What Makes U.S. Olympian Marla Runyan Run?

Fast Facts about: Marla Runyan, U.S. Olympic Athlete

Date of Birth: January 4, 1969
Occupation: Track & Field Athlete
Biggest Moments: (1) Running in the 1500 meter finals at the 2000 Olympic Games, Sydney Australia. (2) Winning four events at the 1992 Paralympic Games, Barcelona Spain.
Quote: "Running is not just an activity or a sport that I do -- it is an action that will teach you things about yourself."

What Makes Marla Runyan Run?

The scene is a crowded, noisy stadium in Sydney Australia. The event is the finals of the Women's 1500 meter race in track and field. The moment is one every athlete dreams of--the chance to win an Olympic Gold Medal.

The starter pistol fires and the runners leave their marks. For the first 80 meters, they run fast and hard. But then the pace begins to slow. The lead runners gear down in order to conserve strength for a strong, spirited dash during the stretch.

As the pace slows, the runners begin to form a tight pack. In the middle of the pack, among the jostle of elbows, is U.S. track & field athlete Marla Runyan. Marla can't distinguish the faces of the runners around her. She can't see the finish line. Marla is legally blind, her vision 20/400 due to Stargardt's Disease, a hereditary, non-correctable form of Macular Degeneration.

And at that moment in the race, Marla is not happy. She isn't the fastest runner on the track. Marla knows this. What she has in abundance is strength and stamina: her best hope to medal is for a fast race that causes the speed-demons up front to burn their energy early. But at the slow pace they're running now, the faster runners will be fresh as daisies for the finish. Someone will have to pick up the pace, and soon. No one makes a break. Well then, Marla decides, she'll have to be the someone who does it.

For those who know her, it comes as no surprise that Marla set the pace in the biggest race of her life. Besides strength and stamina, Marla Runyan has something that can't be measured in meters or hundredths of seconds. Marla has heart.

This strong drive to succeed and excel is what prompts Marla to lace up her running shoes six days every week (sometimes twice a day) for training. It helps her maintain a strict diet and rest schedule. It's also what's helped her out-distance the doubters -- those who said her visual impairment would hold her back-- and do what she has always loved doing: running.

Once she made up her mind to pick up the pace in the 1,500 at Sydney, nothing could stop her. Certainly not Stargardt's. The disease has created what Marla describes as "holes" in her vision: these holes can cause people and objects even just a few feet in front of her to "disappear" and then "reappear" when she shifts her gaze. Off the track, this can cause her to not recognize a close friend or coach even though they are standing right in front of her.

When she is racing, "I have to constantly remind myself that the runners ahead may not really be as far ahead as they appear to me," she says. She does have good peripheral vision. This allows Marla to see the track and even navigate around and through a pack of runners.

"Since we are all moving in the same direction, and because we are so close together, often bumping elbows, I have no trouble seeing my opponents and moving about them," she explains.

Which is just what she did in Sydney.

Marla wove through the pack and made her way to the front. Now she was in the lead with a little more than 700 meters to go. The maneuver cost her a lot of energy. And serving as the pace setter isn't Marla's race. When the sprinters made their moves with 200 meters to go, Marla didn't have enough left in the tank to hold them off. When she crossed the finish line--just two and one-half seconds behind the medalists--she had finished in eighth place. Marla wouldn't leave Sydney with a medal -- but she would leave as having been the first athlete to have competed in both the Paralympic and the Olympic Games. She could also leave knowing she gave it her best shot.

Marla started down the path that led to that incredible moment in Sydney as a child in California. Correction: she ran down that path. "All children run," she says. "It is natural. I never started running, I just never stopped."

At the age of nine, she noticed she was having trouble reading the words on the blackboard at school. Before long, she was holding her textbooks an inch from her nose and still having difficulty reading the print. Doctors confirmed that there was something wrong with her vision, and they had a name for it: Stargardt's Disease.

Marla adapted. She used a magnifier and monocular to read her school books. She attended college, using Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) or a computer equipped with screen magnification software to read printed materials. Through it all, Marla ran. She ran so well that she made her college track team.

She quickly learned that some people treat you differently when they discover you have a visual impairment. They mistake blindness with helplessness. "Some people have low expectations," of people who have visual impairments says Marla. "This is sometimes more disabling than blindness."

These encounters led her to try and hide her blindness. For the most part, she believes, she succeeded. She learned to recognize voices in order to identify people. "I have done well at hiding my blindness as a runner," Marla explains. "So I never experienced much prejudice since most people did not know about it. Even my college coach forgot about it."

Marla decided to stop attempting to hide her visual impairment. In 1992 she practically owned the Paralympics by winning the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races, as well as the long jump competition.

Reaching such a level didn't come without hard work and lot of miles of running well beyond the point when both body and mind beg for a break. For Marla, it's part of the process of running that one just has to accept. "It's all about making a commitment," she explains. "I set goals, mostly personal goals, and move up a little at a time."

She began setting those goals when she was still in high school. She competed in high school meets, then joined a college team, and eventually qualified for and was invited to join the national team. In between she ran a lot of races, getting stronger, faster and more comfortable racing with a visual impairment.

What does it take for someone to get into competitive shape? "Three days a week I run twice a day, morning and afternoon," she explains. "On a hard afternoon training session, I will rest that day and prepare for the workout mentally and physically."

She runs 65 to 70 miles a week on average as part of her training. She runs on tracks, roads, and also on trails. "I like to familiarize myself with the trail or track before the race, but this is not always possible," she says. "At the Olympics, no one is allowed in the stadium until their race is about to begin. On trails and roads, I have memorized my running routes throughout the town where I live, but if I travel I like having someone to run with me the first few times so I can become used to the route. Tracks are less of a problem since they are all flat, all 400 meters, and well, I have run so many ovals in my life I have that down pretty good."

She tailors her training schedule for the specific event in which she will be competing. In addition to the 1500 meters, she competes in 3,000 and 5,000 meters races. "These events suit me best I feel because I seem to respond well and adapt well to endurance and stamina."

When she's not on the track, Marla is hardly idle. "Suprisingly, much of my time is spent recovering from hard training," she says. "My workouts are very high quality and specific -- and it takes longer to recover from training than to train itself." She also enjoys listening to audio books, and going out for hikes with her dog Summer on trails near her Oregon home.

While she didn't medal at Sydney, Marla didn't walk away from the experience disappointed. She says the experience was enriching in many ways. "(The Olympics were) a good experience for me to have--it taught me a great deal about my weaknesses and what I need to improve on," she says. "And obviously it was an honor to represent my country."

The experience also elevated her standing as one of the sport's premier athletes. It has also raised expectations. "There are higher expectations of me now when I race. There's a little added pressure if I allow it to get to me."

If there is pressure, Marla is leaving it in her dust. In February of 2001, she set a new American record in the 5,000 meter indoor with a time of 15:07:33. It was just her second time racing at this distance.

What advice does she have for other people who are blind or visually impaired who dream of one day competing at the highest levels whether it is in sports, business, school or science? Marla credits much of her success to people (coaches, training partners and family members) who were and are positive influences in her life. "Find the right people who believe in you and will help you to accomplish your goals, and avoid the doubters and those who can not contribute to your goals and dreams."

While not everyone is suited for being an Olympic or Paralympic athlete, each person is capable of achieving something special. For that reason, Marla advises finding something, anything, that you like to do and doing it to the best of your abilities. For Marla, that "something" is running.

"For me, the enjoyment of running is the act itself. I enjoy the natural movement, the way it makes me feel, and how I can experience the world through running. I like the challenge and the reward of hard work. Through my experiences as a runner, I have grown and evolved as a person. The work ethic and goal-oriented lifestyle I live as an athlete carries over into my life off the track."

That's a good example for anyone. In fact, you could says it's as good as gold.

Want to learn more about Marla Runyan? Look for her autobiography, "No Finish Line," published by Putnam in 2001, at your school or local library.

Olympian Marla Runyan Gives Advice to those Living with Low Vision

Click this link from YouTube to watch Marla as she talks about living with low vision and demonstrates a magnification device call the Flipper.

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