How the Blind Run Marathons

Eddie Montanez lost his vision as a teenager. But if it weren't for the guide runner at his side, you wouldn't know it from jogging with him.

blind marathoner.jpgA blind runner works out, assisted by a seeing guide. (AP)

Every Tuesday and Saturday, Eddie Montanez, a greying marathon runner who is blind, runs around Central Park, starting at 90th Street on the East Side. When he feels a rapid incline and a gentle leftward tug of the rope he holds in one hand, he knows he's hit Harlem Hill. Over the drone of 110th Street and the breathless conversation of his three guides, who volunteer for Achilles International, he hears the familiar voice of another blind athlete. "You got it, Lamar!" Eddie calls out. As usual, Eddie's guides hadn't noticed Lamar until Eddie called his name.

At the top of the hill, Eddie's group stops for a guide switch (in blind running lingo, "guide" or "volunteer" refers to the seeing person, and "athlete" refers to the visually impaired person). The logistics of running with a blind person are relatively straightforward: Eddie holds onto one end of a 10-inch rope, and one of the guides holds onto the other. The guide is in charge of telling Eddie when to veer left or right to avoid running into people, when to step down from a curb, or where the button for the water fountain is. Eddie and the guide try to keep their rope-holding arms relatively still—the rope becomes jerkier when the runners are tired. The most astonishing thing about running with Eddie is that you are almost never aware that you are running with a blind person. His blindness recedes at sprinter speed. You report the latest on your apartment search, he talks about his job (IT work for the city government), and another guide admits to dancing on a bar the previous weekend. You only recall that Eddie is blind when bad-tempered bikers yell at you to stay in your path.

It was Dick Traum who opened New York's running paths to athletes who you might not expect to be there. Traum was the first amputee to complete the New York City marathon, in 1976. Now 71 years old with buffed arms, a protruding belly, and a prosthetic leg, Traum tells the story simply: When he found himself approaching 40, working 80 hour weeks as a management consultant and rapidly gaining weight, he signed up for a YMCA class. At the first class, the instructor asked if he could run. "So I said 'Sure,'" Traum recalls, "I didn't want to get kicked out of the class and lose my $300." With a hop-skip jaunt, Traum ran for five minutes. The next year, Traum ran the New York City marathon in seven hours and 24 minutes to a standing ovation. (A year later, a 19-year-old Canadian and recent amputee named Terry Fox discovered an article in Runner's World about Traum's marathon and promptly said, "If that old guy can run a marathon, I can run one every day." Fox ran for 143 days and 3,339 miles before dying of cancer, but not before raising millions of dollars for cancer research and becoming a national legend.)

Traum believed in "mainstreaming": having disabled and what the experts in the field like to call "typical" athletes working out together. In order to, as he put it, make sure that he wasn't the slowest person in the upcoming marathon, Traum founded Achilles in 1983. Six athletes with disabilities—some running like Traum, others in wheelchairs—completed the marathon that year. Today, the limiting factor isn't the number of athletes but the cost of registering and equipping the athletes for races. The organization, now called Achilles International, spends $80,000 each year on registration fees alone for races for its 5,000 disabled athletes across the world. Traum still goes to Saturday morning workouts with Achilles, where he's been meeting Eddie for the past ten years. The men's relationship—slapping on the back, competing who can squeeze whose hand harder, abandoning any sense of political correctness—resembles that of two teenage boys. (Traum: "You know, I'm overweight, so when Eddie and I are both standing there, when we both look down, neither one of us can tell how many feet we have.")

It doesn't surprise Traum that volunteers fight to run with Eddie: Eddie combines the levity of a man who genuinely laughs at your bad jokes with overwhelming empathy and quiet toughness. When he was 13 and quickly losing his vision—moving closer and closer to TV screens even as his parents replaced the house lights with 100 watt bulbs—Eddie didn't complain to his parents: "As much as I was concerned, I knew my parents were suffering a lot, so I didn't want to add to that." In school, Eddie insisted on not using a cane. Instead, he memorized the layout of the classrooms and hallways and got permission to leave his classes five minutes early to avoid the student rush. In marathons, some blind athletes ask their guides to yell, "Blind runner!" to part the crowd. Eddie prefers that his guides use a conversational tone, not because he doesn't want to draw attention to his blindness, but because, as he says, the runners "don't need someone yelling at them—they're working just as hard as I am."

When Eddie's group reaches the curve in the road near Columbus Circle, they stop for a final guide switch. The last guide is new, and throughout the run, Eddie has been keeping track of her breathing to make sure she's not left behind. He asks one of the two other guides to stand between himself and the sidewalk curb, just in case the new guide gets distracted (one guide once accidentally ran Eddie into a pillar). When Eddie turns left and hears the noise narrow and then open up a couple hundred yards down, he knows he's hit Cat Hill: the final stretch. He picks up the pace, and the guide, panting and jerking the rope but keeping up, follows the blind man.

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Julia Lurie is a writer living in New York City.

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