By David Panza
November 21, 2000 - I want to share my experience running with a blind runner
in the 2000 New York City Marathon, in the sincere hope that other runners
will think about trying it in the future.
I had not intended to run this year's NYC Marathon, but read a flyer from my parent company, Chase (one of the sponsors of the race), that asked for Chase employees to run with disabled runners from the Achilles Track Club. I called the Club in September, and was sent an application in the mail. One can actually volunteer to merely help the Achilles runners on race day, run part of the way with them, or run the whole marathon distance. I opted to run the whole marathon, and put down a projected time of 3:45 to 4:00 to allow myself to run comfortably on limited training.
I was immediately paired with a blind runner from Switzerland, Erhard Widmer, who had run a 4:05 personal best, and had run London twice and NY twice. It was a coincidence that I spoke to Adrian at Achilles that day, because she was in charge of pairing runners. I later learned that most pairings occurred the day before the race or on race day! I had the advantage of a good 6 or 7 weeks to e-mail Erhard with my background and race history, and he did the same. So we got to know each other very well, and also spoke on the phone several times.
I met Erhard and his 3 buddies on the Friday before race day. We worked out together in Central Park, and had dinner together. Erhard gave me a rare 1990 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from his wine cellar in Zurich as a gift. The game plan was for 2 of his friends to run their own races: Enrico ran 2:51 and Rene ran 3:45. Philippe was to be tethered to Erhard at the wrist, and I was to run on Erhard's right to clear traffic for them.
As many of you know, race day was chilly and windy, particularly on the bridges. After an 11 minute first mile amongst heavy human traffic, we began to run sub 9 minute miles in Brooklyn. We hit halfway in 1:57, keeping alive Erhard's dream to break 4 hours. Philippe's job was harder than mine, but my job wasn't easy either. I had to totally focus on Erhard, making sure no one jostled him or tried to squeeze between us. I made sure I gave him the splits each mile, too. To minimize disruption to other runners, I made split second decisions regarding whether to run around runners Erhard wanted to pass and quickly get back next to him, or move them with a warning about a blind runner coming through or a physical nudge to move them if necessary. Very few runners objected to being moved, as long as I quickly thanked them and explained why I was doing it.
We had only 2 incidents of concern, not bad for 26.2 miles. At the 5 mile water stop, a runner barrelled into both Erhard and Phillippe, nearly dropping both of them. (The water stops were especially dangerous, by the way). Late in the race, Erhard was tripped up from behind and lurched forward. Otherwise, the race was fine, although mentally exhausting for me. Physically, I was fine. I had been worried about the marathon distance, even at a 9 minute pace, because I not done a marathon in 12 years. I have now run 11 in total, 10 in NY and Boston once, with a personal best of 2:58:39 at NY in 1986. But this year, I could have run 30 miles plus at a 9 minute pace, and for a change actually enjoyed the last 3 miles in Central Park, waving to the crowd.
Erhard and Philippe cramped up a bit after mile 20 and finished in a net time of 4:03:52, but were happy with personal bests. I walked Erhard back to his hotel, a good mile from the finish area, and departed for home.
The Achilles Track Club badly needs runners to run with wheelchair athletes, blind runners, runners on crutches, asthmatics, etc., particularly fast runners running less than 4 hours (remember, blind runners can't see but can often run fast). Their phone number is (212) 354-0300. Plans are underway for an Achilles Only marathon on April 1, I believe in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, but there are many races throughout the year where Achilles can use help.
It is important to note that you do receive a NYC Marathon medal for finishing, contrary to what I had understood. However, you are not officially in the race, and will not show in any listing of finishers. You are truly sacrificing personal glory for the joy of another, but believe me, it is well worth the experience. I hope my story inspires even one runner to consider setting aside one day of personal glory to make it possible for a disabled man or woman to fulfill a wonderful dream.