Tuesday, April 30, 2002

PULFER: Olympian is back on her feet

Julie Isphording

By Laura Pulfer, lpulfer@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        We start with Julie Isphording's very expensive feet. About $30,000 in recent medical bills.

        She slips out of a size 10 black loafer and stretches out her narrow, gracefully arched left foot. The arch is a triumph, restored by seven incisions and more than 200 stitches. The cast, changed every 10 days, “formed a whole new foot,” she says. Then the excruciating procedure started again. The right foot, she says, is coming along, still not there yet.

        But she's walking, after more than six months on crutches and crawling around her East Walnut Hills home, “wearing the knees out of all my pants.” Cincinnati's most famous runner moves deliberately. “I have to think about every step.” No running right now. Or maybe ever.

        She shrugs. She smiles. But she has lost something precious.

        These feet started running 23 years ago, when Julie was 17. She ran a mile to Busken's Bakery, where she'd buy a doughnut, then run home. She entered the 5-kilometer Springer Sprint at Lunken Airport. She won. She grinned. She signed up for more races. She went to the Summer Olympics in 1984 as a marathoner, running 110 miles a week while in training. Those feet with their amazing complication of tendons and bones took a terrible pounding.

        “I think I went a little over the edge, trained a little too hard,” she says. “The same thing that got me into the Olympics, probably got me into this predicament.”

        Pushing. Ignoring the pain. Eyes on the finish tape. She says it feels like flying. Bitten by dogs, dodging the occasional flasher, hit by a bus — still she ran with a visible joy.

        She'd write goals in ink on her arm before a race — where she wanted to be after the first mile, how she wanted to finish. She remembers the qualifying race for the '84 Olympics. At mile 10, she was 23rd in the field — nowhere near the top three needed to make the team.

        “At mile 25, I'm trying to smile, because they take pictures at the finish line.” Then, about 100 yards from the tape, someone shouted that she was third. On her way to the Olympics.

        The rest was a “wonderful 10 seconds.” The smile was incandescent.

        She tore a tendon in one of those overused feet during the Olympics and dropped out at mile 11. But she came back to win the Los Angeles Marathon in 1990. “That was even better, in a sense, because it was a second chance.”

        And she has made for herself a third and a fourth and infinite other “chances.” If she can't run, she'll teach somebody else. A woman in her spinning class has lost 145 pounds. A runner she coaches has cut three minutes off her time.

        Julie talks about running. “The wind in my face,” she calls it. “Lucky me. I know how it feels. And I look for it in other places.” So, she organizes races for others, raises money for good causes, steadfastly refuses to be an athlete whose best years are behind.

        She purely loves the race. But it was never the only thing. And those treacherous feet were incidental. She always ran with her heart.

       E-mail Laura at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393.


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