By Randy Pierce
When Ryan Ortiz, Assistant Executive Director for the USABA called us to the podium during the award ceremony, I was both surprised and delighted to think I’d somehow managed to place third in this National Marathon Championship. My excellent friend, Jose Acevedo, had guided me for the entirety of our 26.2 mile race.
It was just the second successful marathon for both of us and his first with the very significant additional work of Guiding. We had set a fairly modest goal for many reasons including my three-week battle with pneumonia which had grossly impacted my final weeks of training. I was proud of us and marveling in the teamwork which led to this momentous occasion, one which proved all the more powerful as we learned we had actually earned first place in the B1 division which is “total blindness to effectively no usable vision.” How did this happen?
For me, it started with my inspiration and decision to run the Boston Marathon as I detailed in one of my favorite blogs ever: “Qualifying for Quinn.” My very first marathon was a “success” on many levels though it was not indicative of the better approach I hoped to take for full marathon success.
I understood so little about long distance running but I was determined to listen and learn from the many resources available online and in the experienced runners such as my friend and coach Greg Hallerman. It was overwhelming how many people shared their knowledge, experience and perhaps most importantly running time as Guides to enable me to run train. Thus, it was all the more disappointing to me when my next attempt at a marathon–which had such better preparation and results, right up until my dropping out at mile 23.5 as detailed in my comment to the blog: “Bay State and Beyond.”
The California Marathon opportunity was made possible because the tireless drive of Richard Hunter and support of USABA, CIM and many others enables the large gathering of blind athletes to do so much more than just compete in this event. I didn’t expect or necessarily intend to personally compete as I explain in my pre-race blog for the event “CIM: Coast to Coast Blind Runners Share a Common Vision”
Tracy, Jose, and I paused and posed in Folsom, CA before sunrise on the morning of the race. We were excited, apprehensive, and slowly building towards the mental focus and physical readiness for the endurance experience ahead. Jose had mostly trained in Seattle for the sole purpose of guiding me at this event and I had joined him via phone for a few of his training runs but we’d only had two shorter runs together to practice the guide work and never in crowded race conditions. We felt confident that at a gentler 9:30-minute mile pace, we would support and sustain through the entire journey. While official time was “gun time” we didn’t press to the front as we knew our bibs would capture chip time and that was good enough for our goals. Thus thousands of runners were across ahead of us as we began.
The first stretch involved my needing to be tight behind him as we managed larger groups of people and brought our communication comfort up to speed. These early miles were crowd-restricted to a slower pace. Just over a mile, I was able to stride to the opposite side of the cane from him and allow my legs to stretch a little more. We picked up the pace comfortably and steadily began the work of passing individuals and groups. The first pace pack of 4:40 (four hours and forty minutes) took some time to manage with patience and talking to our fellow runners in order to find the space to work through together. By mile 9 we had passed the pace group for 4:25 and 4:10 and were running well together at above our intended pace. Shortly afterwards the first bathroom pit stop seemed sufficiently uncrowded to give Jose his opportunity, but the line was slow moving and at least six minutes were lost to the needed stop.
Back on the course, we had to navigate once again through a pace group cluster but felt strong as we approached the alleged significant uphill of the course. Reaching the halfway mark without noting a significant hill, we understood we were running strong and ready for the course which would roll and be flat for the duration of our trek. Race supporters played music, held humorous and inspirational signs, or simply cheered encouragingly throughout the many miles.
Water stops and nutrition moments were in great supply by the race and we availed ourselves of them appropriately. This required a return to tight behind and a slow to a walk. This cost us a little time but gave a little rest and kept us well hydrated and supplied with the energy we needed. Thus at mile 20 when we ran with a friend and peer, Kyle Robidoux, there was still good strength in both of us.
Our pace did slow for miles 20-24 where my first battle with a little leg pain arrived. My right leg, lower quad was cramping and spasming a little. I gave it two stretch breaks over the final 2.2 miles and used it as a little bit of a mental excuse to take an additional water stop I might otherwise have avoided. These final two miles were not my strongest and it is where I had to dig deeper for the mental and physical resolve. This made Jose stronger as he rose fantastically to the occasion of offering more support.
Crowds of supporters made communication more challenging and narrowed the course so tight behind was common as we found space to continue passing people on the stretch run. Our final turn was captured in the above photo and showed the determination and focus both of us needed to reach the finish as strong as we did. At his call, I slid up the cane and we clasped hands over our heads in celebration as we strode across the finish line. It was jubilant and emotional in ways endurance events bring forth. The post-race celebratory feelings and race support buoyed our proud recollections as we slowly eased our bodies towards the well deserved rest.
The atmosphere was electric and we waited in the USABA tent for Tracy to finish her first marathon as well. Celebrating our own success is a great feeling and yet the sharing of it is so much more powerful to me. Not just the sharing of pride in Jose and our teamwork, but the sharing of accomplishment and joy with all the runners as they crossed the finish line. Kristen, Jose, and I cheered as Tracy crossed with a huge smile overpowering the also well earned exhaustion. That moment carried as much powerful emotion as our own success.
The work on race day is certainly tremendous as is the reward. The hardest work lies in all the preparation. I ran more than 1200 miles of training which creates wear and tear on the body and considerable amounts of time. The dedication and consequences of the commitment are significant. I have the required challenge and benefit of running as a team most of the time. This certainly enhances the motivation and the enjoyment significantly.
My initial goal of the Boston Marathon is still ahead and my determination is beyond unwavering as it’s grown steadily. I understand reasonably well the sacrifice and efforts involved and even now have begun forming the plan for training ahead. The entirely unexpected and surreal additional reward is that now I hold a title beyond my expectations. I am the B1 National Champion of the marathon!
The reality is there are many fantastic runners, sighted and blind, of all levels, who may better my time. I hope to be one of those as I strive to improve and grow my own running ability. What I know is that in reaching for goals, in working towards our dreams and perhaps just in the conceiving of such, we are already winners. That is what makes it so easy for me to celebrate all of the glorious moments from our entire California trip even as I begin using my sightless eyes to look forward with confidence I will indeed Achieve a Vision Beyond my Sight. I always love the last experience and hope to always use those prior moments as a springboard to begin the next opportunities.
Better than all of those experiences, however, are the many people with whom I hope to share the experience. Thank you to so many folks for letting me share their experience and for choosing to share in some of mine as well – this time particularly to Jose Acevedo my friend and teammate in this national championship! Congratulations on all the hard work and well earned rewards!