More MS news articles for February 2000

Nothing slows her down

Despite 10 years with multiple sclerosis, Benford making marathon debut

By Mark Wangrin
Austin American-Statesman

Posted: Feb. 19, 2000

You look right off for the wheelchair or the aluminum crutches or at least a pair of clunky orthopedic shoes. You look for them because you understand that Lounell Benford was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 10 years ago, has battled all the disease has thrown at her, including double vision and paralysis and loss of memory, and was without the use of her right arm a year ago.

You look for them, and you look right past Lounell Benford.

Instead, the 47-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair walks toward you with a smooth gait, greets you with a firm grip and speaks clearly and cheerfully.

"I don't know if she mentioned it to you," friend Donna Dent later tells a reporter calling to talk about her friend, "but she has MS."

"I want people to know that all sorts of people have MS," Benford says. "When people hear they have MS, they visualize themselves in a wheelchair. But it's not a killer disease. It's not the crippler of young adults."

Last February the disease, which causes inflammation of tissue in the central nervous system, creating scar tissue that slows the transmission of nerve impulses, connected with a roundhouse. The bout started with a crick in her neck and numbness in her thumb, leaving her near-bedridden. It ended with Benford making a vow. "I decided then I needed to do something," she said, and the mother of two and grandmother of one settled on taking not one step, but tens of thousands.

"She said, 'Let's run a marathon,' " recalls Dent, who was there when the idea took shape and joined the Austin Fit training group to support her friend. "I said, 'OK, lets run one in Hawaii.' She decided to start closer to home."

'It's something to do'

Sunday morning, Dent will drive in from her home near Liberty Hill to the Arboretum area for the start of the Motorola Marathon, her first shot at mastering the 26.2-mile course.

"It keeps her positive," said husband Cedric. "It's something to do instead of just accepting it and moping and crying."

Benford is not the first marathoner with MS, nor is she the most famous. Zoe Koplowitz, a 52-year-old author, motivational speaker and "Got Milk?" ad subject, has run 12 straight New York City Marathons, plodding along on crutches and finishing 31 hours after she starts, when only friends and family members are there to greet her.

"I'm really inspired by women who run who have MS. Not only people who have MS, but other chronic illnesses," says Benford, an administrative assistant for Texas Guaranteed Student Loans. "I don't think I'm an inspiration to anyone, but I want to give them hope. It lets them think it's not the end of the world."

Twelve years ago the diagnosis was malnutrition. While driving down Interstate 35 she noticed there were six lanes instead of three, and knowing that no road construction in Austin happens that quickly, she figured it must be double vision.

The doctor told her she'd been working out too hard and had lost too much weight. He told her to take vitamins. She did, and the symptoms went away, no thanks to the vitamins but because of the ebb-and-flow nature of the disease. Two years later she had another episode, and this time the battery of tests showed it was MS.

Benford prepared for the worst, but after doing some research on her own, she realized MS wasn't the end of the road, but a fork in it. If she continued to exercise, it would help. She wondered why it seemed for a stretch that most of Dr. Jack Kevorkian's clients suffered from advanced MS. "People don't die of MS," she said. "They die of complications of MS."

Through the last decade she has had more episodes, tried new treatments (there is no known cure). She reacted to one with dry heaves and suffered a detached retina. She's also had more diagnoses. Sixty percent of MS sufferers are women, most live in the Northern United States and most are white. Benford is a Hispanic Texas woman, which means she didn't fit the profile. So they said lupus. They said Lyme disease.

"One doctor said the only accurate diagnosis would be in an autopsy," Benford says. "I'm not going to give them that."

Counting dedications

In the predawn hours Sunday, an anxious first-time marathoner will slip her Asics Cumulus shoes over her fluorescent yellow and pink "Flower Power" socks, clip on the orange toe tag with her name, family contact and pertinent medical information; slip on the black running shorts and white CoolMax shirt with the pink ribbon honoring the fight against breast cancer and the green ribbon of tribute to a member of the Austin Fit training group hurt in a car accident last week.

Attached to the back of bib No. 3057 will be square of paper with a list in type as small as needed to fit all 26 entries. That comes out to one for each mile. "I made up a dedication list," Benford says. "The odd numbers are dedicated to the glory of Jesus Christ. The even numbers are dedicated to people. Mile two is to my husband, four to my son Zak, six to my son Ky, then to my mom and dad, sisters and brothers, other people with MS, breast cancer survivors, friends and family."

And one more. Benford smiles shyly. "The last mile," she says, "is dedicated to me."