By Jill Lieber - from USA TODAY
EUGENE, Ore. Marla Runyan, the first legally
blind athlete to compete in the Olympics, can't read a standard eye chart below
the enormous E.
She's likely to slam into parking meters on
a stroll down the sidewalk.
Her husband, Matt Lonergan, is vigilant
about shouting, ''Raised sewer cover!'' since that painful afternoon it slipped
his mind and his wife tripped in a parking lot.
He's also protective of Runyan when she's
stepping up and down curbs, around potholes and over tree roots, because he
knows she can't distinguish what's underfoot.
And he understands that crossing the street
can be a death-defying obstacle course, especially if it's wider than two
''It's second nature to me now to yell, 'Car
on your right!' or 'Bike on your left!''' says Lonergan, whom Runyan refers to
as her soul mate, even though she can't be certain about the color of his eyes.
''I'm always giving her signs.''
In spite of those everyday challenges of the
open road, Runyan, 33, will step up to the starting line of Sunday's New York
City Marathon, race 26.2 miles through the city's five boroughs without being
able to see more than 15 feet in front of her face and attempt to win one of
the most glamorous and grueling endurance events on the planet.
At 9, Runyan was diagnosed with Stargardt's
disease, an irreversible form of macular degeneration that has left holes in
the light-sensitive membrane in back of her eyes that absorbs and transfers
images. She ''sees'' a splotch in her central field of vision. She does,
however, have murky slivers of peripheral vision.
To better imagine Runyan's perspective, she
suggests smearing Vaseline on your pupils. Then, try finding your way through
the thick, goopy fog to Tavern on the Green in Central Park. And do it in 2
hours and 28 minutes, the goal on Runyan's radar screen, without hailing a cab
or ducking into the subway.
So just how does she plan to take her bite
out of the Big Apple? She'll negotiate the race course out of the corner of her
eyes, twisting and tilting her head until she can make out the traditional blue
line painted on the streets from start to finish. She'll determine her pace by
feeling the cadence of her stride. She'll gauge where she is in the pack by the
feel of shoulders rubbing against hers, and she'll sense she's about to get
passed by the sound of her competitors' breathing.
''I just think it's pretty brave,'' says
veteran road racer Colleen De Reuck, who has run the New York City Marathon
three times. ''Marla's very tough, really gutsy. She's been fighting all of her
life, and it comes out in her running.''
Adds former marathon great Alberto Salazar,
who three-peated in New York two decades ago: ''She's making a powerful
statement. But her bravery isn't in the marathon itself, it's in the training.
She puts in miles on streets that aren't cleared. How does she do it? I know
how close I've been to getting hit by a car, and she's unscathed.''
Achieving her dreams
Training without a safety net and running
without being able to see the finish line aren't new for Runyan, but having to
maneuver through the Stargardt's abyss in an asphalt jungle like New York is.
A walk-on at San Diego State who never
advanced to the NCAA championships, Runyan stunned the track and field world
when she qualified for the 1996 Olympic trials in the heptathlon. She managed
to high jump 5-11 1/2 and scale the 110-meter hurdles in 13.69 seconds without
seeing what she was hurling herself over.
After breaking the American record for the
heptathlon 800, Runyan turned her focus to track running in 1999. A year later,
at the Sydney Games, she was eighth in the 1,500, the highest finish for an
American woman in that event. Now, two years after that Olympic milestone,
Runyan's a budding international superstar in an entire spectrum of events.
She's the two-time national champion in the
5,000, and the national champion in the 5K and 10K on the roads. (She captured
those titles in her road racing debuts, just in the last five months). She's
also ranked No. 1 in the United States in the 3,000.
Still, nobody but Runyan would've had the
foresight or chutzpah to predict she'd one day take a stab at the marathon.
''As Marla competes in the New York
Marathon, she will display her courage and dedication for all who are sighted
and blind,'' says Kevin J. Lessard, director of the renowned Perkins School for
the Blind in Watertown, Mass. That's Helen Keller's alma mater and where Runyan
volunteers as an ambassador.
''It will help the general public better
understand the abilities for all individuals who have a handicap rather than
focus on an individual's limitations.''
Says her agent, Ray Flynn, a former sub-3:50
miler: ''Marla's an inspiration to people everywhere, living proof that they
can achieve their dreams, if they really believe in them and they have the true
desire to get it done. To her, the marathon is the Mount Everest of
Happiest times of her life
But this dream does have its obstacles. Race
director Allan Steinfeld will make only two accommodations for Runyan's visual
impairment. Because Runyan can't see the clocks at each mile, someone on a bike
will follow and shout out the splits, as well as read signs announcing fluid
stations or hazards.
Because Runyan can't see the special fluid
stations and can't find her bottle at a moment's notice someone
will stand at the front end of the table, yell out her name and hold her bottle
steady. If Runyan drops it? Tough luck.
''The accommodations will even the playing
field, but they won't give me any advantage,'' she says. ''Do I expect to hear
all my splits? Not with 2 million spectators lining the course. But it doesn't
matter. I'll keep right on racing.''
Runyan is the most unfazed and the least
impressed of anybody about her New York City Marathon adventure. ''I just want
to leave my career with no regrets,'' she says.
Her attitude makes more sense given how
almost her whole life has been spent expending superhuman energy in the hopes
of being considered more exceptional than those with two good eyes. She'll
never be awed by herself, because she realizes there's always something waiting
to pop up out of nowhere and bring her back to earth.
''The truth is, running is the easiest thing
I do,'' Runyan says. ''It feels safe to me compared to the effort I have to put
forth in moving through an ordinary day.''
Says Lonergan, ''Grocery shopping, reading
the mail, paying bills, balancing her checkbook, those are events of Olympic
proportion. She hates parties because she can't see somebody who's standing
right in front of her. The hardest part for Marla? Everything everybody else in
the world doesn't think about.''
The simple things.
''I was in the grocery store recently, and I
was holding up a bottle of salad dressing to my nose, trying to decipher the
label. I yelled, 'Which flavor is this?' And Matt answers, from 8 feet away.
''The post office is always a nightmare. The
other day, I took in a package, properly wrapped and addressed. The guy behind
the counter handed me a customs form with all sorts of little boxes to fill
out. I got so frustrated that I went out to the truck and told Matt, 'You've
got to help me.' ''
Reading, writing tough
Although reading is a tedious chore
she drags the print under a magnifying device which, in turn, projects it onto
a closed-circuit TV screen Runyan still managed to get her master's
degree in the education of deaf-blind children. Although writing is a
painstaking task she uses a software program that enlarges the
paragraphs and reads the text aloud when the cursor is placed on a word
Runyan still wrote several chapters for her autobiography, No Finish Line:
My Life as I See It.
''It took hours and hours and hours,'' she
says. ''I'd write from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30, then I went to practice. And I'd
lay in bed at night and think about it.''
Although she can't differentiate the nuances
of colors, her home resembles a cozy, little Ralph Lauren treehouse. Not a
pillow out of place. Outside, there are wraparound decks, which she helped
Although she can't tell the difference
between varieties of flowers, she picked every single stem for her Aug. 4
wedding. She planned every bit of the fairy-tale ceremony, from the horse-drawn
carriage to the wedding cake with the two Nike sneakers on top. She made the
centerpieces ahead of time the vases were Nike running shoes. And she
got up at 5 a.m. on her wedding day to put together her bouquet.
''It was all Marla,'' Lonergan says.
All that Runyan has trouble seeing up close
her handwriting, her husband's hazel eyes, the debit column in her
checkbook are inconsequential compared to everything she can envision
for herself, her life, her career. Like crossing the finish line of the New
York City Marathon.
Her eye doctor gave her the sad news
recently that her vision was worse. Runyan's response? It doesn't matter.
''For the first 18 years of my life,
everyone said, 'You can't be successful with your vision this way.' They put me
in special classes, insisted I use visual aids. They kept trying to fit me into
the sighted world.
''The joke of it is, my vision is the worst
it's ever been, but I've never been happier or more successful. I have running
to thank for that. It's simple and so very clear: It's just me and my shoes and
my shorts. Blindness is a matter of perception.''