Slow but going

Sunday, November 2, 2003

NEW YORK -- Like other athletes preparing for the New York City Marathon, Zoe Koplowitz knows the usual tips: Dress for the weather, pace yourself, start out slow.

But slow for Koplowitz, who takes to the 26.2-mile course every year with two fuschia crutches that match her eye shadow, can mean a race that stretches well into the next day.

"Last year was a little better than usual," said Koplowitz, 55. "I knocked it off in 28 hours."

Like the 30,000 or so runners attempting the marathon today, Koplowitz goes as fast as she can. She was diagnosed 30 years ago with multiple sclerosis, the degenerative disease of the nervous system.

She also has diabetes. She wears thigh braces because she suffers from a painful leg condition called illotibial band syndrome. She has carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrists from using crutches.

That hasn't stopped the motivational speaker from finishing 17 marathons, 15 of them in New York and all of them in last place.

"A cab driver told me something. It was a very nice analogy. I was kind of like the Yankees," she said. "People have a need for me to win because they have a need to win themselves. And when I finish, they do too."

Marathon spokesman Richard Finn said, "We think it's great that she keeps coming back."

Koplowitz' first marathon, in 1988 when she was 40, was her fastest: 19 hours, 57 minutes.

"I thought it would be 12 hours. I thought that I would just go and go and go until I got there," the New Yorker said.

Her longest marathon was more than 33 hours, in 2000. The weather that year was humid and warm, conditions that generally exacerbate her MS.

Koplowitz begins her journey at the Verrazano Bridge starting line at 6 a.m., more than four hours before the other runners. She stops every mile to stretch, and tests her blood sugar every two hours. She doesn't take a break of longer than 15 or 20 minutes, except one stop at a restaurant during the last nine or 10 miles. She doesn't sleep.

The Guardian Angels, the volunteer civilian patrol, watch over Koplowitz for the last 10 miles. Restaurants and police precincts open their doors for her in the middle of the night.

For using her crutches -- nicknamed Spot and Rover -- a good part of her training is upper-body weight work. "I've got biceps that make grown men weep," she says.

When she's not marathoning, she needs one crutch to walk.

Koplowitz is not the only disabled marathoner. The Achilles Track Club, which represents disabled runners, estimates that more than 1,000 members ran the marathon last year.

Her finish is not scored; the New York City Marathon stops recording finishers after eight hours.

She doesn't have an exact time goal. She always tells herself 24 hours, "but I realize I pushed very, very hard last year and I got 28."

"I know that I won't be able to do this forever," Koplowitz said. "Each year is very special to me."

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