Vision Not a Factor for Legally Blind Marathon Winner

Marla Runyan, a person who lives with legal blindness, took first place in the October 2006 Twin Cities marathon. Her finishing time was two hours, thirty-two minutes and seventeen seconds. Her husband, Matt and 13 month-old daughter, Anna met her at the finish line. Runyan is a long-distance runner who represented the United States at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia and again in Athens, Greece in 2004.

The day before the TC Marathon, the author had a chance to interview her for Access Press.

What inspired you to enter the Olympics after you had won five gold metals in the Paralympics? “I no longer participate in the Paralympics because I felt that my vision wasn’t really a factor in my performance as a runner. My goal became to make the Olympic team. So, from 1996 to 2000, that was where my focus and training was.”

What inspired you in your pursuit of the Olympics? “The Olympic dream became a huge motivator for me at that time, From 1988 to 2000…it was a combination of things, enjoying the sport and that dream of running in the Olympics.”

What did it mean to you to represent the United States in two Olympics? “I did make the Olympic team in 2000 in the fifteen hundred meters. I finished eighth in the Olympic final which is the highest finish so far for an American woman in the fifteen hundred meters.”

How much running should someone do to prepare for a marathon? “For me personally, you need to be running ninety to one hundred miles a week.”

What is your weekly training schedule?

• Sunday, twenty-two mile run

• Monday, twelve to thirteen miles at an easy pace, plus weight lifting

• Tuesday, 10 to 12 miles

• Wednesday: an interval session of repeat miles, or 1000 meters repeats running much faster than marathon goal pace

• Thursday, 12 mile run plus weight lifting

• Friday: 10 to 12 miles, easy pace

• Saturday, a Tempo run of 2 or 3 mile repeats, or 8 or 10 mile continuous running. Runyan defines a tempo as a threshold effort while running slightly faster than goal marathon pace. “If your goal marathon pace is 5.40 per mile, you might run a threshold at 5.20 per mile. That would be a Saturday session. And then a long run the next day. That is how it goes in a very general way.”

Because of legal blindness, do you have any concerns about following the correct course? “I have enough vision that I run completely alone. I do get nervous when the roads turn, or when there’s a turn approaching. What tends to happen with my vision is that I don’t see things until I’m right there. So I can’t anticipate what’s ahead. I can’t look down the road and know a turn is approaching in twenty-five meters or what not. So that’s where it gets challenging. In this particular marathon, they will provide a lead bicyclist for both the men and women. This signifies the leader. If I’m leading the race, or if I’m in the lead pack of women, then I’ll be able to key off of the bike in front of us. So that’s something else I’ll consider. The only other things I can do are course tours, running part of the course ahead of time. But it’s nearly impossible to memorize a twenty-six mile course on your first time out.”

How many people run in the Twin Cities marathon? “I think this marathon is somewhere between ten and twenty thousand. There are approximately 100 elite runners. We’re not in the masses of people. We’re escorted to the front of the starting area. That’s how they do it in every major marathon.”

How do you stay hydrated? “They have fluid stations every two miles, and they have both water and Powerade. They [also] have an elite athlete’s fluid station where you can grab your own personal bottle of whatever fluid you have prepared…and five miles is the first one. I decided this year not to have elite fluids, mainly because it is so difficult for me to see and locate my bottle on the table.”

How do you keep from getting injured, either while you practice or in a race? “As a trained runner, you don’t have the typical [problems] that a lot of people who are just learning to run. We definitely have injuries. My greatest challenges have been my hip and my low back, in part because I had a baby last year. But also it’s been a problem even before that. I’m not sure why, it could be muscle weakness somewhere. I have disc degeneration in my spine.”

Besides a daily running routine, what else do you do to keep fit? “If you’re a professional runner, you have to be diligent about keeping your body together as you go about your training. It’s at least two to three appointments a week. I do it in a gym, a weight-room routine. And it is a combination of using your own body weight, machine weights, and free weights. Definitely do that at least twice a week, about an hour to an hour and a half (and usually after my running is done for the day). But still the primary training is running.”

Is there a substitute for the practice in long distance running? “No other exercise will match the intensity of running. There’s really nothing that will get your heart rate up, get your respiration elevated enough to simulate going out for a twelve-mile run.”

What support did you get from your family? “I give them so much credit for even the fact that I’m an athlete…As soon as my vision was diagnosed, they could have said, “You’re not going to ride your bike. You’re not going to play soccer. You’re not going to do this because you might fall down and get hurt. They didn’t do that. I think they just saw me as an athlete. They saw how I moved. And they saw how I played on the field.”

For more about Marla Runyan, you can access her Web site at www.marlarunyan.com