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With help from charity, blind, homeless runner takes on marathon, self sufficiency

Like most all long-distance runners, Rodan Hollins knows the importance of a good night’s rest -- in training and in life. But having a bed to call his own has become an elusive goal as glaucoma has slowly taken away his sight and his job as a certified welder.

The blind, homeless runner's years-long quest to use the discipline of the sport to find work, a permanent place to live and to continue to recover from addictions will be highlighted Saturday when he attempts to complete the D.C. Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, with the help of the nonprofit group Back on My Feet.

"This is something that I really would like to achieve. But I know I'll have a fight on my hands," says Hollins, a former boxer who has completed four half-marathons but never the full, 26.2-mile marathon distance.

The 55-year-old Hollins spends most nights on the steps of a downtown D.C. church, just a few blocks from the hardscrabble city corner that is home to a mission where he, other members of the group and his guide meet for their regular "Saturday long run" -- a pillar of marathon-training programs that typically ranges from 10 to 22 miles.  

"Believe me, the church is the safest place to be," Hollins says. "It's well lighted and there's something about sleeping with that cross above me. It gets rough sometimes, but overall it's pretty good."

Hollins says this year's exceptionally cold winter has been a mixed blessing because the city typically offers him temporary shelter when the temperature drops below 32 degrees.

Hollins came to running several years ago, when he still had some sight but could no longer box. He says he has been drug free for several years and continues to try to find a training program that will help him work again and reach his ultimate goal of having his own room.

"He's incredibly dedicated," said Bill Kuennen, the program director for the D.C. chapter of Back on My Feet. "Ronan's made 91 percent of our long runs. He's run 1,500 miles with us. He loves to run. I think he's going to have a great race."

The 7-year-old group's stated mission is to "use running to create self-sufficiency in the lives of those experiencing homelessness, not to create runners within the homeless population."

"Most of my strength comes from that group," Hollins says.

Hollins runs alongside another runner who guides him with a small loop of rope onto which they each hold. Most of the guide's directions are limited to the simple commands of  "left," and "right," or "up" and "down," to avoid curbs, fellow runners and other obstacles.

Kuennen says Hollins has graduated from the group's formal training program but continues to train with the team. He also thinks Hollins is sincere in his efforts to find work and a permanent home but that Hollins' blindness has slowed his efforts, compared to other homeless runners the group helps.

"I would like to find something,” Hollins says. “But the whole Internet thing came as I was losing my sight. It’s been hard.”

Exactly why he hasn’t found a permanent home remains unclear. Hollins has made clear that as a blind person he feels uncomfortable being in a group home, a situation that volunteers say has kept him out the system to get a permanent residence. City officials did not return calls to discuss his situation.

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