Have you ever cut a workout short because it was too much effort? Or decided to skip a morning run because it was just too difficult to get your body moving? Think about how you would manage if getting your body moving every day took all the energy and will you could muster.
The temptation to give up would be overwhelming, wouldn't it? That's why Zoe Koplowitz is so amazing. With every reason not to dream, with every excuse for saying, "This is just too hard," she didn't. Step by step, with the support of a "dream team" of role models and friends, she reached her goal-and continues to do so.
Struck Down at 25
Zoe takes pride in the title "slowest woman ever to complete the New York City Marathon."That's because she lives with the daily challenges of multiple sclerosis, the disease that attacks the central nervous system and severely hinders movement. Diagnosed at age 25, she never let her disease stop her from being a typical attitude-filled resident of the East Village. On crutches with her red hair flying, she's chased drug dealers out of her building and worked to protect her community.
"I've never seen myself as a victim of MS," she says. But January 8, 1988, she was running her moving company when she swallowed a large vitamin C capsule and began to choke. As she started to black out, her partner performed the Heimlich maneuver and saved her life. The brush with death turned her perspective completely upside down.
"When I came to," she said, "I thought it was such an insult that I wasn't going to die from MS but choke to death on a vitamin C pill." She decided that rather than surrender her mobility and her will to fight her disease, she would take them back. So, like the true original she is, she decided to do the craziest thing she could: run in the New York City Marathon.
Zoe Finds a Trainer
There was just one problem: she was in terrible shape. The immobility of MS had left her 60 pounds overweight, and she couldn't even walk down the street without her crutches. She had no concept of what it took just to make it through the 26-mile race, much less actually participate. She tried to train herself, but kept falling down and getting nowhere.
Zoe's neighbors responded to her efforts predictably: they looked at her like she was nuts. But Zoe realized that she was trying something that had never been tried before, so being thought crazy was inevitable. It never stopped her. "I came to realize that looking stupid is an inherent part of risk taking and goal achievement," she says. "My goal is to cross the finish line, not to look good." But clearly, if she was to make that happen, she needed some help.
Then someone told her about Dick Traum.
Traum had been an athlete and the owner of a computer business when a freak accident crushed his right leg between two cars, resulting in the amputation of his right leg below the knee. Fitted with an artificial leg, Traum decided he had to get in shape after a friend dropped dead of a heart attack in his thirties. But since no one had ever done distance running on an artificial leg before, he had to become a pioneer in the field. And by October 1976, he had completed the NYC Marathon in the entirely respectable time of 7 hours, 24 minutes. If anyone could help Zoe overcome the obstacles she faced, it was Traum. His name, after all, means "dream" in German.
So Zoe began training with Traum's Achilles Track Club, a running club exclusively for people with physical disabilities. "When I attended the first workout, I was overwhelmed. I had never been around people with disabilities and there was an entire group of people in wheelchairs, amputees, those who were blind-and they were all in training. It was a wake-up call for me. They proved that having a disability didn't have to define what I could do."
Zoe started her training with Achilles. She was assigned a volunteer who would do the marathon with her. The volunteer worked for a magazine and five weeks before the marathon, she found out that she had to work that day due to the presidential election. It would be impossible for Zoe to finish the grueling marathon without support.
Zoe and Hester
At the training sessions, Zoe had met Hester Sutherland. Hester's daughter was a wheelchair athlete and a member of the Achilles Track Club. Hester attended the training with her daughter and because her daughter's pace was much faster, Hester stayed behind and walked with the women who were much slower. Zoe and Hester "struck up a friendship and after hearing about Zoe's predicament, Hester happily volunteered to do the marathon with Zoe. "I was relieved and grateful. The fact that we'd be on the road over 20 hours didn't bother her a bit," said Zoe.
Zoe began to depend on Hester for more than friendship. Hester is an RN and Zoe is a diabetic. "Every two miles we have to stop and take my shoes off to look at my feet for any type of sore or hot spot before it turns into a blister," she says. "An untreated blister can present great problems for a diabetic in distance walking." Hester also helped Zoe keep her pace. "I have a tendency to speed up and run with the wild horses when the crowd is cheering," she laughs. "Hester keeps me on pace, reminding me that the goal is to finish. She nags me about drinking water, she gives me Advil, carries needed supplies and provides invaluable support as the long hours continue and the going gets tough."
Nearly a Day on the Mean Streets
In April 1988, Zoe lined up with Hester by her side and with thousands of others to participate in her first marathon. She had no illusions about how long it would take her to cross the finish line. That wasn't the point. Her primary objective was simply to get there. She knew it would be a long, exhausting journey; she expected it to take her at least 24 hours to finish the course a champion marathoner could complete in over two. So she dressed warmly, in tights and a jersey, with a stuffed turtle she named "Flash, the Miracle Racing Turtle" around her neck.
"For me, the New York Marathon is a race and a metaphor," she says. "It's an opportunity to reach past where you'd ordinarily give up in real life. Once you finish a marathon, accomplishing what you think would be impossible, no one can ever say no to you again. You now know you have what it takes to go the distance."
When the race began, Zoe and Hester let the lead runners pass, then Zoe started her long, slow journey on crutches. She would speak to fellow marathoners along the way, touching them with her story and her determination. And she loved going through Brooklyn, with its close-knit neighborhoods and warm people. During this first marathon, she was stopped by a timeworn homeless man in one of the borough's poorest districts, who said to her tearfully, "When you cross that finish line, think of me. Cross that line for me, too, because you're all I got." She knew exactly what the man was saying: like others, he saw her as the embodiment of possibility. If she could complete the marathon, maybe there was hope for him, too.
Not that walking for more than 21 hours through the streets of New York City was without its dangers. It wasn't. After all the other competitors had finished or given up, and night had fallen, Zoe and her support team were still plugging away, and they found themselves in some of the city's scariest, most crime-ridden areas. But Zoe refused to leave the official marathon route, marked by a blue line. "Wherever the blue line goes, I go," she said.
Many people have asked Zoe why she takes such risks walking for hours after dark through New York's war zones. Here, her defiance shows through, as she refuses to be another city dweller cowed by street violence. "That's the course. If you're not on the blue line, you're not doing the course. People run away from their difficulties. This is my life," she says. "I have a right to be here and face whatever comes my way. If I give up once, then I will have lost something very special."
Over the years, her late-night journey has put her face-to-face with drug dealers and gang members. More than once, she's feared for her life. But more often than not, these hardened criminals have cheered her on, escorted her through gang territory, and protected her from other individuals. Once, several teen gangs who had seen her on the news handed her off, one territory to another, until she was out of the Bronx.
If the fear of street crime was bad, the physical toll on her body was like torture. All marathoners suffer, but Zoe was on the course ten times longer than a competitive marathoner. She endured tremendous punishment, but she endured. In the end, she finished in a time of 21 hours, 35 minutes. The finish line was empty of people when she crossed, but that didn't matter. In her heart, there was a celebration going on.
A Symbol of Hope
That was 1988. Since then, Zoe has completed 16 New York City Marathons, finishing dead last each time. Each has taken her longer than the last, and each has been the best race of her life. Over the years, the punishment on her body has gotten harder to bear, but Zoe has never quit. Part of the reason is that she's attracted an "inner circle" of supporters who, inspired by her courage and determination, pitch in to help her keep running:
- Hester has run all 16 marathons by her side.
- Her physical therapist, Louanne Sforza. "Louanne's constantly thinking about the next tool to help me continue," Zoe says. Whether it's Pilates, physical therapy, fitting her for a back brace, or using a battery-operated machine that sends electrical stimulation to her legs to interrupt the flow of pain, Louanne enables her to get to the finish line.
- Friends and strangers have assisted her along the way. "I have friends who come out and walk with me for a couple of miles or a couple of hours," she says.
- A community of Zoe supporters has developed over the years. "Complete strangers, children who are now teenagers who heard about my story through their school, bring their family, friends, and neighbors to meet me every year," she says. "Vie all have cell phones and everybody is called to report my progress and my location so they can meet me with noisemakers to cheer me on."
- The world famous New York City Guardian Angels, a community-based safety patrol program, has assisted Zoe in almost all of the marathons. In 2004, 15 guardian angels joined her through an entire half-marathon. "They taught us the power of keeping your word," she says. They're there if it rains, snows, walking through drug deals, or whatever circumstance. When they give their word, they're there."
The Accidental Heroine
That outpouring of love and support is enough for Zoe, but it's not enough for others who admire her. In the process of her racing odyssey she's become a spokeswoman and heroine, though that's not what she intended. In 1991, she was chosen to receive the Multiple Sclerosis Society's Special Achievement Award, and she continues to be a beacon of hope for people with MS and other debilitating diseases.
Zoe Koplowitz personifies the unstoppable spirit. She has written her autobiography, The Winning Spirit; Life Lessons Learned in Last Place and speaks to corporations, sharing her story of achievement in the face of obstacles. But for Zoe, the true reward is how her efforts have inspired so many others. "Over the years I've become a symbol of endurance for people," she says. "I get letters all year long. I carry them with me when I run. What I do is a metaphor for life, just like the marathon itself. It means you can get somewhere by putting one foot after another." Zoe Koplowitz is living proof that it's not where you start that counts. It's where you finish.
'No one is an island. Life is a team sport. If I was out there by myself, it not only wouldn't be fun, it wouldn't be possible. Being part of the team makes everyone better. And with will, determination, and a little help from your friends, anyone can complete their own 'life marathon.'"
- Zoe Koplowitz