Tuesday, August 24, 1999

Can a runner win more than just the race?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I always wonder what makes women run. I suspect they pound along the pavement, rain or shine, so they can eat chocolate and cheesecake without becoming human dirigibles. I assume they run because their doctor — or their movie of the week — has thrown some kind of cardiovascular scare into them.

        I have asked Julie Isphording more than once. This is probably not fair because she is hardly the average runner, the kind whose expressions would lead you to believe they might be on the way to have a boil lanced. A member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and Cincinnati's most famous marathoner, Julie has always run with visible joy.

Dog bites and surgery
        This is a woman who has continued to spring along the sidewalks of the east side of the city after being bitten by dogs, flashed by a pervert and hit by a bus. She has suffered countless injuries and back surgery three times. Still, she runs.

        Even when it hurts.

        She says it feels like flying. I can only imagine her anguish when she thought it was lost to her. She already had come to terms with the idea that she might never be a serious competitor again. “I began to think maybe I could live through other runners, stand at the finish line.”

        Not racing was one thing, but not running was quite another.

        Without warning, one of her legs would buckle. Multiple sclerosis was a possibility. Still, she ran, falling, “bandages on my knees.”

        Every day is better. “I have run now for 110 days, and every one is a gift.” She does not have multiple sclerosis, thinks the problem might be related to back injuries. Whatever it is, she is nearly giddy with what she calls “the joy of movement.”

        I still don't get it, I tell her. Running feels to me as though I am jarring my back teeth loose.

Winning attitude
        Julie looks around for moral support. On cue, Kathrine Switzer appears. Winner of the 1974 New York Marathon, she looks the way most women I know would like to look. Trim. Glossy dark hair. Luminous skin. And something more. She looks as if she knows where she is going.

        In 1967, Kathrine broke the gender barrier in the Boston Marathon. In the beginning, “People tried to convince me that the Earth was flat — any day I'd fall off the edge and suffer dire consequences like big legs, a mustache or a "displaced' uterus, all dreadful, made-up myths.”

        Finally, one race official literally tried to throw her out of running.

        “He actually grabbed me, ripped my number off,” she says.

        “Male runners have always been very supportive. They are not threatened by women. The officials have been a different ballgame.”

        So now, she is an official herself. Program director for Avon's Global Women's Circuit, she is here to promote the Avon Running National Championships, which will take place in Cincinnati on Oct. 31.

        After breaking one gender barrier, why is she setting up another one? The Avon race is just for women.

        “The fastest woman will never beat the fastest man. We can run longer, endure cold better. But men have more lean muscle and bigger lungs. This race is a chance for women to cross the line first, break the tape.”

        Breaking the tape. Getting there first. Winning. Everybody should have that feeling at least once. Somehow.

        I am watching two women who know the feeling — Julie Isphording, who slipped out in the dark trying to run again without falling, and Kathrine Switzer, who says her mission is to give every woman a nudge to be healthy and fit — stride through the lobby of Cincinnati's Omni Netherland Plaza Hotel.

        They walk with a certain bounce even on a marble floor. This surely has something to do with genetics, something to do with running. And something to do with breaking the tape.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears regularly on WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.