The Olympic odyssey of demon Runyan

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The Independent Online

When Marla Runyan lines up for the 5,000m race at the Oregon Twilight track meeting in Eugene on Saturday night she will be able to see no further than the ground immediately in front of her and the blurred figures of the rival runners surrounding her. In terms of ambition, however, her sights will be set way beyond the finish line at Haywards Field and the opening race of her outdoor track season. Registered blind since the age of 11, Runyan has an excellent chance of making the United States track-and-field team for the Sydney Olympics.

On the form she has produced in just 12 months as a middledistance runner, the 31-year-old is an odds-on certainty to be placed in the first three in the 1500m at the US trials in Sacramento in July. Last summer she won the 1500m gold medal at the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, finished 10th in the 1500m final at the world championships in Seville, and two months ago she won the US indoor 3,000m title in Atlanta.

It is remarkable in itself that Runyan, a Eugene resident, has achieved so much inso little time as amiddle-distance runner. It is bordering on the fantastic, though, that she is poised to cross the gap from Paralympian to Olympian. Runyan has competed in the last two Paralympics as a blind athlete, winning the 100m, 200m, 400m and long jump in Barcelona in 1992 and taking the heptathlon gold medal in Atlanta four years ago.

Since the age of nine, she has suffered from Stargardt's Disease, a degenerative condition which affects the macular, or central, vision. She has 20/300 vision in her left eye and 20/400 in her right eye. "Both retinas in the back of my eyes areseverely damaged," Runyan explained. "The image my brain sees is not clear. It is almost like having a hole in the back of your eye. However, my peripheral vision is intact and this enables me to get around very well.

"I can walk or run without assistance, obviously. And I can even navigate through a crowded room, though I wouldn't be able to recognise people around me. While I can run by myself on the track, roads and wood-chip trails, I may notbe able to recognise my coach standing 10 feet away."

In the cut and thrust of middle- distance track racing, Runyan's restricted vision has not yet caused her problems. She has, though, occasionally bumped into people in training, and last month tripped over the tubing from a steam-cleaning truck while on a training run in Eugene. Not that she considers herself to be a disabled or disadvantaged athlete.

"I have been legally blind for 20 years now," she said. "But I see myself as an athlete who has something wrong with her eyes rather than a blind athlete. I am used to my eyes and how the world appears to me. In fact, I am so used to it I often forget I see things differently from everyone else.

"I do not consider my vision impairment a 'handicap' when it comes to running. It is not a factor or an excuse for a bad race. Nor is it responsible for the occasional contact that occurs during élite competition. Sure, there are things I may never be able to do because of it. But, hopefully, making the Olympic team isn't one of them."

Desert stormer

Running blind for 1500m is one thing; doing so for 140 miles is quite another. It is quite another, still, when the route takes you through the Sahara Desert rather than around a 400m track. The Marathon des Sables is billed as "the toughest foot race on earth". Almost 100 of the 680 entrants who lined up for this year's race failed to complete the six-day slog through the Sahara last month, conquering 200ft-high dunes and 120F temperatures.

Jamie Cuthbertson was one of them. He's 39 and from Beardsen in Glasgow. He also happens to be blind. Cuthbertson was left totally without sight after an accident in his Army days as a captain in the Royal Engineers, when a safety fuse ignited a box of detonators during a training exercise. The blast damaged his right hand, tore a fist-sized chunk from his right thigh and filled his face with metal fragments. It took 15 operations, plastic surgery and grafts, to put him together again, but nothing could be done for his sight.

Now working as technology officer for the West of Scotland Society for the Blind, Cuthbertson ran the Marathon des Sables clutching a length of knotted rope held by his guide, Roraigh Ainslee. They made it to the finish line in 51 hours and 18 minutes, being placed 443rd and 444th. "It was a fantastic experience," reflected Cuthbertson, who raised money for the Third World charity Sight Savers International. "We would like to have been quicker but our main aim was to finish, and a lot of sighted people didn't manage to do that.

"The third day was particularly hard. It included a 19km continuous stretch of sand dunes, which was a bit demoralising. But we only had one fall in the whole 140 miles, and that was 400 yards from the finish. I got a bit carried away, started sprinting for the line and tripped over a rock. It was a bit embarrassing." Still, it could have been worse. To counter the threat from snakes and scorpions, all competitors are required to carry anti-venom pumps. Cuthbertson, to his great relief, had no need to use his.

Brothers in lore

Jamie Cuthbertson was not quite the first blind runner to complete the Marathon des Sables. The brothers Miles and Geoff HiltonBarber became jointly the first when they crossed the finish line together last year. Miles, who lives at Duffield in Derbyshire, has since gone on to bigger things. "I've just been out to the Himalayas to do some climbing," he said. "I'm hoping to do Kilimanjaro in July and Mont Blanc in August."