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Blind Forest Hills athlete honored by runners’ club

When Crista Earl moved from Fort Wayne, Ind. to Forest Hills six years ago, she missed the biking, swimming and walking she used to do regularly in spite of being blind since the fourth grade due to a disorder that causes cells of the retina to die.

"I was accustomed to getting exercise by walking just to get to places," said Earl, who works as a Web site editor for the American Foundation for the Blind and lost her sight because of juvenile macular degeneration.

"Here there was just nothing. It was up and down the subway stairs and that was about it. And I was sitting around in front of the computer all day."

All that changed last April after Earl, 45, joined a gym in Manhattan, across the street from her work, and discovered the Achilles Club, an organization that encourages people with disabilities to run along with people without disabilities.

With the encouragement of a co-worker who was promoting the 3.5-mile Chase Corporate Challenges race held in May, Earl began running regularly in Central Park with the help of an Achilles Club volunteer runner who ran along side her, connected to her by a soft tether.

"Running in Central Park is nothing like running on a treadmill," Earl said. "Trees are blooming, the flowers smell so nice, there are really nice people, and they have drinking fountains along the way. It's a really good workout and you feel so good afterwards."

After finishing the Chase Corporate Challenges race along with a team of 12 co-workers with no problems, Earl decided to keep on running regularly, and began thinking about training for the city marathon in November 2002.

Earl went onto the Web site of the New York Road Runners, which organizes running clubs, training classes and many races, including the annual New York City Marathon. The city organization's site describes several different 18-week marathon training regimens.

Earl began with a regimen in which she would run 20 miles a week, and she gradually increased her mileage to 30 and then 40 miles a week. Once a week, she did a "long run" of up to 20 miles a day. In the weeks approaching the marathon, she completed 20-mile runs once every other week.

"I kept increasing my limit until it approached 26.2 miles," Earl said. "I thought, 'It's not three miles, not four, not six, not eight...' I trained as much as my body could handle that year."

In November, Earl successfully completed the New York City Marathon, placing 803rd out of the 1,548 women in her 40- to 45-year-old age group.

On Saturday, Earl was honored for her achievement with the Achilles Athlete of the Year Award at a NYRR's event at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.

"I feel so good, so healthy," Earl said. "I was running to catch a flight in the airport the other day and I thought, 'I sure am glad I've been working out.' "

Earl said one of the biggest problems she has with running is that she cannot just get up in the morning, put on her shoes and go for a run.

"It's extremely impractical," Earl said. "I can't run around the neighborhood because I would run people down. That's where finding out about Achilles really helped because then I can run as fast as I can."

When not running or working for the AFB, Earl spends time baking bread and making audio computer software tutorials from her mini-recording studio at her Forest Hills home.

Earl's next major challenge is the Achilles Marathon in April, for which she has been training three to four hours every other weekend to do 20-mile runs. During the week, she usually spends Tuesday nights and Wednesday mornings with an Achilles runner, and she runs on the treadmill in the gym on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays.

"Life is good," Earl said.

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by email at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

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