In my last post, I wrote about Dan Berlin. Throughout his 30s, Dan lost much of his ability to see due to a medical condition called macular degeneration. And then what did he do? He decided to become a marathoner. On Sunday, Nov. 6, I served as his guide in the New York City Marathon.
My job was to run alongside Dan, connected by a tether, keeping him safe from potholes, other runners and the random pedestrian rushing across the street with a shopping cart (yes, it happened).
Dan told me he thought he would complete the 26.2-mile course in between 3:45 and four hours. Although I ran a marathon earlier this year in 2:58:39, in the weeks leading up to the race I became increasingly concerned that I might not be up to the task. I had never served as a guide before and was not sure how much extra energy it would take to keep Dan safe. I also wasn't sure how my body would react to running that far at a slower pace than normal. And I knew that, no matter how well a person trains, there are many factors that can go wrong in a marathon. Injuries from training, like plantar fasciitis, knee pain or stress fractures, are not uncommon. I might wake up on race morning with a fever, or get food poisoning, or just have a bad day. I felt pressure to ensure that Dan had a successful race and hoped that I wouldn't disappoint him.
At 5:45 a.m. on race morning, Dan and I took a bus from Fifth Avenue and 38th Street to Staten Island. The bus was chartered for runners associated with Achilles International, a worldwide organization that encourages people with disabilities to participate in long distance running with the general public. About 250 Achilles athletes from all over the world ran the NYC Marathon. Like Dan, some of our seatmates on the bus had impaired vision. Others were military veterans who had lost one or both legs in combat. I expected to doze on the bus ride, but the group was rowdy and full of infectious positive energy.
Near the race start at the foot of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, Achilles set up a private tent with food and drink for their athletes. Arriving around 6:45 a.m. for a 9:40 a.m. race start, Dan and I had a few hours to stress out, I mean, relax. We hung out in the tent, stretching and chatting with fellow runners. A wheelchair athlete from Washington, D.C. showed us how he taped his hands to prevent them from bleeding while pushing his wheels during the race. In a previous marathon, he did not check the course in advance and picked up too much speed going down a hill with a hard right turn at the bottom. He didn't make the turn and crashed into a group of spectators. "After that experience, I learned to always review the course in advance," he said.
We also spent time with Connie DeMercurio, who would serve as a second guide for Dan. Connie trains with Dan in Colorado and flew to New York in order to support him in this race. Her role was to run in front of us, helping to create a path through the other runners. And she could take over if I wasn't able to complete the distance.
The morning was sunny with temperatures in the 40s F and hardly any wind -- excellent marathon weather. Dan and I wore layers of warm clothes and gloves while waiting. When it was time to line up for the start, we placed our warm clothes into bags and deposited them into a UPS truck to pick up afterward. We wore shorts and bright yellow short-sleeved shirts with the Achilles logo on them. "Guide" was written across the top of my shirt, and Dan wore a sign that read "Vision Impaired Runner." After lining up, we still had nearly 45 minutes of waiting before the race started. To keep from getting too cold, we wore trash bags, our heads sticking out of a hole cut in the top.
Dan, Connie and I lined up at the back of Wave 1, which included about 15,000 runners. We threw off our trash bags as the race started. Two more waves with over 30,000 people would follow. Due to the crowds, we didn't cross the starting line until about five minutes after the gun went off. Because the race uses a chip timing system, the delay did not affect Dan's final time. However, we did worry about the bustling crowd of runners. In his left hand, Dan held the end of a two-foot long, black elastic tether. I held the other end in my right hand as we ran shoulder to shoulder. Connie ran a few yards in front of us.
Dan coached me on the most effective techniques to keep him safe. He retains some peripheral vision, but when running he is always at risk of colliding with objects and humans directly in his path. Whenever another runner moved too close, I pulled on the tether to indicate the direction that Dan should move. We spoke to one another constantly. I told him whenever there was a turn coming up or a pothole to avoid. I told him to slow down a bit when we were boxed in by a group of slower runners, and to accelerate when there was an opening.
Whenever we saw an aid station, Connie asked Dan what he wanted and grabbed a cup for him. We stopped to walk for a few seconds at each aid station, drinking water or Gatorade and giving our legs "micro breaks." The aid stations were among the most treacherous spots on the course, as some runners abruptly came to a stop or dodged in front of us to grab a drink. Several times, I grabbed Dan by the waist and pulled him away just in time to keep him from slamming into another runner's back.
Dan's running form was smooth and steady, despite the jostling crowds. And I was energized by the regular cheers of "Go Achilles!" from the onlookers who saw our shirts. By mile 18, Dan looked like he was on his way to a solid race, and I felt confident that I would guide him every step of the way. That's when I stepped into a small pothole and twisted my ankle. I felt a sharp pain as my right ankle buckled under my weight, and I lurched to the side, slamming my right elbow into Dan's ribs.
"Why did you do that?" he asked, moving away. "Just tell me where to go."
"Sorry, I didn't elbow you on purpose," I responded, hopping on one leg. Connie did not notice what had happened and disappeared ahead behind a mass of runners. Dan slowed to an easy jog and offered to let me stop. I thought I might need to, but after testing my sore ankle, I realized with relief that it wasn't seriously injured. We began running again and quickly caught up to Connie.
Dan had obviously trained well for this race, and he maintained a strong pace over the final few miles. As we crossed the finish line, hardly able to hear one another's voices over the roar of the crowd, I glanced at him. He looked exhausted and elated at the same time. I felt the same. Dan finished NYC's challenging course in 3:50:07, just three minutes off his personal best.
Running the marathon with Dan felt like a celebration of optimism, of grit and resilience. He thanked me for serving as his guide, but I experienced the event as his gift to me. It was a privilege and an honor.