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TAKING IT TO THE STREETS : A Woman Beating a Debilitating Disease and Veterans Racing for Remembrance Use L.A. Marathon to Make a Statement

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

In a recent appearance on “The Pat Sajak Show,” actor Bruce Dern described the marathon as the perfect sport for yuppies--it gives them instant status at cocktail parties. Murmuring “I ran the L. A. Marathon” lets people know that you take running seriously, that you possess the necessary spiritual and physiological tools--not to mention the right $125 shoes--to run the hallowed 26.2 miles.

Of course, not everybody enters a marathon to add it to their list of lifetime achievements or to use as a pickup line. And not everybody enters to win: Of the nearly 18,000 runners expected to take part in the fourth L. A. Marathon on Sunday, there are probably fewer than a dozen with a realistic chance of finishing first. A marathon, in fact, is probably the only competitive event in which winning isn’t everything. Simply finishing is usually enough.

There are some Valley runners who are entering Sunday’s marathon for reasons that go far beyond status.

To Judith Johnston of West Hills, Dr. Frank Zizzo of Northridge and Mickey DePalo of Burbank, the marathon represents an opportunity to make a statement to themselves and to the public.

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For Johnston, 48, the marathon will prove to her and everybody dear to her that she has turned the tide against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease. Usually fatal within a few years, ALS is a debilitating illness that affects muscle function, grows progressively worse and puts its victims into wheelchairs, not marathons.

Johnston, whose mother died of ALS at age 49, was stricken three years ago, ironically just a few days before she would have entered her first L. A. Marathon. “The first three months were probably the darkest days of my life,” she says. “The doctor told me to get my life in order” and prepare to die.

Johnston, however, refused to die without a fight. She put herself into physical therapy even though her doctor told her it wouldn’t help. She changed her diet and took nutrition classes at Pierce College. On an outing to Ventura with her husband Tom, she heard new age music coming from a metaphysical bookstore and wound up buying Louise Hays’ book “You Can Heal Your Body.”

Two years ago, Johnston began attending the City of Angels Science of Mind Center, a West Side church run by O. C. Smith, a former pop singer whose big hit was “Little Green Apples.” The church’s philosophy--people can change their lives through the power of the mind and positive thinking--was the kind of spiritual reinforcement Johnston needed.

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To the amazement of doctors, her condition improved enough that she began running again six months ago. “I started with a mile,” Johnston says, “and when I got up to six miles, I knew I could do it again.”

Johnston doesn’t figure to finish the marathon in fewer than five hours, but she does plan to finish, which will be a metaphor for her. “If you give up, what are your chances?” she says. “When I cross that finish line, I’ll feel I have this thing beaten.”

Frank Zizzo is out to beat something else: The negative image of the Vietnam veteran. “I want to show that a lot of us are just normal, boring people,” says Zizzo, an Army sergeant in Vietnam from 1967-70.

Zizzo, 40, was instrumental in organizing the Veteran’s Recognition Program. Last year, he persuaded L. A. Marathon officials to let him distribute 2,000 emblems to veterans in the race. The pin-on emblems bore an American flag and the words “American veterans--we’re here for the long run.”

Zizzo, who will hand out another 2,000 emblems this year, credits the Army with giving him the discipline to run a marathon. “It’s an awful, terrible thing to do and you have to push yourself,” he says of running. “But you learn in the military to stick to something even if you don’t want to.”

A psychotherapist (“yeah, I’m a shrink”), Zizzo began running eight years ago. “I did it for my health,” he says. “Now I use running for my patients who are depressed.”

Sunday’s race will be his third L. A. Marathon and he hopes to improve on last year’s time of 3 hours, 37 minutes. To prepare for the race, he gets up at 5:30 a.m. and runs five miles at Porter Ranch about four days a week. Two weeks ago, he ran 26 miles. To him, finishing is what’s important.

“You set a goal of doing it and work toward that goal,” he says. “The marathon is frightening and gratifying and ultimately satisfying. After you’re done, you swear you’ll never run another one. But it’s like childbirth. A little time goes by and you’re able to forget the pain and you want to do it again.”

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More low-key than Zizzo, Mickey DePalo, a former military policeman who was stationed in Long Binh, is going to ink “Vietnam ’70-'71" on his singlet and “dedicate the race to my fellow veterans,” he says.

“I want to show that we’re now a viable part of the community and should be recognized,” says DePalo, who works for the Burbank Park and Recreation Department and helped establish that city’s memorial to veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars.

“I’m really proud to be a Vietnam veteran,” DePalo says.

DePalo, 42, started running 10 years ago to lose weight and “get healthier,” he says. After shedding 60 pounds, the 5-foot-9 DePalo now weighs 143. He runs about 80 miles a week on the streets of Burbank and in the hills of Griffith Park. His longest training run for the marathon was 23 miles.

Sunday’s race will be DePalo’s 15th marathon. Two months ago, he finished fifth in the master’s division of a marathon in San Diego. His time of 2:44 was a personal best.

“My No. 1 goal Sunday is to finish,” he says. “My No. 2 goal is to finish and feel good.”


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