Marla Runyan – The Courage to See

By Mary Jean Yon  
Face it, we’re all charmed and intrigued by Olympians.  To understand the long path of hard work and perseverance needed to get to the Olympics is to heighten the sense of awe we have as we watch these giants in competition.  For some the journey to achieve greatness requires special courage to see beyond the immediate difficulties and on to what might be.

As Marla Runyan toed the starting line for the Women’s 1500 meter race in Sydney, Australia in 2000, she was every bit the epitome of the determined athlete who battled injuries, hardships and setbacks to reach that destination.  More than anything else she needed the courage to see past the barriers of stereotypes that shouted, “The journey is too hard and your burden too great.”  And no…she doesn’t want your sympathy.  Instead she’s got a story to tell that is more important than just a runner having a few tough times – it is the story of a runner who could see past the stereotypes to where she wanted to be.

Marla Runyan will tell that story on November 16 at Premier Health & Fitness and if you’re in the mood for some much-needed inspiration in your running, or in your life in general, come join us!  The first thing most people hear about Marla Runyan is…she’s blind.  Not true! Legally blind, maybe, but not totally blind.  One of the best take-home messages you get from reading Marla’s autobiography titled, “No Finish Line – My Life As I See It” is an appreciation and education about Stargardt’s disease, a macular degenerative disease that has plagued her since her early childhood years.  

For those who may not know, Stargardt’s disease has a degenerative effect on the part of the eye’s retina (the macular) that contains the necessary components (cones) which are needed for activities such as reading and driving.  The process of degeneration tends to start around the age of six and progresses over a period of years.  Often the disease is diagnosed before the age of twenty and effects can vary from minor to complete loss of detail vision.

For Marla, the first hint came at age nine when an eye exam disclosed the fact that the only thing she could see on the standardized vision chart was the large “E” at the top of the chart.  Her book chronicles the struggles she had as a child trying to read blackboards in school, decipher musical notes while trying to be a musician and just basically trying to exist in a world where people took it for granted that she could see as they saw.  She describes her view of the world as being accompanied by a large gray blob that overlaid any solid field of color; a white kitchen floor, a grass lawn, the blue sky, etc. She also struggled with an intense sensitivity to light, due to damage to her retinas which prevented light from being properly absorbed. 

Somehow Marla never let this slow her down or deter her from living life to the fullest.  She did what she needed to do, no matter how big the challenge.  In fact, the sheer determination that propelled her to deal with this hand that life had dealt her, also made her a natural for the sport that would ultimately enable her to make a living and bring her here, to Tallahassee, as a world-renowned athlete to speak to us.

Marla drifted into running at an early age because she enjoyed the escape that a simple run could offer her.  Outside and running, she felt the same as everybody else and vision was irrelevant.  She also felt a flash of the competitive spirit that drove her to want to win every race she entered.  After a short stint as a high jumper in high school, she spent her college years at San Diego State University devoted to the heptathlon, the seven-event competition that is the women’s equivalent of the decathlon.  Some believe it’s the ultimate challenge for an athlete and it seems only fitting that Marla would feel the need to conquer it.  Inspired by Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s world record performance at the Seoul Olympics, she began to get a case of Olympic fever herself.  Years later, while competing at the 1996 Olympic Trials she came up short of that goal but managed to smash the American Record for the heptathlon 800 meter race by over two seconds. Marla’s impressive 2:04:70 for the event turned out to be the wake-up call that shifted her from the multi-event heptathlon to the 1500-meter race.

After that came a series of new coaches, more intense training regimes, personal bests and the subsequent injuries that can accompany performance on the elite level.  Her Olympic dream finally came to be in the year 2000 and when she lined up at the starting line in Sydney, Australia for the 1500-meter race.  Marla knew she had finally arrived. She turned out to be one of the great stories of the Sydney Olympics even though she didn’t make it to the awards platform.  Once again there was no escaping that “vision thing.”  People everywhere were so intrigued that a blind girl was running this race. Trying hard to not let this story bother her, Marla ran her heart out. She led the 4-lap race for one of those laps but ended up finishing eighth overall.  Frustrated by that outcome, Marla realized then that anything can happen at the Olympics and desire alone is not enough to guarantee a medal.

Desire, however, is what keeps athletes going and Marla’s running career has continued to improve since those days in Sydney.  She has moved up in distance and begun to run road races as well, and has turned in some impressive best times including a recent 20K American record of 1:05:52 in New Haven, Connecticut on September 1, 2003.  On November 2, 2003, Marla toed the line for the 2003 New York City Marathon looking to better last year’s time of 2:27:10 and fourth place finish.

So join us on November 16 at 7 p.m. at Premier Fitness Center and hear for yourself how this talented athlete did at New York and why she so fervently subscribes to the belief that one can be more disabled by attitude than by vision loss.

Marla Runyan – Career Highlights from USA Track and Field:
Career Highlights:
2001, 2002 USA Outdoor 5,000m champion; 2000 USA Indoor 3,000m champion; 10th in 1500 at 1999 World Outdoor Champs; 8th in 1500m at 2000 Olympic Games; 1999 Pan Am Games champion; American record holder, indoor 5,000m; 2003 USA Outdoor 5000m champion.
PRs:
1500m - 4:05.27 (1999); 3000m - 8:44.69 (2001); 5000m - 15:05.48 (2001) AR

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