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Marla Runyan

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 lanes.

''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 achieving.''

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 design.

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.''

And perspective.

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