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OFFBEAT: Slow marathoner inspires my personal best

Commentary • Mar 28, 2010 at 1:48 AM

I like the identity that comes with being a runner. It's a select, rag-tag group bound together by black toenails, splintered shins and the simple pursuit of testing physical limits.

There's nothing like the satisfaction of logging another long run to cap off a productive week.

But running has never come naturally to me. Even though I've run consistently for almost 10 years, I'm still waiting to be good at it.

Probably 60 percent of the time, I'm not even sure why I still do it.

In recent months, it's taken on new meaning as my other (much faster) half and I train for our first 26.2-mile monster: The Cleveland marathon in May.

Justin's goals: Qualify for Boston. Maintain a pace of about 7 minutes per mile for a little more than 3 hours.

My goals: Cross the finish line before all the roadside bands call it quits and the crowd eats all the free bagels and bananas. Save my puking until the very end for a dramatic finale. Manage to show up to work the next day without crutches and make it up the two flights of stairs in less than 10 minutes (something that's already a struggle as I slowly pulverize my knees).

While we're both logging 30-35 miles a week, our training approaches couldn't be more different.

Justin is what I call a running purist. He craves competition, but mostly he runs for a genuine love of the sport. Sure, he'll sprint that last 800 meters to beat you, but he's more concerned with achieving personal records. He thinks nothing of running 16 miles in fierce wind and rain, then doing another 3 or 4 with the Perkins track team (he's an assistant coach) later that afternoon.

I'd describe myself as more of a survivalist, just trying to get through the workouts.

Justin stays intently focused by timing his mile splits during a run, while I'd rather distract myself with "The Warrior" by Scandal or Europe's "Final Countdown." But more often than not, all the classic '80s music on my iPod isn't enough to take my mind off the slap of my sneakers on the pavement as I plod along.

As he goes, he'll dream about breaking a 4-minute mile and running with the late Steve Prefontaine (he'd even look like him if he could grow out that handlebar mustache) while I fantasize about a big bowl of noodle curry from Jo Wok.

The people to whom Justin looks for inspiration are all world-class runners, like Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall. I've never really had running idols because frankly, they just intimidate me.

But I've finally found one who's more on my level.

Her name is Zoe Koplowitz, and she's been dubbed the world's slowest marathoner.

The 61-year-old has multiple sclerosis but completes the New York City marathon every year. It takes her about 30 hours, but she always finishes.

She's done 21 of them to date, with friends and family by her side.

Until I heard about her feat, I was really starting to wonder if this whole marathon thing was a good idea.

Friends who see me hobbling along have asked the same thing.

It's always been this way. In grade school, I was the asthmatic who dreaded the required mile run in gym class and usually finished last, wheezing my way through but refusing to stop and walk.

I've gotten a little better, but my body continues to rebel.

It's just a fact: Running for me means embracing hours of pain for about five minutes of euphoria.

I wondered if the marathon wouldn't just be an embarrassing repeat of gym class, with everyone waiting impatiently for me to finish.

I even considered dropping down to a shorter race, just so it wouldn't be so painfully obviously how slow I might be.

But in our fast-paced society where being first seems like everything, it's easy to lose sight of the importance of finishing for the sake of finishing.

What I'll really remember about this experience isn't my time, but the miles I covered beforehand and the scenery along the way.

Oh, and the guts it took to get there.

"Every person hits a wall," Koplowitz said about her marathons in a recent interview with Fox Toledo. "It doesn't matter if you do it in four hours or you do it in 30 hours. At some point, it stops being fun. If you move past that point, then no one can ever say 'no' to you for anything you really want in life."

For me, that's reason enough to tackle this race.

I might complain about leg spasms that wake me up in the middle of the night or aching knees, but for the most part, I'm still in control of my body. The world's slowest marathoner can never predict how her muscles will react or if they'll even let her continue.

Still, she pushes on.

It's truly a triumph of the human spirit.

And if she can go the distance, what's my excuse?

Annie Zelm is the assistant news editor of the Sandusky Register. Justin Zelm is an assistant cross country and track coach for Perkins High School and a columnist for FIT magazine.

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