Race reports are a common method for runners to share the trials and triumphs of their race day experience. My goal is to take a look at the greater experience surrounding the USABA National Marathon Championship held on Sunday, December 2 in Sacramento, CA. This was my fourth time making the trip to join the incredible collection of athletes brought together by Richard Hunter, a legally blind veteran who ten years ago developed this opportunity in partnership with the United States Association of Blind Athletes and a handful of sponsors and volunteers. A decade later, the event has grown tremendously and the results are changing lives around the world in positive and powerful ways. Every athlete, donor, volunteer and not surprisingly attendee has a story and realistically one must attend to reap the benefits of most of these.
Tracy, Autumn and I arrived on Friday after stopping by Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, CA to tour the campus which brought me my first Guide Dog and deservedly earned a recent disbursement of $25,000 from our charity! This meant we missed the the very first activity of the weekend as a dinner is held by the Sacramento Association for the Blind, supported by the Delta Gamma sorority who provide incredible volunteer support throughout the weekend. We joined in Saturday morning for a breakfast with a presentation from Kyle Kuhn, a B1 athlete fresh off a historic cycle across America ride and a sub-11-hour Iron Man performance! Our sponsors for the breakfast also shared their connection to the community as AIRA is a technology I use for getting visual support for virtually any task either through high tech glasses or simply by our phones as I began using more effectively after this weekend. Also Vanda pharmaceuticals was there to talk about their “Non 24” prescription and support network which I’ve taken with incredible effectiveness for the sleeping disorder caused by my blindness. I learned in this how commonly it impacts even those with some sight, such as patients experiencing Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP).
My point is that there are positive learning connections even before the most important one: all through these we are meeting and connecting with so many other incredible people. I spent my breakfast sitting beside Scott Jurek, a legendary Ultra-running champion. He was guiding Matt Rodjom, the ultimate silver medal finisher in the B2 division. Matt and I were Facebook-connected, but really getting to know the people behind the inspirational stories is a gift of community experienced best in person.
Saturday night’s dinner was the largest gathering for the weekend. All of the people and organizations who made this event possible gathered to share stories. Richard Hunter was our Master of Ceremonies, bringing fun and insightful anecdotes into the discussion as he introduces the various participants of note for the evening. Dan Streetman introduced me to be the keynote speaker and Dan’s son Austin had guided me in Boston’s BAA 5K back in 2014. After delaying the evening by 15 minutes, for which I was well thanked many times, we moved onward (t.m. Jason Ramiro!) to the big event.
One of the most difficult aspects of running a marathon is getting through all the training while maintaining full health. I almost accomplished this feat. Training went fantastic with my guide Rodney Andre putting in more training miles together than anyone had previously managed for a single race. We made it to the taper feeling healthy, confident, and well prepared. As our first reduced distance long run of 13 miles took place two weeks before the marathon, it also was the first time we had icy roads to manage here in the Northeast. Rodney was up for the challenge and we didn’t experience any notable incidents. It was, however, the day of our Peak Potential event and the official launch of our book, See You At The Summit. Whether little slips or carrying boxes of books, the following day brought some tightness in my hip.
This worsened every day despite efforts to treat it with rest, foam rolling and ice. Five days later, Thanksgiving arrived with my condition deteriorating to the point I could barely get out of bed. I was unable to lift my left leg with all the muscles of the left hip locked. I was devastated and thought my marathon goals ended as we headed to the emergency room. Muscle relaxants for some immediate relief but an orthopedic visit was not possible due to the holiday and I was nearing a week to the race. Tracy and I agreed to give everything possible towards treatment and Friday Chris and Alicia Brown of EnduraFit Training and Rehab implemented “dry needling”, electronic stimulus (STEM) and deep massage. I walked out of their brand new center with considerably less pain and more hope! We then made a trip to the -230 degree cryotherapy chamber at Peak Recovery and Health center for a deep “icing” treatment. My urgent recovery was well on the way and three days later I took a cautious but successful three mile run. One more treatment with Alicia at Endurafit had me feeling almost 100% and I give them the primary credit for getting my health back on track for this race.
The primary credit for the race goes unsurprisingly to my guide, Rodney Andre. We had a fantastic 4 a.m. breakfast on race day as oatmeal and bagels fueled us. USABA provided this for us at our hotel before we all joined the bus trip at 5 am to get to the race start in Fulsom, CA. A heated tent eased the sub-40 temperatures as we hydrated and passed time all too quickly before the start. The Visually Impaired runners who choose are afforded a five-minute advanced start just after the wheelchairs and we partook of this opportunity.
As the National Anthem began behind us, we headed down the long gentle hill of the race. Amusingly, Rodney began his guiding without the rigid tether which he has always used to guide me. I had a hand on his back and tapped his side with my cane asking “Missing something? Want to take this?” We laughed and the guiding began with the footfall of runners surrounding us sounding almost like “runner’s rain” to my brain.
We were a little fast but it was downhill and we felt good. In very little time things had thinned so that we began to run stride for stride beside each other seemingly on our own private course. We let the miles flow by with many shouts of encouragement. We laughed and shared stories with each other and the occasional runner we encountered though not with the elite runners who flew past us at the 1.2 mile mark. Several VI runners crossed our paths along the way for brief encouragement and discussion but mostly it was Rodney and me working our training. Rolling hills were called out for distances to help keep me chopping my steps a little shorter on the way up and striding out recovery on the way down. At mile 9 in a series of downhill curves with a tricky footing, I managed to drop the cane but we didn’t miss a stride as Rodney felt it and tapped it into my hip quickly for guidance and recovery.
At mile 14, Rodney shared a very motivating personal story with me and it would be the key to our success later in the day. The theme was about heart and desire for a goal but it was also about the underlying depths of friendship and trust we had formed through our running together. Margaret, Rodney’s wife, shared that the word she took away from the entire trip experience was trust and I would not disagree with her. At mile 16 the hip began to tighten and given the punishment a marathon puts on a body, this is not entirely surprising. We were ready to persevere and I was honestly grateful my treatments brought me that far before the challenge.
By mile 19, however, I had lost sensation in my entire left leg. My standard peripheral neuropathy results in my not having feeling below my knees. This creates significant difficulty in balance as well as reaction to terrain. I had never experienced total loss of feeling in an entire leg and I was struggling. This was new territory and we had been trying to work through it when we finally slipped into a walk. Here is where Rodney’s guidance went above and beyond the call of a normal guide.
We had a theory that it was vascular in nature — that perhaps the locking muscles in my hip had somehow cut off circulation. As we walked briefly and I tried to stretch and shake out the leg, the tingling burning pain of my leg “waking up” suggested we might be right. Back into a slower paced run the battle waged for 7 miles of my hip getting steadily worse. As the rest of my leg muscles reacted to this added challenge, those muscles fatigued at a higher level and began to cramp up painfully. My balance challenges were rising but not off to the worst I can experience. Run when we could, walk when we needed, and push forward with as much heart as I could muster.
In all this Rodney was a pillar of support, encouragement and calm. Each slow relieved my hip but caused the muscles to spasm with an intensified pain that had me scream out more than a few times along our route but never with any doubt. At each worst moment, I heard Rodney’s mile 14 story in my head and deepened my resolve. We were going to finish with the best time possible for me.
This was a National Marathon Championship and I knew my time would still have me competitive for my effectively totally blind (B1) division. I didn’t know where anyone else in our division was on the course for certain but I settled to push only in part for that factor. I was pushing to find the limits of my heart and dedication to all the work Rodney and I had done in flying across the country and stepping beside so many incredible athletes. The short time remaining of hurt and hard would be worth the celebrating of knowing I’d given my all against the adversity of the race.
We crossed the finish line not feeling strong but hurting and wishing for all I was worth that I could stop and get off my legs. Rodney wisely didn’t allow that suggestion to even begin as we had to walk and walk and walk as my legs eased out of the seizing state. Connecting with Tracy, Margaret, and Autumn finally gave Rodney a little support and both of us some water, hot soup and a trip by the USABA tent for a brief rest and change into warm clothes.
Back at our hotel we showered, hydrated and made a trip to the Yard House for some food and drink to go with the Patriot game. We cut all of that short to attend the Awards Ceremony. A full room of celebrating, sore, tired and accomplished friends were gathered. I applauded the victories of my peers and was proud to stand on the podium with my own first place finish in the B1 division. It wasn’t my best time at 4:16:15, though in a sense it was my best time, the peak I could give on this day and enough to earn Rodney and me the championship much like Jose and me four years earlier.
The best was yet to come, however. The real prize is not a medal or a finish time. Each person in attendance was given the microphone to share up to two minutes of what the experience meant to them. Spouses, volunteers, guides, VI runners all had powerful, sometimes funny messages to share. What we had built was a community that cares for and supports each other in many ways. We each give in our way to the team and we all rise higher for the choice. T.E.A.M. – Together Everyone Achieves More! This was in evidence throughout and is an opportunity for anyone who chooses to be involved in such things.
I advocate we all participate in our lives with passion and a plan but I especially advocate you choose to partake of the experiences which are so well proven to be rewarding. Richard Hunter has started building something and the foundation is strong, but how high we build is still being determined. We build ourselves and our world step by step and the real and worthy finish is always the choice to start! Want to come start with us at CIM 2019? As a runner, a guide, a volunteer, a sponsor or simply an enlightened observer? I think you just might win a championship of your own if you do.