Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Mon, 21 Jan 2002 08:46:10 -0500

Marla's Vision


I'm a steady but slow reader. My test of a book's fascination quotient is how long I take to finish it.

Usually this is weeks. Seldom do I have the interest, or take the time, to turn the pages any faster.

Recently, though, I raced through two books in two days apiece. Both came from the same co-author. Sally Jenkins has mastered the triumph-over-trouble genre.

She acted last year as ghost-writer for It's Not About the Bike, Lance Armstrong's best-seller. For an encore she co-wrote Marla Runyan's No Finish Line: My Life As I See It.

Runyan is the only athlete ever to compete in both the Paralympics (1992 and '96) and regular Olympics (2000). She also has run in the past two World Championships.

She is legally blind. But her book could just as well be called, "It's Not About the Eyes."

It isn't just about the eyes, anyway. To know only about her limited sight is not really to know her at all.

The book tells of her first international victory, in the 1999 Pan-American Games 1500. In only her fourth race ever at this distance she beat Canadian Leah Pells by one-hundredth of a second.

"The press came at me like a large, anxious creature," Runyan recalls. "Tape recorders were thrust in my face, and voices yelled questions at me simultaneously. Then one voice separated itself from the others."

A reporter shouted, "Marla, tell us about your eyes." This bothered her.

"I wanted to say, 'Did you watch the race?' At that moment the subject of my eyesight seemed the most inappropriate and irrelevant topic I could think of... Why couldn't they let my accomplishment stand on its own?"

Runyan writes early in the book, "The truth is, running is the easiest thing I do. To run a race around a perfectly flat and smooth track, in a controlled environment, among a group of familiar people all moving at a similar pace, feels safe to me compared to the effort I have to put forth, and the menace I confront, in moving through an ordinary day in ordinary life."

Running is where Marla Runyan has always felt most comfortable, most at home. There she "sees" with all her senses.

On the track we see only the triumphant final scenes of Marla's drama. Before racing as she now does, she had to reshape herself from sprinter and jumper (she'd competed in the 1996 Olympic Trials as a heptathlete) into a distance runner.

This didn't happen quickly or easily. The early efforts led to two surgeries that cost her two full years of running.

Then in Olympic year 2000 she injured a knee in May, hardly ran at all until the Trials in July, made the team anyway, and finished eighth in the 1500 at Sydney. She never lost sight of what she intended to do.

I think that without the injury she would have medaled. Her aggressive, fast-finishing style is that well suited for Olympic-level racing.

The real heroics in the book, though, are acted out away from the track: becoming a straight-A student in high school and college without seeing books and blackboards as other students do... fighting with and winning over her parents and then the license testers to let her drive a car... letting herself really fall in love for the first time at almost 30... switching roles to nurse her ever-supportive mother through cancer.

Marla Runyan and I now share the same hometown. I'm friends with two of Runyan's former coaches, Dick Brown and Mike Manley.

But I've seen her only in races at Hayward Field and still haven't met her. After reading her book, I know her better in the ways she wants to be known. Not as that blind runner, but as one who sees -- and seizes -- life her own way.

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