NEW YORK (AP) - Like every New York City Marathon entrant, Zoe Koplowitz knows the usual tips: Dress for the weather. Pace yourself. Start slowly.
But for Koplowitz, who takes to the 26.2-mile course every year with two fuchsia crutches that match her eye shadow, slow can mean a race that stretches well into the next day.
"Last year was a little better than usual," said Koplowitz, 55. "I knocked it off in 28 hours.''
Koplowitz, like the 30,000 or so runners attempting the marathon on Sunday, is going as fast as she can. She was diagnosed 30 years ago with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system that sometimes can cause paralysis.
She has diabetes and carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrists from using crutches during the marathon. And she wears thigh braces because of a condition called illotibial band syndrome in both legs.
That hasn't stopped the motivational speaker from finishing 17 marathons, 15 of them in New York and all of them in last place. She says she no longer finishes just to prove it to herself.
"A cab driver told me something. It was a very nice analogy,'' Koplowitz said. "I was kind of like the Yankees. People have a need for me to win because they have a need to win themselves. And when I finish, they do, too.''
Koplowitz' first marathon, in 1988 when she was 40, was her fastest - 19 hours, 57 minutes.
"I thought it would be 12 hours. I thought that I would just go and go and go until I got there," she said. "I never thought I needed to use the bathroom or stop for something to eat.''
Now, Koplowitz starts her journey at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at 6 a.m., more than four hours before the professional runners. She stops every mile to stretch and tests her blood sugar every two hours. She doesn't take a break of longer than 15 or 20 minutes, except one stop at a restaurant during the last 9 or 10 miles. She doesn't sleep.
She's named her crutches Spot and Rover. A good part of her training for the marathon is upper-body weight work.
"I've got biceps that make grown men weep," she says.
When she's not marathoning, she needs one crutch to walk. She first thought she'd try the marathon without crutches but kept losing her balance.
Her favorite part of the race, she says, is "when the crowd passes." If she's lucky, she gets to mile 7 before the elite runners overtake her. When they catch up, Koplowitz stops to watch and cheer before she, and a few friends who accompany her, resume the race.
Her longest marathon was in 2000 - more than 33 hours. Humid, warm weather was the culprit, a factor that generally exacerbates the MS.
The Guardian Angels, the citizens' police force, take responsibility for protecting Koplowitz the last 10 miles. Restaurants and police precincts have come to know her, opening their doors in the middle of the night to let her stop and rest.
Koplowitz, who lives in Manhattan, is not the only disabled marathoner. The Achilles Track Club, represented disabled runners, estimates that more than 1,000 members ran the NYC Marathon last year.
Unlike other marathons that require runners to qualify, Koplowitz's entry isn't limited by time.
"We think it's great that she keeps coming back," marathon spokesman Richard Finn said.
The NYC Marathon stops recording finishers after eight hours. But often, Koplowitz finds a crowd at the finish line of complete strangers, who don't go to work on Monday until she comes in.
Koplowitz doesn't have an exact goal for her time - she always tells herself 24 hours, "but I realize, I pushed very, very hard last year and I got 28.''
She is not sure know how many marathons she has left.
"I know that I won't be able to do this forever," she said. "Each year is very special to me.''Submitted 11/1/2003 4:12:27 PM