Runyan inspires students

Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2003

WATERTOWN, Mass. -- On days like this, Marla Runyan doesn't mind being known as a blind runner.

On the course, Runyan insists on being treated like any other athlete, even though she is legally blind because of a degenerative disease that began taking her sight at age 9.

But here at the Perkins School for the Blind, Runyan is a natural inspiration for students.

''It isn't something I think about daily. It's who I am,'' she said at the school during a visit ahead of Monday's Boston Marathon. ''But, obviously, there's another side to my story. And it can be helpful to other people, which is great.''

Indeed, Runyan is more than a novelty.

She is the top female marathoner in the United States, and the only American man or woman with a chance to contend in Boston this year. She finished fourth last year at the New York City Marathon -- her first race at the distance -- with the fifth-fastest time ever run by an American woman.

But she is more than a marathoner, too.

She has competed at everything from the high jump to the heptathlon, at world championships, the Pan Am Games, the Olympics and, yes, the Paralympics. She has set American records at 800 and 5,000 meters.

''The vision thing is not even a story, in my eyes,'' said her coach and husband, Matt Lonergan. ''Anybody who knows anything about the sport doesn't pay attention to that. If they know the history of the sport, they know there's never been anybody who's done what Marla's done.''

Still, what brought her to Perkins is the fact that she's done it despite Stargardt's, a macular disease that has left her with 20-1,000 vision. Even wearing contact lenses, which improve her eyesight to 20-300 on one side (20-400 on the other), she cannot read the big ''E'' at the top of the eye chart.

Runyan can see 10-to-15 feet without trouble, so she sees potential obstacles such as potholes and trolley tracks in plenty of time to avoid stumbling over them when she runs. Keeping an eye on the other runners is not a problem, either.

''Seeing my competition is the easiest thing I do,'' she said. ''It's easier if they're behind me.''

For Boston, Runyan will be accompanied by a race official on a bicycle who will tell her about the course and her pace; her water bottle will be the first one on the table, so she doesn't have to search for it. Similar arrangements were made for her in New York.

''I'm not going to get any special accommodations,'' Runyan said. ''For the most part, I'm just like everybody else.''

It's a statement that is equally true on the course from Hopkinton to Boston and here at Perkins. The nation's oldest school for the blind, it counts among its former students Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan. It is the birthplace of the Perkins Brailler, a typewriter that is the industry standard, manufactured here on a verdant campus in the Boston suburbs.

The school has 200 students, many of them with multiple handicaps. A few dozen of them awaited Runyan, sitting on a mat or in wheelchairs in the gymnasium where they play goal ball and race with scooters, the boundaries marked with raised tape so they know when they cross the finish line.

An ambassador for the school since she visited after the 2000 Olympic trials, Runyan knows to go tap the students when she calls on them. She knows to stand directly in front of them when they talk. And she knows that otherwise simple tasks can be a challenge. But the challenges can be the most rewarding part.

''They have to work twice as hard,'' Runyan said. ''They have to put in twice as much effort. Everything they do academically, I know I did in school.''

On the track overlooking the gym floor, Runyan, Lonergan and four-time Boston Marathon winner Bill Rodgers alternate taking laps with the students, offering an elbow to guide them around the oval track. In many cases, the elite runners have to strain to keep the eager students from running ahead.

''We know that you are all very busy people and we appreciate your taking the time to talk to us,'' student council president Stephen Yerardi said, reading from a Braille speech. ''Your experience has inspired all of us toward achieving our goals, regardless of our visual impairments.''

Runyan told the students to make running a habit, challenging them to complete the marathon distance in a week. At 24 laps to the mile, they would have to run or walk around their indoor track more than 600 times; they applaud when she assigns the problem to them as math homework.

''That's how you get started, a little bit at a time. Just keep adding it up,'' Runyan told the students. ''We don't know what your limits are. Let's find out.''

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