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.
Hers is more than a heartwarming story about someone who has overcome a disability to participate in sports. 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 Runyan competes, 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, although she can't read a watch, for example, while she is running.
She won't be the only top runner in the grueling test of a marathon for the first time Sunday, when about 30,000 participants could face temperatures in the 30s.
Others include Meb Keflezighi, who was born in Eritrea, became a U.S. citizen in 1998, and is the national champion at 10,000 meters; and Mark Carroll of Ireland, who won the Wanamaker Mile at the 2000 Millrose Games. Sonia O'Sullivan of Ireland -- the 2000 Olympic silver medalist in the 5,000 and a past world cross-country champion -- never before has trained seriously for a marathon.
Runyan, O'Sullivan and other women will be in the spotlight this year: For the first time in New York, the elite women will start 35 minutes before the men.
Also entered are defending champion and Boston Marathon winner Margaret Okayo of Kenya (she and the defending men's champion, Tesfaye Jifar of Ethiopia, set course records in 2001); last year's runner-up, Susan Chepkemei; Los Angeles Marathon winner Lyubov Denisova; and European champion Maria Guida. Set to challenge Jifar are 2000-01 runner-up Japhet Kosgei; Boston Marathon champion Rodgers Rop, third last year; and Jon Brown, fourth at the 2000 Olympics.
''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. ''It becomes more of a proper race when it's women only.''
A less-crowded course might make things a bit 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.''
It's tough enough for her on a track, circling lap after lap. The 26.2 miles through New York's five boroughs, of course, create new obstacles: inclines, declines, bridges, pot holes, corners.
When she won the national 10-kilometer championship Oct. 14 in Boston, Runyan missed the tape at the finish line and couldn't see race officials waving her over.
NYC Marathon officials arranged for a cyclist to ride near Runyan, telling her when turns are coming and yelling split times (Runyan won't see digital clocks posted at each mile). The cyclist will be diagonally behind Runyan, so as not to act as a pacesetter for her.
''It's been handled very professionally. The other athletes had to approve of this,'' Runyan said. The cyclist ''is not somebody I know. I will never see him during the whole race. He's almost like just a voice out there -- definitely not an escort.''
Also, someone will ride ahead to each fluid station and tell Runyan whether her bottle is to the right or left of the route.
''I wanted to take all the visual clues everybody else has and make them audible clues,'' race director Allan Steinfeld said. ''An accommodation has been made. There's no advantage. Marla said: 'What can you do so no one can claim there's an unfair edge?'''
Runyan said this week her aim is to place in the top 10 and finish in under 2 1/2 hours (Okayo took 2 hours, 24 minutes, 21 seconds last year).
''If her sight were 20-20,'' NYC Marathon organizer David Monti said, ''we'd still be talking about her as a competitor.''
Indeed. She started her athletic career as a heptathlete but soon found her ''strength and passion were in running.''
After winning five Paralympic gold medals, Runyan became the first to go from that competition to the Olympics, finishing eighth in the 1,500 at the 2000 Sydney Games. She won the U.S. indoor title at 3,000 that year, broke the national record for the indoor 5,000 in New York in 2001, and won the U.S. outdoor title at 5,000 in 2001-02.
While Runyan, coached by husband Matt Lonergan, already is an accomplished performer on road courses, she plans on competing on the track at the 2004 Olympics.
Still, she figures the road work will help her.
''It's going to make me stronger physically and mentally. I've jumped over manhole covers. I've hopped up and off curbs,'' she said. ''But I don't give my vision a second thought. I'm just focused on improving over the next few years.''
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