How would you respond if you lost your vision? Would you feel sorry for yourself? Fall into a depression? Dan Berlin decided to become a marathoner. And then he started making history.
A business owner and father of two, Dan had been a casual runner. But after going blind in his 30s due to cone rod dystrophy, he decided to set more ambitious goals for himself. Treating blindness as "an inconvenience rather than a disability," he asked me to guide him in the NYC Marathon in 2011. Since then, we've run a number of races together, including the Boston Marathon and even a Half Ironman triathlon. It was after Dan went blind that he started to take on endurance challenges that would test even the fittest of athletes.
Last October, with help from Alison Qualter Berna, Brad Graff and me, Dan made history when he became the first blind athlete to run across the Grand Canyon and back nonstop. The 46-mile trek over rugged terrain with dangerous drop offs took us 28 hours. The press picked up on this remarkable story, and Dan became a powerful role model. Even the famous ultra runner Scott Jurek spread the word.
After seeing the effect Dan's Grand Canyon accomplishment had on people, Alison, Brad, Dan and I decided to create Team See Possibilities. Our message: Each person can overcome the greatest of obstacles. The key is to change your mindset by developing a new way of "seeing" what is possible. To deliver this message, we come up with major endurance challenges in iconic locations no blind person has done before, and link our efforts to a charitable cause.
Alison is a working mother of three and co-owner of NYC-based Apple Seeds, an all-in-one play space for newborns to five year olds. Their popular Songs for Seeds program is currently being franchised throughout the U.S. Her days are filled with nonstop family and work demands that make it difficult to have time to exercise, let alone train for massive endurance challenges. But, in keeping with Dan's spirit, she simply figures it out. In the middle of the night when we were guiding Dan across the Grand Canyon, Alison pulled out two notes from her backpack. They were written by her twin 9-year-old daughters, who said they were proud of their mother and didn't mind the time she had spent training. Alison cried as she read the notes, and I realized then what a powerful role model she was for her children. Despite the unrelenting demands of being a working mom, she set an ambitious goal and pulled it off -- not a bad lesson for her daughters to internalize.
As part of Team See Possibilities, Dan just made history again! On October 14, Dan became the first blind person to ascend the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu nonstop. The trek typically takes four days but we were able to complete it in 13 hours. We were helped enormously by our innovative and resourceful sponsor, Intrepid Travel. The Inca Trail has strict regulations, and Intrepid Travel was able not only to secure the required permits for our team. They finessed special permission for us to start before dawn so we would have a chance to complete the trek in time to reach Machu Picchu by sundown. They embedded a videographer in our group named Lucy Piper. An Ironman triathlete from Australia, she completed the exhausting endurance challenge alongside us, filming throughout -- impressive!
Intrepid Travel also provided a local Peruvian guide named Elyas Maxdeo who was deeply knowledgeable about Incan history, and had completed the Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu 215 times. He told us what we were attempting to accomplish was not impossible, but extremely difficult to pull off for even the fittest of runners. Elyas added that local officials thought it was crazy to try such an overwhelmingly difficult thing, and they could not believe that a blind person would even attempt it.
We left the trailhead at 4:30 a.m. running with headlamps in the pre-dawn darkness. We needed to make it to the final check point by 4 p.m. If we didn't arrive in time, we would be required to spend the night in a campsite and finish our route to Machu Picchu the following morning.
The trail was rocky with narrow paths that took us over three mountain passes, winding alongside dangerous drop offs high above a distant valley. The ascents were often brutally steep, and the precipitous descents were genuinely frightening at times. We climbed as high as nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, which made it hard to breathe in enough oxygen for our fatigued muscles.
We all pushed as hard as we could and arrived at the checkpoint at 3:58 p.m. Two minutes to spare! The rangers there were so excited to see us, they applauded and asked to take pictures together.
We made it to an overlook of Machu Picchu just as the sun was disappearing behind towering mountains off to our left. Glowing clouds obscured the sunset and gave the ruins, which were laid out below us, an eerie feel.
Then we all got choked up as Alison read aloud from the loving letters her children had tucked into her backpack -- just as they had in the Grand Canyon. Her kids praised her for being a role model and said how proud they were of this accomplishment. I'd say: lucky mom and lucky kids...
As Machu Picchu was slowly being enveloped by darkness, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for Dan. I was actually glad he lost his vision. Horrible thing to think, right? But I believe Dan is having a greater impact on this world than he would have had he not lost his sight. In his reaction to this personal tragedy, he's become a role model for others facing their own challenges.
This became obvious in the days following our feat. Alison had worked at UNICEF in the past and brought them on board as one of our sponsors. Thanks to outreach by the local UNICEF office in Lima, Dan became a mini-celebrity. The Peruvian press embraced the story, and Dan was interviewed by TV and radio stations, magazines and newspapers.
UNICEF arranged a visit to a school in Lima for blind children and young adults. I imagined that one of the students who met Dan might decide to ignore the fact that she is "disabled" and dive fearlessly into her own adventures. Maybe 30 years from now, she'll be president of Peru...
We're raising money to support the Blind Institute of Technology (which helps companies integrate vision impaired employees into the workplace). If you'd like to make a contribution, please go to: www.teamseepossibilities.com.