Published November 04, 2013
Richard Bernstein has been blind since birth – but that hasn’t stopped him from running 17 marathons throughout the course of his lifetime. And on Sunday, he successfully completed his 18th marathon in New York City, a little more than a year after a devastating accident made it almost impossible for him to run the race.
Bernstein ran with guides from Achilles International, a nonprofit organization with the goal of enabling people with disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics. The 39-year-old completed the race in an unofficial time of 5 hours, 51 minutes and 22 seconds.
Bernstein has had an athletic history that would be impressive for anyone – let alone for someone who is blind. But after a decade of competing in marathons and one Iron Man competition, it almost all came to an end on August 13, 2012.
Last summer, Bernstein, who was in the midst of training for the 2012 New York City marathon, was walking on a pedestrian path in Central Park, when a bicyclist suddenly hit him from behind.
“I got struck directly in the back, and it was a pretty hard hit,” Bernstein told FoxNews.com. “From that point on, it became a new chapter in life.”
As a result of the accident, Bernstein suffered severe injuries including a shattered left hip and pelvis, which left him hospitalized for 10 long weeks at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He had gone from training for marathons to being unable to perform simple everyday functions, such as putting on a pair of socks.
Though Bernstein was eventually discharged from the hospital, he was left with chronic pain, insomnia and an assortment of physical impairments that have affected his day-to-day life. Additionally, his health problems were made even more difficult by the fact that he was blind.
“You don’t really recover; you adapt,” Bernstein said. “…You can reach a certain point, but when you have a shattered hip and pelvis, it’s horribly painful and the pain is always there.”
Though he harbors no ill will towards the cyclist who hit him, Bernstein became determined during his hospital stay to ensure that other people would never experience the same type of tragic accident he did.
“I said, ‘I’m here in this hospital and have been here for 10 weeks, in horrible pain, but if we can make this (city) a little better, a little safer, then maybe it wasn’t just a tragedy,’” Bernstein recalled.
While still hospitalized, Bernstein reached out to the city of New York to see if anyone would be willing to meet with him to discuss measures to make Central Park more handicap-accessible and less dangerous to pedestrians. But according to Bernstein, the city refused to meet with him.
As a result, Bernstein filed a federal lawsuit.
“The issue of the case is it’s the park, and they know it is not in compliance with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act),” Bernstein said. “The reason for that is because people with disabilities are not able to access the park safely and independently.”
Bernstein is an attorney at The Sam Bernstein Law Firm in Farmington Hills, Michigan, a firm owned by his father. Throughout his career, he has focused exclusively on pro bono work advocating for disabled rights. His previous victories have included successfully partnering with the U.S. Department of Justice to force the City of Detroit to fix broken wheelchair lifts on its buses and a suit against Delta Airlines and Detroit Metro Airport which helped ensure accessibility for disabled fliers.
Overall, Bernstein said the Bloomberg administration has been the most difficult and resistant group he has ever encountered, despite the fact that Bernstein says he’s not even asking the city for any money – only improved safety standards in Central Park.
“I’m doing it out of my own pocket; I’m spending my own money,” Bernstein said. “…I’m not even asking them for reimbursement.”
When asked about the pending suit, a New York City law department spokesperson said in an email to FoxNews.com: “When a plaintiff brings a new lawsuit against the City, we evaluate the allegations based on whether they have legal merit. This lawsuit is defective in several ways, most significantly in its allegation that the City is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
However, Bernstein vows he won’t stop fighting until Central Park is safer for all.
As the months passed, Bernstein eventually set his mind towards another goal: returning to the marathon.
“I made the decision as things progressed to the point where I learned how to live with my new situation. I decided I can’t not do the marathon,” Bernstein said. “It would be more painful to not do the marathon than to do it.”
But Bernstein knew that this would be a different type of marathon from the ones he was used to competing in. He had been a fast runner, driven to strive for personal records, always pushing himself to new limits in each race. Now, his goals would be vastly different.
“Instead of focusing on a PR (personal record), the focus now will be…a new lesson, which is pain control, pain management and discipline,” Bernstein told FoxNews.com three days before the race.
Rather than completing his usual 20-mile training runs leading up to the race, Bernstein built up his endurance in the pool, swimming laps for two hours every day.
On race day, Bernstein set off from Staten Island accompanied by able-bodied guides from Achilles International, who acted as Bernstein’s “eyes” while he ran. The guides were tethered to him, so he could pick up on their movements, and they provided him with directional guidance while he ran. Bernstein added that some of the guides from Achilles have become his closest friends.
Though Bernstein said he felt strong and fit because of his training in the pool, the pain from his injuries was significant.
“It was pretty bad on 1st Avenue going from Mile 16 to the south Bronx,” Bernstein said. “But, I told my guides, I don’t care how difficult or painful it gets, we’re finishing this thing. The only way I’m not going to finish is if I faint, and even if I faint, we’re still going to finish it.”
When Bernstein crossed the finish line, nearly six hours after starting the race, he said he experienced a personal breakthrough in terms of coming to peace with his accident.
“I can’t emphasize how painful this was, but by working through the horrible pain, what it allowed me to do was make my peace with God,” Bernstein said. “I know it sounds crazy but that’s what it was…By working through this, I’m now at peace with my new life; that’s why I did it.”
And despite the pain he continues to experience, Bernstein said he plans to be back at the starting lines of marathons for years to come.
“I will keep doing marathons until I can’t,” he said, “and even if I can’t, I’ll find a way to keep doing them.”