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She refuses to let MS beat her

By Shira Springer, Globe Staff, 04/16/00, 4/16/2000

hen Jan Fuller was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1994, her head filled with frightening images about the disease. Memories of public service announcements featuring a wheelchair set against a black background flashed through her mind. She could practically hear the solemn voiceover: ''MS the crippler of young adults.''

As she struggled with the twist her life had taken, Fuller remembered that half of Dr. Jack Kevorkian's patients had suffered from MS. She looked at her Woburn home and wondered how it could become wheelchair accessible.

When her doctor advised that she stop running, Fuller got angry and frustrated. She knew MS would change the way she led her life, but Fuller was not ready to give up long-distance running. She found a new doctor and adopted a new philosophy to deal with the disease. Fuller also continued her successful running career.

Tomorrow morning, Fuller, 46, will stand at the starting line in Hopkinton as an official entrant and fund-raiser for Marathon Strides against MS.

''I'm a gritty sort of person, but I will admit to having three or four months that were really, really hard,'' said Fuller, who learned she had MS after the third bout of sensory loss in her legs. ''I kept doing everything that I was doing, but I was trying to figure out what it meant. Three months after my diagnosis, I was still going around saying, `How do I get through this?'

''The real metaphor that I came up with for my life is: MS is absolutely not going to drive the car of my life. It's not even allowed to ride in the interior most of the time. It's relegated to the trunk. Occasionally, like the past month or so, it hangs out in the car, but I keep insisting that I'm in charge here. And things that I can't do, I just ask for help with.''

Performing small tasks such as opening jars, typing, and stirring cookie dough often reveal her disease and prove problematic. She experiences weakness in her right arm and leg, mild coordination difficulties on her right side, and fatigue. When Fuller runs, she often drags her right heel. But bigger challenges such as finishing a 20-mile training run or logging 35 miles a week are always met.

Since her diagnosis, Fuller has finished seven marathons (five Boston, two Bay State). On average, she completes the race in 4 hours. This year, three runners will be participating with MS, though Fuller is the only one who met the qualifying standard (3:53:12 in Boston last year) for her division.

''I'm thankful everyday that she can do it [run marathons] and that she keeps doing it,'' said husband Tom Fuller, who will will root for Jan alongside their two sons, 20-year-old Jason and 17-year-old Darryl, on race day. ''I'm not exactly an athlete. I just see her get up at 4:30 in the morning and go out and be dedicated to it and it's amazing. She takes care of herself and she's healthy because of it.''

In 1994, shortly after her diagnosis, Fuller sent a ''whining letter'' to the Boston Athletic Association. Fuller begged for a number, fearing she might not be able to compete in the Boston Marathon in the future. Race officials put Fuller in touch with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and, ever since, she has run for charity with results that have surprised her doctors and delighted family and friends.

''Up until last year, I did not walk around publicly saying, `I have MS.' I said publicly, `I'm running for MS.' Then, someone would ask me why I was running the marathon for MS. I would say, `I have it.'

''Last year, I hit a point where I thought I could be sort of an ambassador for those of us with MS, who live with question marks in our lives. Is this going to be the day? Is tomorrow going to be the day I need a wheelchair?

''There is a whole population of people with MS who are not in wheelchairs and continue to have very profitable, wonderful, active lives ... It's not something to be embarrassed about. It's something to be proud of that we can run in the Marathon. I can do these things becasue I'm fortunate.''

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