- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2000

EUGENE, Ore. Marla Runyan is often asked how different her world would be if she could see it the way most people do.
"If suddenly I had normal sight, and I went outside, I'd be like, 'Wow, this is amazing. This is what everyone else sees?' I would have something to compare it to," says Runyan, her green eyes peering slightly to the side.
"But I don't have that. This is the way I see the world. It's the only thing I know."
Legally blind since age 9, the world-class distance runner has an incurable degenerative disease that essentially erased the middle of her eyesight. Using her peripheral vision, she can see well enough for everyday activities like reading and bicycling.
She can also do extraordinary things like run fast, which is what she did Sunday when she placed third in the women's 1,500 meters at the U.S. Olympic trials to earn a spot on the Olympic team.
Runyan came from sixth place midway through Sunday's race to finish in 4:06.44 and join Regina Jacobs and Suzy Favor-Hamilton on the U.S. squad for the Sydney Games. She survived a bump on the second lap that forced her to lean on Shayne Culpepper, who finished fourth, to keep her balance.
"My strategy basically was to get third. I said Regina and Suzy can do whatever they want to do," said Runyan.
Even if Runyan, 31, had never been stricken with Stargart's disease, her story would be compelling. She was a promising high-jumper in her youth, then switched to the heptathlon before giving it up after a disappointing 10th-place finish at the 1996 Olympic trials.
She knew she wasn't going to make the U.S. Olympic team in the last event of the heptathlon, the 800. So she decided to go all out. She ran a career-best 2:04.70, breaking the American record in the event by more than two seconds.
She was hooked on distance running for good. "It was definitely fate working for me," she said.
Runyan, 5-foot-7 and unusually muscular for a distance runner, uses a combination of instinct, psychology and her other senses to compensate for her poor eyesight.
She can almost feel it when an opponent is beginning to weaken. She can make out the finish line, but other runners appear only as streaks of color. Often, she doesn't even know who she's running against until the race is over and she looks at the printed-out results, holding them close to her face to see.
"Hairstyle is a big giveaway," she said. "From the back, I could probably tell you if it was Shayne Culpepper or Cheri Kenah, because it's blond ponytail versus small brown ponytail."
Runyan first started having trouble with her eyes in the fourth grade, when she couldn't read the blackboard anymore. She struggled through the school year before an opthamologist discovered lesions on her retinas and diagnosed Stargart's, one of the leading causes of blindness.
Although the degeneration has stopped, Runyan has 20-300 vision in one eye and 20-400 in the other. Special contact lenses improve her eyesight, and with help from software that enlarges text on her computer screen, she maintains her own Web site and answers all e-mail.
Even as a child, Runyan was active. Her father set up mattresses for her to practice high-jumping in the back yard of their home near Oxnard, Calif. In high school, Runyan excelled in the event, timing her steps perfectly before reaching the bar.
She continued to high jump at San Diego State University, without a scholarship, into her sophomore year. Then an assistant coach, Rahn Sheffield, noticed her sprinting speed and suggested to the head coach that she should be running.
"Of course, I was shot down pretty quick," said Sheffield, the head coach for the past nine years. "People said, 'You're going to get this girl hurt.' A lot of people looked at Marla as being sight-impaired, and they looked at it as a handicap. She saw it as a challenge."
After the 1996 trials, she decided to get serious and move from San Diego to Eugene, where some of the world's best distance runners train.
Her fortunes took a downward turn almost immediately once she arrived. A series of injuries caused her to miss the next two years of competition, and she gained 35 pounds. She took a job at a YMCA for $7 an hour, where her duties included teaching aerobics to senior citizens.
One day, after she'd closed up for the night, she completely broke down, weeping for 45 minutes as she rode a stationary bike.
"I was like, 'What am I going to do with my life? It's all falling apart. I'm never going to run again,' " she said.
Slowly, she recovered, and by the spring of 1999 she was back in shape. In April, she lied to get into the elite 800 field at the Mt. Sac Relays, saying she had run 2:03.8 before. She finished fourth with a 2:03.81. The following month, she finished a surprising fifth in the 1,500 at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene.
At the U.S. championships in Eugene in June, Jacobs surged to a big early lead, and Runyan, always self-conscious about her abilities, practically gave up.
"I have such a lack of confidence it's pathetic," she said. "I thought that every girl in that race was better than me and I didn't belong there."
On the final lap, she was stunned to hear the announcer call out her name in sixth place. She sprinted the rest of the way and finished fourth.
After a close victory in the Pan Am Games in Canada, she went to the world championships in Seville and took 10th. She was awestruck by the crowd and pageantry at Olympic Stadium.
"When I looked out, all I saw was a wall of people. Just a wall of color," she said, anticipating a much grander scene in Sydney.
That dream is in doubt because of an injury she suffered June 8. She was running on a trail near her apartment when she had to jump out of the way of a child on a bicycle. She felt a pain in her left knee, and it was diagnosed as an inflamed IT (iliotibial) band, the bundle of tendons that extends from the hip around the outside of the knee.
The injury probably had been building for some time and was only made worse when she avoided the bicycle.
Runyan longs for the day when people will know her because of her accomplishments, not her disability. She even uses the words "legally blind" with implied quotation marks, saying it's a government-mandated definition that carries unfortunate preconceptions.
"Everyone kind of freaks out when they hear the word blind. They don't pay attention to the word in front of it," she said.
And if she could see perfectly, it wouldn't make a difference.
"I could be wrong, but for me to accept that attitude would be the same as me believing that it's a disability," she said. "If I believe that, then I'm putting myself at a disadvantage before I even get there."

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