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Her prep runneth over

Legally blind runner Runyan does homework for courses

By Joe Burris, Globe Staff, 4/13/2003

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- As competitors lined up for the start of the United States 15-kilometer championships here in March, the public address announcer introduced the more popular entrants. Former champions. Renowned runners. The names echoed from speakers in the downtown area, and were read in a tone that said, ''You should be impressed.'' Marla Runyan stretched, bounced, and ran in place during the announcements. It was her debut in this event, but she was the top-ranked American marathoner, a multiple US champion on the roads and track, and a Sydney Olympian -- not to mention someone with a remarkable knack for faring well in debuts. Yet her name was not called at the start.

Legally blind runner Marla Runyan will compete in the Marathon next week.

Someone hadn't done his homework.

Runyan, on the other hand, always does. At age 9, she was stricken with Stargardt's disease, a degenerative disorder that is the most common cause of blindness in the US. It has left her with 20/300 vision in the left eye and 20/400 in the right with contact lenses.

But her vision problems have never impeded her from getting the most out of her athletic gifts. Runyan works tirelessly on the little things during preparation. On the eve of a race, she often scours a course map with a magnifying glass. Then, on race day, she often leaves the competition so far in her wake that they can see her only through binoculars.

In the US 15k, also known as the Gate River Run, Runyan passed almost all of the folks whose names had been called before the race, making sure hers would be announced when it counted most. She finished second to Waltham, Mass., native Deena Drossin, the three-time defending champion who ran an American-record 45 minutes, 15 seconds. Runyan's runner-up time of 48:43 was better than the race's winning times in 2001, 2000, and 1999.

It was a finish reminiscent of last October, when Runyan debuted in Boston's Tufts 10k -- her first race at that distance -- and won. Or when she ran her first half-marathon last September in Philadelphia and finished in second place (1:11.19).

In 2001, Runyan announced she would target the 5,000 meters and predicted an American indoor record. She delivered in February at the Armory in New York.

Last November, she debuted in the marathon -- the New York City Marathon -- and was the top American finisher among the women in 2:27:10, good for fourth place in the field. It was the second-fastest American debut and earned her the No. 1 ranking.

The 34-year-old from Eugene, Ore., will bring that penchant for spectacular debuts to Boston next week for her first BAA Marathon, only her second race at the distance.

''I tend to have to overprepare for a lot of things in my life because of my vision,'' said Runyan. ''I've learned along the way to do a lot with memorization and a lot of tricks, so when I have to do something, it looks as if I know what I'm doing.

''When I came here [to Jacksonville], we organized a private tour of the course. Then my husband, Matt [Lonergan, also her coach], and I jogged from Mile 2 to 7 [the day before the race] to try to get the turns down. I go over the course map with my magnifying glass, and I try to visualize what some of the turns will look like when I'm out there. I just have to go in really prepared, because I can't rely on my vision to give me all the information.

''And I think I ran every turn pretty right on. I don't think my vision or the newness of the course held me back at all. I ran what I could have run. No hesitations at all, a flat-out, honest effort.''

The Jacksonville event was Runyan's last tuneup for Boston. She is scheduled to arrive tomorrow to begin preparations. As she did in New York, Runyan intends to jog sections of the course and get a driver to take her along it as well.

''Boston is more of a straight point-to-point course,'' said Runyan. ''We'll definitely jog the end of the race, probably the last 8 or so miles, including Heartbreak Hill.

''Getting that in your memory -- what that looks like, so when you get to that point on the course, you're like, `I know where I'm at; I know how far I have left' -- that always helps tremendously.''

Meeting challenges

Runyan's performance in New York was the culmination of a steady progression of challenges.

As a youngster, she competed in soccer until she could not see the ball anymore. She subsequently took up track and field, excelling in the high jump in high school and the heptathlon at San Diego State, where she was twice ranked in the top 10 nationally. After setting a US heptathlon record in the 800 meters at the 1996 Olympic trials, Runyan opted for middle distances.

After a two-year hiatus from track because of injuries, she won the 1,500 meters at the 1999 Pan American Games and in 2000 won her first national title indoors in the 3,000 meters. After overcoming more injuries in preparation for the 2000 Sydney Games, she placed eighth in the 1,500.

One might think Boston would be the end of the progression for Runyan, but she said she never considered it until after the New York Marathon, when Joan Benoit-Samuelson suggested it.

''I'm expecting it to be a completely different experience than my New York race,'' said Runyan. ''I expect it to be a faster race. The course is very different. It has more downhills, the elevation is different, and there is the weather and the wind factor to consider.

''I'm going into this with more time to prepare for Boston than New York. In New York, I had just finished up the track season, and I hurried my training. This time, I've prepared for Boston. I want to go there and be competitive. It might be the kind of race where you focus on competition and not on time, and when you do that, you run fast anyway.

''I'm looking forward to it. To take part in Boston's tradition is a meaningful thing.''

Disease not the focus

As a spokeswoman for the United States Association of Blind Athletes, Runyan has educated many about her affliction, which involves a degeneration of the central part of the retina, or macula.

''If you take a vision test, and you are only able to see the big E on the eye chart with your glasses or contacts, then your acuity is 20/200,'' she said. ''This measurement is the defining measurement of `legally blind.' Macular degeneration is not correctable with lenses because it is a deterioration of the retina. While the images that enter my eyes are focused and clear, both retinas on the back of my eyes are severely damaged.

''It is like having a hole in the back of my eye. Objects and sometimes people disappear, then reappear when I shift my gaze. However, my peripheral vision is intact and this enables me to get around very well. I can walk and run without assistance, and I can even navigate through a crowded room. But in these instances, I wouldn't be able to recognize the people around me.

''While I can run by myself, I may not be able to recognize my coach standing 10 feet away.''

When she began to make her mark in running, Runyan would find the elation of her accomplishments dimmed by constant questions about her disease.

''Back then, it was new to everybody,'' said Lonergan, a Brockton native.

But after she set the indoor record in the 5,000 in New York in February 2001, there wasn't one reporter's question about her vision, according to Lonergan. To Runyan, that was a sign that she was getting due respect for being one of the best runners in the world regardless of her disease.

''I don't want to discourage the questions, and I don't want to discourage a lot of positive things that have come from information,'' said Runyan. ''People have learned about Stargardt's. They say, `Wow, there's something different from being totally blind, sighted, and legally blind.'

''The only time it discourages me is when there is a race that is exciting and maybe a great athletic effort that deserves to be the topic and the topic is my vision.''

Precautions are taken to allow for Runyan's condition. She often is accompanied by a cyclist to tell her where the markers are. The cyclist rides in back of her so there will be no charges of pacing.

New York City Marathon race organizer David Monti, wary of the pacing issue, recruited friend Ted Neu, a former track runner at Buckell, for Runyan's cyclist duty. Neu was instructed to stay about 10 meters behind Runyan but got closer to apprise her of markers, fluid stations, or ''any hazard another runner could see, such as a pothole,'' said Monti.

On the eve of the race, Monti gathered the elite runners to make certain they agreed with what was being done for Runyan. ''No one objected at all,'' he said.

Another cyclist was used at the elite runners' fluid stations to tell Runyan when the station was approaching, and her bottle was placed first on the table, on the corner. But Runyan said that part of the race was difficult.

''The problem was that the cyclist told me when the station was approaching, but with everything out there, there's the crowd, the lead vehicle, the press truck, there's a lot of visual things happening,'' said Runyan. ''By the time I saw the table, it was too late. I couldn't get my bottle. To make matters worse, another runner dashed up and got between me and the table.

''The first station was the 8-mile. It came and went, and I didn't get my bottle. I said, `I will try to get it at 12 and try to grab some water on the open stations.' Those are tough because people are handing water out, and their arms are 6 inches apart, and they're all in blue. You try to grab, and you can't, and you're knocking bottles over. It's like you're high-fiving everybody.''

Next stop: Boston

BAA race director Dave McGillivray said officials will meet with Runyan Tuesday to finalize her logistics for next week's marathon. Currently, the plan is to use Josh Nemzer, head of the Marathon bike spotters program, as her cyclist.

''One of our bike spotters who would have been out there anyway will serve two purposes,'' said McGillivray. ''He will work with television somewhat and focus more on his role as a BAA official riding behind her, giving her verbal information akin to what she would see on her own and make that information available to anyone running around her.

''The primary information they requested, and what we feel comfortable with, is giving mile splits where digital clocks would be and the approach of her special fluid stations.''

Because of the narrow start in Hopkinton and the crowd, said McGillivray, the cyclist will start out with the lead vehicle, and Runyan will run the first three-quarters of a mile to a mile alone.

''Then, once he assesses it's safe to fall back and has room to maneuver, he will do so and begin his program,'' said McGillivray.

Runyan said she ran a conservative race in New York and left all of her marathon jitters there. In Boston, she intends to challenge herself.

''I hold the belief that people are capable of more things than they realize,'' she said. ''I really feel like this is such an opportunity to compete in this and go in aggressively -- to really, really test myself and see how I can do on a different style course.''

This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 4/13/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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