Interview with Marla Runyan
By Parker Morse

Marla Runyan on her way to the U.S. 10k title at the 2002 Tufts Health Plan 10k.
Photo by Parker Morse

Marla Runyan defies nearly every accepted notion of what a distance runner should be. In a world where distance runners are expected to rise through the high school and collegiate cross-country system, Runyan instead reached the 1,500m through the heptathlon, where she set an American Record for the heptathlon 800m in the 1996 Olympic Trials. Instead of mastering each longer distance in turn, she moved to the 5,000m after only two years in the 1,500m (where she made the U.S. team for the World Championships in 1999 and the Olympic final in Sydney) and announced her marathon debut the following year, running her first 10,000m just three weeks before the marathon. The year after Regina Jacobs sailed to an American Record 5,000m at the Olympic Trials (and defeated Runyan at 1,500m in the same meet), Runyan set a pace too hot for Jacobs at the 2001 USATF Championships and won the first of two 5,000m national titles (defeating the USA's #2 all-time, Deena Drossin, for the second in 2002.)

What's more, though she's grown tired of talking about it, Runyan is almost certainly the fastest open competitor who qualifies for the Paralympics. Due to irreversible macular degeneration, Runyan is "legally blind," able to see mostly shadows and peripheral details. None of this appears to bother her at all; in her biography, "No Finish Line," Runyan recalls being amazed to rediscover that other hurdlers could see all ten hurdles on the track, when she could barely see the first one.

We talked with Runyan right after she won the U.S. 10k championship in her debut 10k race, at the Tufts Health Plan 10k in Boston on October 14. This was your last big effort before New York?
Marla Runyan: Yes, it's coming right up. Three weeks from yesterday.

FW: What are your plans between now and then?
MR: Joanie [Benoit Samuelson] was just giving me a little advice. I'll be taking it easy, maybe one more long run and then we'll start shutting it down and getting recovered. I definitely agree that before a marathon you need two weeks of really taking it easy going in. I think my training for New York has been somewhat conservative, but it's still training I've never done before. Just getting consistently over 100 miles per week for a while, my long runs about 22-23, is pretty new to me. I'm definitely not going to be overtrained for New York, that's one thing I know for sure.

FW: What kind of goals do you have for the marathon?
MR: I have goals, but I respect the marathon so much that it's hard to say what you're going to do. I'll tell you that I'd love to be top ten, and I'd love to run sub 2:28, sub 2:30. I've considered strength my weakness, which is why I'm doing this [running 10-K] and why I'm working on it so much, because I think running things like the 10-K and the 5-K, and running roads especially, makes me strong. You can't rely on a kick anymore [on the track]. A kick is fifty meters, but you need strength to get you through the whole race. That's going to make me, I think, stronger on the track. I think the two seasons work well together.

FW: When you heard results from Chicago yesterday, did that get you more excited for the marathon?
MR: Oh, of course! Obviously Paula is just amazing, she's phenomenal. But I'm excited, I think New York going to be a very different race. I think the weather's going to be ideal, I think it's going to be very competitive, I think it's going to be a race for everyone to watch. Like Sonia O'Sullivan said, I'm not going to worry about time, I'm just going to compete. That's really what New York is going to be about. It's a deep field. This year it's one of the deepest fields ever. 2:26 might be like ninth place... I hope it will be a race everyone will want to watch.

FW: We heard Meb said that he chose New York for his debut because he didn't want to have to run world record pace to stay with the leaders.
MR: Exactly. What good are those races for you? I think with New York and the separate women's start, which is great, it's like a women's only race for us, and there are going to be people to run with. I know there will be people to run with. And that's what's going to make it great. When we get in to the race and start pushing each other, working together, and competing, it should be a good race for everyone.

I'm really glad about my decision after seeing the conditions in Chicago. Women were running alone the whole way in Chicago. It was windy and cold. New York is going to be great. The atmosphere is going to be incredible. I don't mind a little bit of hills... Well, New York's a bit more than a little hills, but I like the break.

FW: They ran you through Central Park, right? What did you think of the finish?
MR: Yes, we ran the last ten miles. It's tough. It's as if you're almost there, then they throw a couple more hills at you. It's going to be tough.

FW: How did it feel today with the wind?
MR: It was really gusty. I was shocked, though. I didn't see any pace clocks, so I didn't know what pace I was at. I thought I was going to be at 32:30. I thought, you know, I don't even know what we're doing out here. Especially at the beginning it felt really slow, and I just held back, because I figured, I've never run a 10k, and they know what they're doing, so I'm going to hold back. At a certain point, I just said, come on guys, let's go.

FW: When did you decide to make that move?
MR: I think at about a mile and a half in I knew I was going to get stuck leading this thing, so I might as well just go out there. I was trying to key off Colleen De Reuck, but I just felt strong.

FW: How about the last two miles, when it was just you and Wanjiku?
MR: I was not at all confident. I was thinking to myself, you know, you've got to try to keep a little bit of something in the tank, because if it comes down to a sprint you've got to have something.

(Interview conducted October 14, 2002, Posted October 21, 2002)

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