home life as a wife and mother of two. Both of her sons have participated in the St. George Marathon; one came along for the ride when she ran seven months pregnant. Some of her former students, now adults, have followed in her footsteps and taken up competitive running.
Kelli Hustead met Zockoll during her first year of teaching but they lost contact until a chance reunion at a gym in 1992. Then a novice runner, Hustead joined Zockoll’s training group and ran a personal-best distance her first day. She has since participated in the St. George Marathon 9 times and in 2011, realized her dream of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. She credits Zockoll with pushing her to be a better athlete.
“You can always count on Deb running every single day, rain or shine,” Hustead said. “I have (never) heard her complain even through the long miles and injuries. Training with her is amazing.”
Hustead joined her mentor in the 2010 Carlsbad Marathon & Half in Carlsbad, Calif., which also marked Zockoll’s 200th marathon. She said that aside from physical preparation, she has learned from Zockoll that the key to being a successful runner is keeping your mind off the negatives, even when it feels “like your legs are going to fall off.”
Zockoll’s record-setting streak at the St. George Marathon nearly came to an end in 2005. She had been battling breast cancer throughout the year and underwent several surgeries, leaving her uncertain whether she could recover in time. But she persevered to run what she now believes is her most meaningful race.
“Being out on the course meant that I was alive,” she said. “I’ve been so blessed to stay healthy enough to run every year.”
“(The marathon) has always been very, very special in our family,” said her son, Josh Zockoll.
Cancer-free and full of verve, Zockoll continues to train tirelessly for the rigors of marathon running. Seven days a week, she rises at dawn for a 10 to 20 mile run and often swims two or more miles. Though she has never won the St. George Marathon (her best time of 3 hours, 14 minutes was 25 years ago), her goal was never to be the fastest or the strongest. She receives a sense of accomplishment from participating, and having defied the odds.
She has competed in 213 marathons total, from Boston and Chicago to California and Japan. However, the event that remains closest to her heart is the one in the place that she calls home.
“I spent a lot of years looking for the perfect race but realized that this one was the best,” she said. “There’s no better volunteers, friends or family than in St. George. I’m so proud of my town and how much this event has grown.”
Watch Debbie Zockoll and over 7,000 athletes from around the nation and globe at the St. George Marathon this Saturday. Visit the race’s official website for more information.
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