Boston Marathon 2016: Reflections from Randy and Jose

As we close out the 2016 Boston Marathon experience, a couple of particularly well received social media posts by Jose and Randy were very well received. We thought it appropriate to share these reflections fully with this week’s blog. We’ll begin with Randy’s “morning after” reflections and wrap up with Jose’s stirring account of the entire experience. Thank you to all those who support us in so many ways including this year’s Marathon which was an entirely different and exceedingly difficult excursion. There is so much to take away and well worth our capturing here.

From Randy Pierce:

Jose and Randy with their hands up running the Marathon.
Jose and Randy throw their hands up in victory.

The morning after – no regrets, proud, weary, appreciative and sharing some candid perspectives. I did not run the Boston Marathon yesterday, I ran it last year with a 3:50:37 time. Yesterday I did something considerably harder in large part to the matched support, determination, care and communication with my most excellent friend and guide, Jose Acevedo. We crossed the finish which I truly didn’t expect was likely and we did it needing somewhere around 6 hours and 18 minutes. The medical challenges of the last two months have changed my overall health significantly and they caused me to do absolutely no training for he final five weeks before the Marathon. With my body thus very much unprepared and with the additional challenges, why in the world would I still choose to run? I had three full episodes of passing out along the route though we knew that was a possibility and had a plan for how to handle each of them. The Doctors were on board as I wrote in the blog last week and we knew it would be very unlikely to cause me additional long term detriment. What is necessary though is this needs to be my last “endurance” event until we can either resolve some of the medical realities or creatively find appropriate ways to manage them. Just as in my nearly two years in the wheelchair, just as in the early days of my total blindness; there is a need to address the situation as best possible. Yesterday was brutal, maybe moreso than any other challenge given all the factors but it was a prize with tremendous meaning for me and seemingly for many who expressed such kindness and support. I’m not going away anytime soon nor will I cease to work towards many meaningful and worthy goals personally, with 2020Vision Quest, NHAB, Lions and well beyond. I will ensure I do so with the forward thinking approach necessary for the serious nature of all aspects of my present life. thank you for more support than I could ever imagine possible – especially to Jose and Tracy who were both essential in this even being a potential never mind the reality which we made it by working together.

From Jose Acevedo:

Closing thoughts on the 2016 Boston Marathon…

Like many, I didn’t realize what I had signed up for. This isn’t about the physical challenge though – it’s about choosing how I want to live.

As most of you know, I guided my friend Randy Pierce in this marathon. I don’t line up to do these things for no reason. Randy and I first discussed this possibility shortly after we ran him to the 2014 national championship for fully blind athletes in December of 2014. At the time I said, “Man, I will *never* run another marathon … … … unless you want me to guide you in Boston. That would be worth the grueling training and a really really really hard day.”

We revisited that topic in September of 2015 while preparing to travel to Tanzania and then solidified our intent on the slopes of Africa’s tallest mountain, Kilimanjaro. As a tribute to our friendship and a sign of his gratitude for all I had done to support him and his goals, Randy asked me to guide him in Boston 2016.

Randy is better than me at running long distances. I will take him in short sprints all day, especially if I don’t tell him what direction to run, but his gazelle strides easily eat up the long stuff while I struggle mightily to train for something as epic as a marathon. For Randy to set aside the possibility of a much faster time to let me guide him was a sacrifice that I appreciated deeply. He would say that our relationship and the benefits of doing this together outweigh any sort of time-based goals, but I can’t let this notion slide by without being thankful. Together with our coach, Greg, taking into account our previous times and fitness levels at the beginning of training 16 weeks ago, we agreed that breaking 4 hours would be our target finish time. This would be harder for me than Randy if history were any indicator, but I was ready to put in the work to make this happen.

Fast forward 10 weeks, to 6 weeks ago. Within the span of a week or so, I started having calf issues that impacted my ability to train as hard or as much as I wanted, and Randy began to run into serious health issues that impacted his daily life, let alone his training. We had been in contact for the first 10 weeks at least once a week on the phone, but most of our chats were via Facebook where I would post my runs, trying to make sure he and Greg saw me putting in the effort and could coach me to success. From the point of my injury and the beginning of his most recent health battles, Randy and I began to speak on the phone almost daily.

Sometimes we would talk about my calf and what I could or should do to try some other approach towards wellness and marathon level fitness. Other times we would talk about his latest symptoms or hospital visit, discussing impacts on his routine and the lives of those around him, while exploring strategies for dealing with his potential ‘new normal’ to come. One of the challenges to a progressive condition like his is that whatever it takes physically, it never gives back. Whatever independence, strength, and quality of life eventually return to Randy’s life after new symptoms arise are only ever as a result of determination, hard work, problem solving, and at the root of all things, choices. The daily choices to continue engaging, living, loving, and pushing forward. This is one of the many reasons I love Randy. He makes admirable choices pretty darned consistently and like any of the greats, he makes those around him better. He makes me better.

As these last 6 weeks wore on, I eventually learned how to manage my calf issues and finally achieved a state of relative readiness. I wasn’t as far along as I wanted to be, but the 4 hour mark we set was still within sight. My chances weren’t super solid of hitting it, but I could do it with a little luck and a lot of help. Meanwhile, until he and I hit the road this past Saturday for a 2 mile shakeout, Randy hadn’t run in 5-6 weeks. He had a great foundation before then but to put it bluntly, he was falling very much out of marathon shape. His fitness level didn’t matter in Dallas where I was training since my job as a guide and friend was to be ready for any possibility. I did have to accept the very real possibility however, that we wouldn’t ever get to the starting line.

Believe me when I say that made it extra difficult to push through injuries and a recently *insane* work schedule to get my training back on track. There were many evenings that I would be driving home from the office at 10:30 at night, dreading a required 7 mile run in the windy dark, but I had to go all-in or stand no chance of meeting my commitments to our team. As the weeks progressed, we stayed in very close contact and our planning became day to day. Each day there was a chance this particular dream would be over before it started, or we could get through another 24 hours hoping and preparing in our separate ways – just to do it all over again the next day. I was limping, resting, and finally running again, while Randy was just trying to get and/or stay out of the hospital. This wasn’t an easy time for either of us but as it always has, adversity provided an opportunity for us to grow together even closer and we chose that route.

Randy and Jose, determined to succeed!
Randy and Jose, determined to succeed!

Last Thursday, I finally got on a plane to Boston and met him in Nashua, NH. The days that followed, like every day for the past month and a half, were a mixture of ups and downs. Where betting odds on us starting the marathon had shifted daily for a while, it was nearly by the hour these past few days. A good morning would be followed by a rough patch in the afternoon, and then get slightly better in the evening. Our commitment to our new plan was unwavering and absolute, as long as health risks stayed in check, represented by the following goals:

  1. Start the marathon.
  2. Savor every moment possible.
  3. Finish the marathon.

Goals 1 and 2 were critical, 3 was nice if we could get it but frankly, far less likely. When all was said and done, we were able to put ourselves into a position Sunday evening that meant we were waking up at 5am on Monday and boarding the bus to Hopkinton.While we were both tired for a variety of reasons, confidence was high on Monday morning. We both felt as good as we had in weeks and hey, we were there. Goal #1 was practically a guarantee at this point. We even flirted with a 4th goal. Maybe, just maybe, we would be able to finish in less than 5 hours and qualify Randy for Boston 2017. We strategized as much for that as for the possibility that Randy would suffer episodes of unconsciousness along the course. What would our communication look like in the moments before unconsciousness? How would I get him to a safe place and help him coordinate a quick but controlled transition to a lying position? What exactly would I tell emergency responders who would no doubt want to pull us from the course? I don’t think we left a single stone unturned and while there is comfort in planning, it’s also freaking exhausting. Luckily, we wouldn’t have anything else on our minds during, you know, a marathon.

As the run began, our confidence only grew. We were in the last corral of wave 3 (of 4) and decided to start at the very back of the corral, therefore the wave. We were going out intentionally slow and thought it would do us some good to avoid the early crunch of bodies by effectively placing ourselves in between the final two waves. This worked like a charm and we had a ton of space for the opening third of the course. Let me make this clear if you’ve never participated in a road race before – this is unheard of, especially for a race like Boston. The weather was a little on the warm side but otherwise perfect and we both began to consider the best potential outcomes. Not necessarily under 4 hours, but certainly well under 5 hours.

The wheels didn’t come off at 7.9 miles, but they definitely began to wobble. Despite our measured start, Randy’s weeks of missed training caught up with us and though we had planned to begin walking one minute of every five at the 13 mile mark (above and beyond walking through all our water and nutrition walks), he needed a walk just to rest … 5 miles early. This came on fairly quickly, as a result of numerous unwelcome setbacks in his condition. What began as numbness in his extremities a few miles earlier progressed up his neck and to the top of his head, ultimately kicking off a headache that would be a main point of trouble for much of the day. This earlier-than-planned walking meant a longer day than recently anticipated, but everything was still imminently doable. We did the math and confirmed we still felt good about finishing under 5 hours, while I began to track us by the minute. Unfortunately, the need for walks began to rise, as did Randy’s headache level, further raising my concerns that things were going to get tougher before they got easier. While we managed to enjoy the world famous Scream Tunnel of Wellesley College at mile 13, I would be lying by omission if I didn’t admit I was growing deeply worried about our ability to even finish at the rate our problems were mounting.

It was shortly after Wellesley, around 14.1 miles into the race, that Randy first lost consciousness. Over the past 6 weeks, we had accepted this potential reality and planned for it. While Randy was feeling more confident it would not happen based on a week and a half on a new and seemingly helpful prescription, I had approached the day as if this was guaranteed to occur. Call me a pessimist, but as the only member of our team who would be conscious during a potential episode, I thought it prudent to be as ready as possible. Having said that and even though I had watched his symptoms steadily increase over the miles, it still came as somewhat of a shock when Randy communicated he was likely to faint.

As I sit here typing on the plane ride home with tears welling in my eyes, I realize that nothing can fully prepare you for the moment you see a close friend and personal hero about to go down on your watch. I’ve seen Randy stumble and fall before. I’ve even had him faint once, very quickly, on the infamous trek down Kilimanjaro. For whatever reason, none of those moments were quite as scary as this one – perhaps because we were never alone so I wasn’t 100% responsible for all that came next. Fortunately for everyone involved, for that same reason, I had zero time to panic. Not only was I the only person immediately available to help keep Randy safe in that moment, but I also had to do so in such a confident and assuring way that it remained our choice as to whether we would exit the race or continue onwards towards Boylston Street and the finish line. I considered the chances fairly high that medical professionals or other race officials would make that decision for us given the chance. So in summary, I had to keep my shit together. I’m clearly not done processing this whole experience, but writing it out is helping.

We were in the middle of a water station on the right side of the road with a mob of runners back, left, and front, and tables stacked with water on the right. Of all the places to go down this seemed to offer the least options, as we appeared to have no direct access off the course and runners would be darting in and out of traffic to grab water and re-enter the migrating herd. Luckily, there was a spot about 4 feet wide in-between two water tables just ahead and with a semi-conscious Randy wrapped in my arms, thank goodness still with the use of his legs, we staggered into this small sanctuary and I quickly helped him lay down. From him saying, “I’m going to faint,” to him being down on a bed of discarded water cups on the ground was probably about 10 seconds – all the time we thought we might get in this scenario – and we had withstood our first crisis of the day.

As you may expect, the incredibly helpful water volunteers nearby were a bit concerned. Single-minded of purpose in their role as Hydration Engineers (a thankless task that I sincerely appreciate), I got a lot of offers for water at that moment. I promptly answered that we were all set and calmly informed them that our challenge was courtesy of a known medical condition that would clear up on its own. When asked repeatedly if we needed help from emergency personnel, after confirming Randy was breathing regularly and all symptoms were ‘normal’ as compared to prior episodes in the last 6 weeks, I assured them we just needed a little time and we would be on our merry way. I couldn’t be certain this was the case until Randy came to, but I knew the chance of us being allowed to choose to continue would get a lot tougher if I didn’t make this all seem very normal and that was our agreed upon plan. Luckily, though I had never witness one of these episodes before, Randy and I had prepared well so I knew all the details and was able to describe to those who asked exactly how long we would take to rest on the ground and then standing, before continuing on. This level of detail and my brimming confidence assuaged their fears and they went about their business of hydrating runners, though I was temporarily trapped under Randy.

As I had guided him down to the ground, I had cradled the back of his head and my hand was still down there, while I sat immediately beside him. A couple of seconds after laying down, with his feet flat on the ground and his knees up, when Randy had actually gone unconscious, his long legs had rolled over on top of me. So there I was, working hard not to freak out, brimming with feigned confidence, communicating our hoped-for exit strategy, trapped under my passed-out friend. Perfect; just like you draw it up. We had just run most of a half marathon in warm conditions so yeah, I started to cramp up pretty quickly. Luckily, Randy was only out for about 25-30 seconds and shortly thereafter, ‘with it’ enough for me to negotiate my way out and onto my feet for some stretching while we began his recovery countdown.

Doctor’s orders for the run, and they were fully supportive of this endeavor to be absolutely clear, were that he stay down for a full 4 minutes and then stand still for 1, before easing his way back into walking. We couldn’t rush him back into action. I used this time to stretch out my cramps and talk through the episode with Randy, so we could strategize on next steps. To say he was frustrated and upset is an understatement. I cannot begin to describe what it must be like for him at this transition phase in his life, losing independence and control as the vast unknowns of his condition reassert themselves over current in-flight strategies. I’ll let him speak to that in his own time and space. What I will share with his permission is that the impacts are profound and emotional, and we would fight through them together for the next 4 hours or so.

Which I suppose is really what this whole story is about. All the words above are simply a backdrop and introduction – necessary context to the story I’m not yet ready to type out in detail. It’s the story of my friendship with Randy, and how much he and our relationship mean to me. Over the course of the next 45,000 or so steps, Randy and I went through a lot together, walking most of the second half of the marathon. We talked about the work and how we felt, and adjusted plans by the mile. We negotiated different approaches to needs and obstacles along the way, with varying degrees of clarity, frustration, emotion, and success. We grew a little impatient with each other over the difference between guilt and gratitude, leading to a pretty cool point of learning for both of us that I know Randy will be expounding on soon. Randy went down two more times – once around 19 miles and again around 22.5, and we both got better at handling it. The officers and emergency personnel along the route were amazingly accommodating and helpful in every instance. Randy’s physical pain fluctuated but certainly grew more than shrank as his untrained muscles responded to the shock of the day. The key, as with every adventure we’ve taken on over the course of more than 20 years of friendship, is that we did it selflessly and for each other. Both of us, in our own ways and to our own ability in the moment, did our best to give more than take. Despite our vastly different physical condition yesterday, we both tried our damnedest to put the other first. For this I am so very grateful.

We would eventually see the Citgo sign and John Hancock tower in the distance, signaling our approach to Boston. More than 6 hours after we began, we would hobble over to Randy’s wife Tracy at the corner of Hereford and Boylston, where they would embrace and kiss in love and support. From there, Randy and I would agree to try running to the finish, not fully realizing it was a solid third of a mile away. We would run that last stretch to the echoing cheers of the most supportive fans in the sport, and hear the race announcer call out Randy’s name just yards away from the achievement of our third and final goal. We would cross the most famous finish line in the world with our arms raised triumphantly, together, the way we always have.

Jose and Randy at the finish line with Tracy. Photo credit Kathy Dunn.
Jose and Randy at the finish line with Tracy. Photo credit Kathy Dunn.

None of us know yet exactly what comes next for Randy. There will be more doctors’ appointments and tests, but his first three decades dealing with his nameless condition haven’t exactly been full of helpful findings so I think we’re all prepared to just keep rolling with the unknown as best we can. I do know that I’m not the only one that’s scared and upset. It was impossible not to be punched in the stomach repeatedly by that harsh reality during yesterday’s trial.

What had begun as an adventure so long ago had transformed into an ordeal, testing different kinds of limits in ways we had not imagined. That is the true take-away for me from this whole experience – reinforcement of an important lesson I try to be thankful for and build on every day. I think we could have chalked up just starting yesterday as a win, given the frame of Randy’s current reality. Persevering to the finish was, to me, a statement that together and by choice, we can achieve incredible outcomes. If we dare to create a vision, apply ourselves in planning for success, and put intentional plans into motion together, we can inspire ourselves and others beyond what seems possible.

I suspect my Boston Marathon experience was different to many in the details, but perhaps not as much on the opportunity to learn. I will say this … if you have an adventure you have been putting off for any reason, find a way to do it. Time is precious and every chance matters. If you are already an adventurer, consider finding someone to help along in their journey – perhaps as a guide. It is a completely different, and in my experience significantly more intense and fulfilling undertaking.

I will forever be grateful to everyone who helped make this experience a reality. Thank you.


3 thoughts on “Boston Marathon 2016: Reflections from Randy and Jose

  1. I so get the “it’s the story of my friendship with Randy, and how much he and our relationship mean to me ” part. Randy and Jose, thank you both for sharing your stories. What inspirations you both are!

    Jose, you are so right! Time is precious and every chance truly does matter!

  2. Must be the pollen, because suddenly I’m reading through a blur of tears. Randy, Jose, thank you for sharing this adventure/ordeal in more detail. I mean ordeal in the spiritual sense here, as in the trials one faces to become an initiate or reach some new understanding.

  3. After noting the many quality responses to my “Morning After reflections’ and then the overwhelming support and sharing of Jose’s post on faceboook, I really felt this needed a more permaneant and broadly accessed landing place. Thanks Denyse and Teresa for the comments and to the literaly hundreds of comments and shares from when these were first posted on facebook.

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