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 Article of Interest - Inspiration

Legally blind, Runyan in NYC chasing a dream

The Associated Press
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DREAM COME TRUE: Since she was a child, Marla Runyan has wanted to compete in the New York Marathon. "It's very personal for me to run and complete this race," she said.


Driving the potholed, furrowed and scarred streets of New York can be an obstacle course in and of itself. But Marla Runyan will attempt to run 26.2 miles on them, following a blue line and racing opponents she can barely see.


When she gets to the final stretch in Central Park today, she'll have to have faith that the finish line is there, because she won't be able to see it until she's a few strides from crossing it.


Runyan, the first legally blind athlete to compete in the Olympics, has chosen a new challenge in her expanding running career: the New York City Marathon.


Runyan, 33, will make her marathon debut on a course pocked with potential hazards-sewer grates, manhole covers, sharp turns, rough bridges, undulating pavement. Add to that the danger of colliding with other competitors and most sightless runners would stay on the smooth and predictable surface of the track.


But Runyan says running is easy compared to reading or going to the store. What are a few bumps in the road to a woman who used to be a heptathlete negotiating high-jump bars and hurdles she couldn't see until they were 4 yards in front of her face?


Often it takes a person like Runyan to lead those of us who take tasks such as crossing the street for granted. Superstar athletes inspire awe because of their gifts. Athletes with disabilities simply inspire. They inspire us to ponder possibilities, not limits. We watch Barry Bonds, Kobe Bryant, Marion Jones and say, 'How did they do that?' We watch Runyan, paraplegic skier Muffy Davis, amputee University of Miami runner Dan Andrews and say, 'How did they think to do that?' It's their imagination that sets them apart.


Runyan might have 20/400 vision according to an ophthalmologist, but it is immeasurable given the courageous choices she has made. She doesn't like the "blind" label because she doesn't consider herself deprived. Resourceful would be a better description.


She has always yearned to run New York, ever since she was 9 years old and watched Grete Waitz win the first of her nine New York titles. "I still remember thinking then that I'd like to run this race one day," Runyan told Bloomberg News Service. "It's very personal to compete in and complete this race."


At age 9, Runyan was also diagnosed with Stargardt's disease, a congenital condition that causes degeneration of the retina and leaves a black hole in the center of her vision. She has bands of peripheral vision. By turning her head she can see within a 15-foot radius out of the corner of her eyes. She uses a special magnifying device to read -- which didn't stop her from getting a master's degree in the education of deaf-blind children-and has to sit within inches of the screen to watch TV.


While running, she can't read her wristwatch, and other runners are fuzzy, faceless figures. Yet she has never fallen in a race nor had any major collisions beyond the usual jostling. She hurt her knee one month before the 2000 U.S. Olympic trials when she veered to avoid hitting a boy on a bike who rode into her path when she was training.


Despite pain that almost forced her to withdraw from the meet, she made the team, then finished eighth in the 1,500 meters at the Sydney Games, the highest finish for an American woman. She never saw favorite Suzy Favor-Hamilton fall or the ensuing chaos and joked afterward, "Who won? Who fell? What happened? I needed a narrator at the finish line."


Since then, she has emerged as the most versatile female distance runner in the United States, setting the national indoor record for 5,000 meters and winning national titles in the outdoor 5,000 and on the road at 5K and 10K. Her goal is to finish in the top 10 today in 2:28, well off the world record of 2:17:18 set by Great Britain's Paula Radcliffe last month in the Chicago Marathon but close to the American debut record of 2:26:58 set last year in New York by Deena Drossin.


Race director Allan Steinfeld is making two accommodations to enable Runyan to compete with sighted runners. A cyclist will ride behind her and read signs designating mile markers, water stations, hazards or turns. He will shout out what the race clock says. Another cyclist will ride ahead to each fluid stop, stand at the table, hold her bottle steady and call out her name. If Runyan can't grab it or drops it, she'll get no extra help acquiring the bottle.


"This isn't meant to give Marla an advantage," Steinfeld said. "It's just a matter of turning visual cues into audible cues." Runyan, who lives in Eugene, Ore., with husband and coach Matt Lonergan, also has less chance of getting trampled because for the first time the top 50 women will start 35 minutes before the other 30,000 runners, which will allow the women's winner to cross the line before the men's winner. The risk for Runyan is losing contact with other elite women and having to run completely alone.


She seems less worried about running 26.2 miles through New York's five boroughs than anybody else. After all, she already runs thousands of miles in preparation, without barricades or police to protect her way through the obstacle course of everyday life.

The Result?

(AP) Boston Marathon winner Rodgers Rop of Kenya won the New York City Marathon Sunday, and legally blind Olympian Marla Runyan was the first U.S. woman across the finish line. Rop won the men's title in an unofficial 2 hours, 8 minutes, 6 seconds, followed by countrymen Laban Kipkemboi and Christopher Cheboiboch. Joyce Chepchumba of Kenya pulled away with a fierce charge to win the women's title in an unofficial 2 hours, 25 minutes, 55 seconds, in temperatures in the 40s and no wind.


"This time was my time," said Chepchumba, whose previous best finish in New York was third in 1996. Los Angeles Marathon champion Lyubov Denisova of Russia was next among the women, just 22 seconds behind her, and Olivera Jevtic of Yugoslavia came in third despite taking a tumble. Runyan, the first legally blind Olympian, came in fifth among the women in her first marathon. The 33-year-old Californian has a degenerative eye condition known as Stargardt's disease that limits her sight to about 15 feet in every direction. During the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, she finished eighth in the 1,500. In Sunday's marathon, she finished just ahead of defending women's champion Margaret Okayo of Kenya.


For the first time, the top women started about 30 minutes ahead of the men. The idea was to give the women a chance at the spotlight, and also to allow them to run without having to navigate crowded roads. Still, there was some bumping. About 10 miles in, European champion Maria Guida of Italy crossed in front of Runyan and both slightly stumbled, though neither fell. More significantly, Jevtic and Kerryn McCann of Australia got their feet tangled at the 21st mile and both fell. The commotion allowed Chepchumba and Denisova to break away. The two remained stride-for-stride into the 24th mile. That's when the Kenyan made her move, throwing off her black wool gloves and pulling comfortably ahead just before the runners entered Central Park.


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