Blind endurance runner takes on next challenge at the Boston Marathon
Anyone who has run the Boston Marathon has stories of the race's many ups and downs, both literal and figurative. There’s the feeling of anticipation that begins around 7 a.m. at a middle school near the start line in Hopkinton, Mass. There’s the heart-pounding exhilaration of the start.
The course from the suburbs to downtown Boston begins with a lot of downhill roads. You feel like you’re flying. But by mile 19, you feel like you’re climbing an endless staircase to nowhere. That’s all before you get to the legendary Heartbreak Hill between miles 20 and 21.
For however long it takes to run the 26.2 miles, there are emotional waves that can become all-consuming. Nervousness. Confidence. Doubt. Fear. Renewed confidence. Pride.
For Randy Pierce, who will run Boston for the first time on Monday, all those emotions only begin to tell the story of the last two decades of his life. Will he feel all the same emotions as the other runners in Boston? For sure. But like everything for Pierce, things will be different.
Pierce has been blind since the age of 22. What was described to him as a “devastating neurological disease,” stole his vision in a matter of two weeks. Over the next 17 years, Pierce learned to live as a blind person, even becoming a master of karate, but, when he was 39, the neurological disease attacked his body in other ways. While attending a Patriots game in Houston (Pierce was inducted into Visa’s Hall of Fans in 2002) in 2003, Pierce started having balance issues. He was diagnosed with a damaged cerebellum and placed in a wheelchair.
“There was a moment of self-pity,” Pierce says.
“That’s okay as long as you don’t stay there too long,” he says. So, I stayed in a wheelchair one year, eight months and 21 days. That tells you how I felt about it. It was hard. To be blind and in a wheelchair. I didn’t move around. If one hand’s on a cane and one hand’s on a wheel, you spin in circles. That was an analogy for how I felt in life.”
The doctors thought Pierce’s condition was permanent, but they ended up performing six surgical procedures. Somewhere between the second and third procedures they had Pierce standing on crutches. His brain was healing. By the sixth procedure, they were trying to get him to stand up with the help of a stick. A normal walking stick wasn’t long enough for Pierce, who’s 6' 4".
“They wanted something that would work for a tall guy, so they handed me a hiking stick,” Pierce recalls. “And it worked for me. And that ultimately led me to mountains, hiking.”
Hiking triggered Pierce’s desire to compete, which led to road races, which he did with the help of a guide dog. But a marathon is too much to ask of a guide dog, so Pierce found a team.
“One of the benefits of being a blind runner is that it’s not an individual sport. My whole connection to the race is going to be through the trust in how I’m being led,” says Pierce, who will run, holding a cane in predominantly in his left hand while one of his running partners runs slightly ahead of him holding the cane in his/her right hand. “I’ve got a husband-and-wife team. The husband is going to run the first 12.4 with me. That’s the official transition point. And he’ll pass me on to her at that point. She’s actually the faster runner, so I’m hoping for a strong finish.”
Boston will be Pierce’s fourth marathon in the last 12 months—and the fourth of his career—and he’s already a national champion among blind marathoners, having won the United States Association of Blind Athletes marathon in California in December. But, for a native New Englander, born, raised and educated in New Hampshire, there’s nothing like Boston.
“[Former Patriots linebacker] Tedy Bruschi described it well. He called it the Super Bowl of all road races in a 26.2-mile home stadium,” Pierce says. “It will be a pinnacle experience for me.”
When someone wishes Pierce luck, he says, “Thanks, but hopefully a lot of preparation and hard work is going to mitigate the need for luck.”
Truth be told, running another marathon—even one as prestigious as Boston—is probably not even in Pierce’s top 10 lifetime achievements. The trophies on his mantle are that impressive.
Consider, Pierce has climbed “The 48,” as New Hampshire likes to call its 48 mountains that exceed 4,000 feet. He did so with his faithful guide dog, Quinn, who also ran some 33 road races with Pierce before passing away in January, 2014. Pierce also became an internet sensation recently when he competed in a Tough Mudder competition in California. Pierce was one of the 10 percent of competitors—not blind competitors, all competitors—who was able to ring a bell while swinging on a rope some 25 feet above a pit filled with muddy water. A video of Pierce ringing the bell while participants and fans chanted his name went viral on YouTube. Soon, the Oberto beef jerky company was naming Pierce one of their “Heroes of Summer” for 2015. After the Boston marathon, Pierce has set a goal of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
"When I look back to what I’ve done since I lost my sight, I’ve accomplished more than I did before. That speaks to the essence of sport, competition and challenge. If we have no competition, no challenge, we stagnate,” Pierce says. “When we see obstacles as challenges to overcome, we set ourselves up to thrive. For me, being blind helped me learn how to thrive.”
Pierce grew up a jack of all trades, a kid involved in sports, for sure, but also in music and drama. At the University of New Hampshire, he earned a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and began his career as a hardware design engineer for the Digital Equipment Corporation. Back in those days, running the Boston Marathon didn’t enter his mind, though he does recall watching the race on television, and taking in all of those sights and sounds.
He will rely heavily on mental images on Monday.
“I don’t have sight, but I have plenty of vision,” Pierce says. “I’ve listened to all of the video descriptions of the course, like the one on the Bill Rodgers video. When we’d do our long training runs, I’d describe what we would be seeing on the Boston course, based on what I’d heard on those videos. I do that just to get myself mentally sharper for what’s ahead.”
Depending on the temperature, Pierce thinks a reasonable goal is to cross the finish line in about three hours, 45 minutes, though he knows the race, like his life, will have its ups and downs.
“There was a time when I thought everything important is no longer possible in my life.” Pierce says. “And as wrong an idea as that is, I think it’s natural for anybody who’s dealing with loss. And obviously loss of sight is as big as anything. I had to learn how to build trusts and bonds., and with good support, I started finding out, hey, you can do anything you want, just differently."