In 1996 Maria Madueño beat practically everyone on the cross-country course. In 2002 she beat cancer. In 2017 she is beating Father Time.
Madueño, 60, promised herself she would run one marathon per month the year after her cancer recovery.
She has raced way past that goal.
Born and raised in Tijuana, Madueño said her love for competition began on a bike.
“I was 14 when I started cycling,” Madueño said. “I won several national championships in Mexico, and I was able to compete in the first world cycling championship for women.”
Her cycling ended when she turned 21 and got married. Professional cycling was too expensive and the newlywed couple could not afford the costs, so Madueño began running as a hobby.
Practicing at CREA, an athletic training center in Tijuana, she caught the attention of a group of runners who invited her to train with them.
“They were the best runners in Tijuana,” she said. “When they realized I was able to keep pace, they encouraged me to run a marathon.”
Madueño’s first marathon was the Baja International Chula Vista-Rosarito in 1984. She finished in an “astounding time.” With only one month of running experience she took first place.
From that moment, Madueño said she knew that she was made for running and began competing in every race around Baja California.
“No one could stop me,” she said. “I started winning all of them.”
It was at a marathon in Tijuana she was recruited by Dr. Duro Agbede, the legendary former head coach of the SWC cross-country team.
“I asked my assistant coach to talk with Maria,” said Agbede. “When I saw her I thought, this is the type of athlete that we like to have representing our college. She is a very hardworking, competitive person. That competitiveness was what actually made me try to recruit her.”
When Madueño arrived at SWC in 1995 she said she did not know what to expect. Language was a challenge, said Agbede, but did not stop her.
“When Maria came in, she put in a lot of work and she was very dedicated,” he said. “She was able to overcome a language barrier and did very well in her classes.”
Madueño majored in child development. As a full-time student-athlete, mother and wife, her sports career required sacrifices. Family, she said, was essential to her success.
“My family became my biggest support system,” she said. “My husband has always been there for me without hesitation and my children were wonderful. They sometimes would help me with cooking and the household chores.”
Madueño left Southwestern a legacy of greatness. She was named Pacific Coast Athletic Conference Athlete of the Week twice. She was the 1995 PCAC Champion and placed fourth in the California State Cross-Country Championship.
She won the UCSD Triton Invitational Cross Country Meet in 1996, which elevated SWC athletics to another level.
“She defeated her opponents by a massive margin,” said Agbede. “She ran almost every race by herself. After Maria came in, our program became a synonym of success. A lot of athletes wanted to run for Southwestern.”
Madueño earned the nickname “Pies Calientes” (Burning Feet). Opponents said she was so fast she did not touch the ground. She ran 5 kilometers in 17:01 minutes, a state record. It stood for 20 years until SWC’s Aminat Olowora ran a 16:59 in the 2015 State Championship.
After leaving Southwestern, Madueño competed all over the world, including marathons in Barcelona, Berlin, Prague, Boston and New York.
“It was a turning point in my life,” she said. “I was able to become an elite athlete. Reaching the finish line is like achieving freedom,” she said.
“Winning championships was not my priority,” she said. “It is something that came naturally. I feel a commitment to myself while I am running because it is like the race that is life.”
In 2002, she faced the biggest challenge of her life, a diagnosis of cancer. Her competitive nature helped her to fight the disease and defeat it.
“After spending one year dealing with my sickness, I decided to run one marathon each month,” she said. “Running a marathon is like a dessert for me.”
Madueño’s 2017 calendar includes the Los Angeles Marathon in March, the San Diego 100 Mile in June, the Seattle Marathon in July, the 12,000-foot elevation Silver Rush 50 Run in Leadville, Colorado in August and the GORE-TEX Transalpine-Run, a 7-day ultramarathon that goes through Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.
Tijuana’s über-athlete worked for years as a teacher, providing Madueño has dedicated part of her life to teaching physical education to children and teenagers. When doing that, she said, she could transfer her knowledge and passion for life to the younger generations of aspiring athletes.
She taught at Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada Elementary School, Instituto Paula Montal, Colegio Nuevo Amanecer, Instituto Anahuac and Instituto Progreso.
Alexander Soler, an elite Mexican basketball player, is a former student of Madueño. She said Madueño helped her to grow as a person and as an athlete by developing her physical skills and molding her mental strength.
Fight for the win, learn how to lose, and always respect your rival were Madueño axioms, said Soler.
“I remember getting excited when I saw Professor Madueño entering through the door of the classroom,” she said. “I felt so much admiration for her. You were able to feel her passion for teaching.”
Watching her students become champions is one of her biggest life satisfactions, said Madueño.
“I teach them to cherish their lives,” she said. “I encourage them to find a physical activity that would activate their bodies and free their minds. There are no obstacles for achieving their goals.”
Madueño said she has miles to go before she sleeps.
“You never know when the time is going to come. This is about living the moment and not to thinking about anything except the road.”