Marathon Woman

updated 11/07/1994 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1994 01:00AM

IT ISN'T OFTEN THAT TALK SHOW host Oprah Winfrey is speechless. But while running her first—and, she says, last—marathon on Oct. 23 in Washington, she knew she needed to save her breath. "Can't talk to you, can't talk," she kept saying, almost like a mantra, when fellow runners or well-wishers along the route of the Marine Corps Marathon tried to chat. Soon she limited her response to flashing a thumbs-up and staring straight ahead as she concentrated on the job at hand.

Some job. Winfrey had promised herself she would run a marathon when she was 40 and, with her 41st birthday looming some three months away, she intended to do just that. Moreover, she wanted to cover the 26.2-mile course in under 4 hours and 30 minutes.

She did, with seconds to spare. Winfrey crossed the finish line at the Iwo Jima Monument in Arlington, Va., in 4 hours, 29 minutes and 15 seconds. "I just tried to lose myself in it," Winfrey said afterward.

Not an easy task when you're escorted to the front of the 13,800 runners just before the 9 a.m. start by a phalanx of Marine guards. Or when folks are yelling "Go, Oprah!" the whole way. Or for that matter, when you're wearing a microphone pack and being followed by your personal trainer, Bob Greene, who has a small camera attached to his cap to record footage for your Nov. 7 show, which you plan to call "Dreams Really Do Come True."

Winfrey worked hard for this dream. Since signing on with Greene in March 1993—when, at 5'7", she weighed 222 lbs.—she has risen at 5 a.m. most mornings to run up to eight miles along Lake Michigan or around the indoor track at Chicago's East Bank Club. She has also lifted weights three days a week. When Oprah hit her goal of 150 pounds in February, she decided she was ready to try a marathon and began increasing her endurance with ever longer runs.

Her training paid off. Despite rain, which went from a soft misty drizzle early on to a full-fledged downpour, Winfrey averaged just over 10 minutes per mile, an impressive pace. She said the secret of her success was keeping herself fully hydrated by gulping Gatorade and water every mile, sticking to her pace and taking encouragement from the crowd and other runners. "I was the girl to beat," she said. "One guy had a T-shirt on that said, 'I just want to beat Oprah.' " He may have been among the 4,240 who didn't.

Back in Chicago that night, Oprah got a warm welcome from friends—and, three days later, a lawsuit from Colleen Raleigh, who handled publicity for Winfrey's Harpo Productions for eight years before resigning last month. At issue was a dispute over severance and back pay, but Raleigh, 32, also charged publicly that life in Oprahland was not "happy, harmonious and humane." A lawyer for Harpo dismissed the suit as "wholly without merit." But given other recent turmoil—Oprah's longtime executive producer Debra DiMaio, 36, left in June—the newly fit Winfrey may face another challenge: making sure Oprah is running as smoothly as Oprah.

LINDA KRAMER in Washington

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