26 Feet Mean Victory For Some Racers

BY DENNIS MCCARTHY, LA DAILY NEWS

You won't find them at the starting line at next Sunday's 22nd Los Angeles Marathon. Or even out on the course running just one mile of the 26.2-mile race.

But that doesn't matter. They'll still get the biggest applause of the day after walking only a few hundred feet of the course - slowly, unsteadily, painfully.

People love to cheer for a longshot, and there are no longer shots in the L.A. Marathon next week than the 11 men and women who meet every week in a workout room behind Gold's Gym in Northridge.

They are paraplegics, quadriplegics and serious stroke victims who were not supposed to be able to walk on their own again - let alone cross the finish line of their city's marathon on their feet and have a medal placed around their necks.

They've poured buckets of sweat, screamed in pain, and pushed their bodies as hard as any runner in the grueling race to earn that medal.

"It's all about crossing the finish line. And whether it's 26 miles for a runner or 26 feet for a person with a serious disability, it doesn't matter," says L.A. Marathon race director Steve Honikman.

"Taylor's people are champions. That's why the crowds love them and always cheer the hardest for them. They've accomplished something incredible and people can see that."

Taylor is Taylor Isaacs, a clinical exercise physiologist.

To his clients - people like Marc Richards, Tony Scott and Andy Davis, who worked with Isaacs on a recent Friday - the former professor of kinesiology at California State University, Northridge, is nothing short of a miracle worker.

"He works you hard and makes you believe in yourself - that anything is possible. And it is," said Richards, a 47-year-old paraplegic.

The Castaic man learned that firsthand at the 2005 L.A. Marathon. He was Isaacs' first test case - the guy he would point to with dozens of future clients and say, "Hey, he did it. Why can't you?"

Richards and Isaacs went to the marathon's finish line a few days before the race and counted the steps backward to where Richards should get out of his wheelchair and start walking with the use of his forearm crutches.

They figured it would take about 30 minutes to cover a few hundred feet. Then came the day of the race.

"There were a bunch of people, including some U.S. Marines, at the finish line that year shouting Marc's name and yelling, `Go, Marc, Go."' Isaacs said.

"It was an incredible sight, everybody cheering him on. It didn't take him 30 minutes to cover that few hundred feet; it took him 17 minutes.

"He was flying on air," Isaacs said, laughing.

At the 2006 L.A. Marathon, six more people joined Richards, including Leon Hoyer, a South African man who was paralyzed in an accident three years earlier.

He had heard about the work Isaacs was doing and flew to the United States for treatment. He's back in South Africa now visiting his family.

Hoyer's entire 2006 marathon was one step. One big step.

"You should have seen the look on his face when he got out of his chair and managed to take that one step across the finish line," Isaacs said.

"Everybody was yelling encouragement and cheering him. He told me it was the best moment of his life, and I could see why. It's been the best moment in a lot of our lives."

This year, there will be 11 clients of Isaacs crossing that finish line - from 14-year-old Kirsten Jacobsen, who has cerebral palsy, to 77-year-old Degania Golove, a quadriplegic who will walk with the use of a front-wheel walker.

Those steps are important, Isaacs said, but so are the looks on the faces of the people cheering them on.

"We want to change people's perceptions," he said. "We don't want them thinking of Marc, Tony or Andy here as disabled men.

"We want them thinking of them as men, as husbands and fathers."

Because crossing that finish line is the only thing that matters.

Whether it's 26 miles or 26 feet.