The Babylonian Talmud teaches: “Because you have greeted one who cannot see, you merit to be greeted by the One who cannot be seen.” Inspiring words that would be reason enough for me to serve as a guide runner for a blind athlete in Sunday’s New York City Marathon. But there are other reasons as well.
Sunday will be the sixth time in the last eight years that I’ve run the marathon in New York as a guide runner for runners with disabilities, always under the auspices of Achilles International. The mission of the organization is “to enable people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream running events in order to promote personal achievement.”
Achilles is the brainchild of Dick Traum, a wheelchair-bound athlete who competed in New York back when the marathon was a series of loops around Central Park. He wondered: What if there were facilities and a training program to aid athletes with disabilities from around the globe in their quest to run marathons?
Well, now all that exists.
Sunday morning, hundreds of athletes with every conceivable disability, from Manhattan to Mongolia, along with their able-bodied guides, will gather at the Achilles tent in the shadow of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.
The athletes include veterans who have lost limbs in battle, individuals born with disabilities, and others who have overcome the unimaginable to make it to the starting line in New York.
The athletes I guided in past years were: a deaf man from California; a South African survivor of a car accident that left him with a stroke and brain damage; a woman from New Jersey with scoliosis (a condition that causes curvature of the spine); a woman from North Carolina with severe GI tract issues; and a French cancer survivor in his early 70s.
The woman with scoliosis had the best line. “My doctor said I could only run two miles a day,” she told me. “I decided I’d do two weeks worth of running today.”
My wildest moment (so far): In 2010, the night before the race, I went into a drugstore and ran into the Chilean miner who had trained for New York by running laps while trapped underground for 69 days. I’d seen him the night before on Letterman.
Turned out he knew little about the “lore” of marathoning – Vaseline to avoid chafing; carrying snacks on the course; and insoles because his running shoes didn’t quite fit.
So we talked, through his interpreter, and shopped for half an hour.
We came out of the store and a crowd had gathered – he was something of a celebrity back then. He pointed back to me, as everybody was trying to get selfies and autographs, and shouted, “I love you, boy!”
My hardest experience as a guide came with my French runner. My fellow guide and I literally linked arms with him and walked him the length of the course. This was in 2014, when crosswinds on the Verrazano and on Manhattan side streets reached over 50 mph. I’ve never been so cold, but our guy made it.
So why do people with disabilities run with guides? New Yorkers (and their guests) are an aggressive lot, and it never hurts to have someone to keep you from getting jostled on the course. Also, in case of injury or inability to finish, the guide provides company and reassurance until help arrives.
The Achilles athletes in wheelchairs or handcarts don’t need guides; they would be too fast for guides, anyway.
Last year, a father pushed his son in a wheelchair the length of the race. Now that’s athleticism.
What’s it like to guide a disabled person for Achilles International in the New York City Marathon?
The closest comparison I can offer is the scenes in the film “A Hard Day’s Night,” where the London cops escorted the Beatles as they rushed past their fans from limo to hotel.
New Yorkers recognize the yellow Achilles T-shirts, and they go bonkers for the runners with disabilities.
The spectators may not know exactly what disability a given runner possesses, but they certainly understand – and applaud – the intense courage it takes for a person with disabilities to go 26.2 miles.
This year my blind runner comes from New Zealand, and a scrum of guides will surround him. One in front to clear the path, two on either side, and one in back. Projected finish time: 7 hours, 30 minutes.
But what’s the rush?
It’s not hard to understand why hundreds of able-bodied athletes will run this Sunday as guides for Achilles. Where else can you get the runner’s high and the helper’s high – all at the same time – and then get a medal as a reward for your efforts?
Where else can you help make someone’s impossible dream come true, with 2 million people cheering you on?
As Achilles International says on its website: “While our programs focus on running, the truth is, running is simply the tool for accomplishing our main objective: to bring hope, inspiration, and the joys of achievement to all.”
About 1,900 years ago, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote, “God divided man into men that they might help one another.”
Whether you prefer Epictetus or the Talmud, it sure seems like running as a guide for a runner with a disability is the right thing to do.