Senior marathoner! Meet the happiest person in this year's race

Greenwich Time—GREENWICH, CONN.—September 18, 2007

Running 12-minute miles she calls "plodding," Natalie Alfandre Schaffer will not be the first woman to cross the finish line at November's ING New York City Marathon.

At 65, chances are she will not be the oldest.

"I will, however, be the absolute happiest person running across that line," the Greenwich woman says. "And I promise you, walk, run, I intend to cross it."

A year ago, Schaffer decided to tackle the legendary urban run to celebrate her milestone Oct. 21 birthday and raise money for Fred's Team, a cancer charity affiliated with the marathon that benefits research programs at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital.

Schaffer, a professional sex educator whose career has focused on promoting issues such as AIDs awareness and prevention, made the marathon goal with some hesitation. Shortly after completing her first marathon 11 years ago, she was diagnosed with severe osteoporosis, the disease that brittles bones and makes them vulnerable to fracture. She worried about whether her bones could take such an ambitious run.

She began running years ago hoping, "it would help me look nice in my clothes."

Petite and trim, Schaffer says, "I am not one of those women who starves. I wake up in the morning thinking about what kind of eggs I am going to have and then, what's for lunch and what's for dinner. I love to cook elaborate meals for my family and friends. And as you get older, your metabolism really does slow down. The truth is, I really turned to running because I was vain enough to be desperate."

She started a few miles at a time. When her children were young, she was content to run a few turkey trots, jingle bell jogs and other themed road races. She was thrilled when she finished her first marathon on Long Island, N.Y., in 1996, but devastated the next day when she went out to run a few miles to loosen her aching muscles. "I don't think I made it a mile and I was in agony," she says. "I had to drag myself home and then, I was done."

The diagnosis was a severe form of osteoporosis. "It was a shock because there was no family history," says Schaffer. "In my case, it was just a freak thing. After that, I was truly depressed. I don't know about a runner's high, but running did something for my moods. I missed it."

Through a combination of medication for her bones and work with physicians including Lisa R. Callahan, M.D., co-director of the Women's Sports Medicine Center at Hospital for Special Surgery, she got herself back in shape. Her bones, she insists, are strong enough to manage the 26-mile Nov. 4 marathon.

"Weight lifting was key," says Schaffer, who finds that the most satisfying part of her training regimen. "It has been absolutely essential to counter the osteoporosis, but it has also changed how I run. I don't think I realized until I took my weights seriously how important your upper body is to running.

With the race several weeks away, Schaffer says it would be nice if she could just run a little faster.

"But I'm such a slowpoke, you could race me walking and win," she says. "I am a steady 12-minute miler. I never get faster. I am happy to just plod along and enjoy the scene in New York. And I don't really care if I'm slow. I don't have any goal to complete the race in a certain time. I will just be happy to cross that line and say, 'That's good. I did it. And I feel great.' " 

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