More MS news articles for November 1999

A Day Late, but Still a Victor in Marathon

November 11, 1999  New York Times


While you were no doubt sleeping in your cozy bed Sunday night, Zoe Koplowitz, 51, was in the streets for her 12th New York City Marathon, in which, as usual, she finished last. She started her race at 6 a.m. Sunday on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, with the purple crutches that match her purple eye shadow and wearing rhinestone earrings. She ended 30 hours, 52 minutes and 15 seconds later in Central Park, with a fist held high and a warrior whoop.

The crutches are because of the multiple sclerosis; Ms. Koplowitz also has diabetes. This year, to make matters worse, Ms. Koplowitz fell two weeks before the race, separating her shoulder and cracking a rib, so that in addition to the numbness in her hands and the muscle tremors in her legs as the race wears on, her shoulder was in pain.

We could ask the old question: Why do this? But a question concerning style first:

Why, Ms. Koplowitz, do you wear purple eye shadow?

"It's a power color," she says, batting her pale blue eyes playfully in the Midtown offices of the Achilles Track Club.

The rhinestone earrings, which today are mauve?

Laughter, from a funny woman who likes to laugh.

"I'm known for my trashy earrings," Ms. Koplowitz says. "People always ask if they weigh me down. I say: 'Yes, I would have won without them. It was a choice between the fashion statement and the $50,000 prize.' The other question I always get is, 'Why do you do a race every year you can't win?' The bottom line is I do win."

This past summer, a number of wheelchair athletes filed a suit against the marathon's organizers, claiming that some practices, including having disabled athletes move to the side to permit faster runners to pass, were discriminatory.

Ms. Koplowitz, a supervisor at an employment agency who spends much time on the road as an inspirational speaker and who sounds, much of the time, like an inspirational speaker ("I feel like I'm a human Post-it note -- I remind people anything is possible") was not part of that suit.

Hers is a personal mission. What Ms. Koplowitz likes talking about is her race: the firefighters and police officers and shop owners who look for her every year; the Guardian Angels who join her as escort at nightfall (years back, there was a drug dealer who pulled a gun); the letters, many of which come from other people who have taken a nasty punch from life, which she and her team carry over the finish line.

"This is my opportunity to get my personal agenda in," Ms. Koplowitz says. "To show people I don't have anything that they don't have. I don't wear a supercape; I don't go into a phone booth and change into superhero to do a marathon. I am who you are and that's the whole point."

A SK Ms. Koplowitz about who she is, a most ordinary question about her childhood in Astoria, Queens, and her high-spirited conversation will come to a dead stop and Ms. Koplowitz will look as if someone has asked her about a terrible secret. She cannot discuss her childhood, Ms. Koplowitz says finally.

She described it once, in the book she wrote a few years ago, and it caused her family enough pain.

She does, however, open a copy of the book, "The Winning Spirit: Life Lessons Learned in Last Place," which she has brought to the interview, pointing to a paragraph:

"I never really did know my mother, but I was intimate with her twin demons: alcohol and drugs." And later: "Life included moments of violence and irrationality so profound that, even 40 years after the fact, their memory can catapult me back into that primal state of childhood terror and hopelessness."

Zoe Koplowitz, whose given name is Lindsay, is the oldest daughter of an electrician. She leaves home at 18 and puts herself through almost four years of college, leaving because of the difficulty of working full time.

In her early 20's, searching for a community which "does some good in the world," Ms. Koplowitz gives up her apartment and job to join a religious community called the Foundation Faith of God, which preaches faith healing. Following the practice of the community, Ms. Koplowitz takes a new first name, Zoe.

At 25, Ms. Koplowitz grows clumsy and begins limping. The diagnosis is muscular sclerosis.

She is frozen out of the community -- the members are all healthy young people, Ms. Koplowitz says with some amusement, and having a member walking around with a cane while they preach healing is not really great public relations.

Ms. Koplowitz gets work as an office manager, finds a man with whom to share her life, follows the medical advice common 25 years ago regarding M.S.: have a low-stress life, do not tire yourself physically.

Twelve years ago, living her cautious physical life, Ms. Koplowitz chokes on a vitamin pill and almost dies. Regaining consciousness, she decides a quiet life guarantees nothing -- death can come at any time. She decides on running the marathon because she wants a long-term goal and something that is "completely outrageous."

The last may also explain why she crossed the finish line, Monday, in a jacket studded with rhinestones.

"Life is meant to be lived in color. I'm going to have a good time and if I pass you by, you're going to remember me."