Marla Runyon is legally blind, but there are some things she can still see, like blurry objects, or bright lights, or the glimmer of possibility. So even though she knows the theory on Americans is that they can't win major long-distance races anymore, she will be running in the New York City Marathon on Sunday, because a theory is just that, and the big picture is still within her field of vision.
"I really believe we have great distance runners in the U.S., and I think we get slammed a little too much," said Runyon, a Paralympic and Olympic athlete whose repeated success at the 5,000 meters inspired her to train for Sunday's race, her first marathon. She is undeterred, she says, by the knowledge that the distance has been a difficult one for Americans, particularly in New York, where no U.S. runner has won since Alberto Salazar in 1982.
"You just look at it as a challenge, an opportunity to discover a little bit about yourself. And if you prepare yourself properly, hey, anything can happen."
For the first time in a long time, that might be true for a handful of elite American marathoners. In Sunday's race alone, a favorite on the men's side will be Meb Keflezighi -- an North African by birth but a U.S. citizen who has lived in California since junior high school -- and on the women's side, both Runyon and Californian Milena Glusac will be garnering attention. None of the three are considered locks to irrigate the drought of U.S. medals at this event, yet even the notion that they will be serious competition for the more dominant Africans and Europeans marks a significant step forward for U.S. long-distance racing.
For so many years, after all, the sport had been running on the fumes of past legends such as Frank Shorter, Joan Samuelson, Bill Rodgers and Salazar. With no one to take their place and international competition growing more fierce by the day, U.S. track officials had not only begun to run out of bodies, but also hope. Two years ago came the low point: The marathon times at the U.S. Olympic trials were so slow compared with those around the world that the U.S. team was given just one men's and one women's berth into the marathon event at the Sydney Olympics, instead of the customary two.
"We knew something had to be done," said Allan Steinfeld, race director of the New York Marathon and president of the influential New York Roadrunner's Club. "We had to train people differently, do something differently."
So the Roadrunners, USA Track and Field and Rodgers himself began fundraising to start an organization called Running USA, which provides coaching, group training, housing and other general support for American distance runners. In nearly three years, the group has four training facilities, with a fifth on the way, and a bucketful of top finishes in cross-country, road and track distance events.
"No other training group program in America has had this kind of success," said Ryan Lamppa, a Running USA spokesman who believes that more than anything, the athletes have been helped by the natural competition and camaraderie that develops from training side-by-side. "It's knowing that at 3:30 each afternoon, you will have other people like you lining up right beside you on that track and busting their gut to get better."
"You can definitely help each other out, and we all have the same kind of lives, so there is someone you can talk to about the things that are important to you," said Keflezighi, who like Glusac and distance standout Deena Drossin is part of the program.
Of course, even he acknowledges that group training and increased resources are not an elixir to all problems -- there are still some inescapable truths that plague American distance running. The small amount of prize money makes it difficult for athletes just starting out, and there is increased competition by an international community to whom running represents not only a sport but a salvation from poverty.
"You have to remember that back in the days of Salazar, the whole world wasn't running the marathon, the Africans weren't there, people who had different kinds of lives and talents and incentives," Runyon said. "Especially on the women's side, the field has been transformed."
Perhaps few have gone through more just to be able to run than Runyon. Legally blind as a result of Stargardt's Disease, Runyon will be accompanied on the course Sunday by two cyclists who will shout out times and warn her when she is nearing turns or water stations. It will be an unusual set of sounds among an elite pack of runners marked only in the past by heavy breathing. Then again, this is an unusual field.
The Americans are out there again, and even if they don't win, all of them -- even Runyon -- now see the possibility of the finish line.