© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2002
NEW YORK -- Marla Runyan went from Paralympian to Olympian, from heptathlete to distance runner. Now she's taking on another challenge: the New York City Marathon.
It is more than a heartwarming story about someone who overcame a disability. Even though the race will be her first at the distance, Runyan could finish first among U.S. women.
"My greatest challenge on Sunday is the same as for everybody else," Runyan said. "Anyone who hasn't raced the distance before is always concerned about how the second half is going to feel, at 18 miles, at 20 miles. You're going into the unknown."
When the 33-year-old runs, just about every step is into the unknown. She has a degenerative eye condition known as Stargardt's disease that limits her sight to about 15 feet in every direction, but she can't see things that are very close, either. For example, she can't see her watch while she is running, and she can't see the clocks on the side of the course clearly.
And she won't be the only elite runner in their first marathon today, when about 30,000 face temperatures that could be in the 30s.
Others include Meb Keflezighi, who was born in Eritrea and became a U.S. citizen in 1998. He is the national champion at 10,000 meters. Mark Carroll of Ireland, who won the Wanamaker Mile at the 2000 Millrose Games, also is running his first competitive marathon. Sonia O'Sullivan of Ireland, the 2000 Olympic silver medalist in the 5,000 and a past world cross-country champion, is in her second marathon, her first after serious distance training.
Runyan, O'Sullivan and other women will be in the spotlight: For the first time in New York, the elite women will start 35 minutes before the men and may finish first.
"When you have a mixed race, you can lose track of where the other top women are," said O'Sullivan, second in the 5,000 and 10,000 at the European Championships.
A less-crowded course might be easier for Runyan, who is legally blind and likens her condition to jogging at night with a headlamp.
"As you run, that illumination keeps running in front of you, but beyond those 10 to 15 feet, it's pitch black," Runyan said. "I see what's up ahead when I get there."
Officials arranged for a cyclist to ride near Runyan, telling her when turns are coming and calling out split times. The cyclist will be diagonally behind Runyan, so as not to act as a pacesetter.