It wasn’t long after registering for the American River 50 Endurance Run when well-intended and caring friends privately started questioning why I would consider signing up to do something that ran a great risk of injury. At one point my wife, Heidi, came to me and asked if I had really thought this one through. Friends had told her about the dangerous terrain and sheer drop offs along the trails. After all, after losing most of my vision, I have had zero experience running on single track trails. I just recalled how much I enjoyed running on trails while in the Marine Corps 24-years ago.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t worried at all about those things that seemed to make others question my sanity. I would routinely say, “Sighted people do 100 mile races in the dark, so why can’t I run 50 miles during the day with the help of a guide?” Another common refrain was, “It is more likely for me to twist an ankle than others, so I’ll only train as much as necessary on trails and do the bulk of my training on solid surfaces.” After finishing a full Ironman, I knew I had the capacity for a long endurance event. I wasn’t sure, however, how my legs would hold up beyond a marathon distance since I have had plenty of cramping experience in my earlier running days. The prospect of a locked up hamstring as I stepped up and over big rocks late in an uphill race was admittedly a little daunting.
The first of many blessings came the day before the 2012 California International Marathon when I accompanied New Zealand blind marathoner Rob Matthews and his guide Matt Bailey to Sacramento Fleet Feet Sports to get the most for their currency exchange rate. They were receiving Nordstrom-like service from a woman by the name of Diane Forrest who was incredibly knowledgeable, had exceptional communication skills, and was extraordinarily patient. When I found out she had finished the infamous Western States 100, I asked her if she would have any interest in guiding me on some trail training runs. Fortunately, she isn’t the type to shy away from a challenge and loves folding new people into trail running. Diane was a natural guide. I came to the conclusion that trail runners have a special knack for guiding because they have to be very in tune with the surfaces themselves. The key was to speak what was normally a thought. Diane is also the one who introduced me to her friend and co-worker, Bob Halpenny, who shared her skill, experience and passion to volunteer.
AR50 Training Highlights:
When I set the goal of AR50, I told my coach that the December California International Marathon was not going to be my “A” race. I was using it as a build race to ensure I was logging miles to have the proper base for AR50. Instead of leading up to a marathon with speed work, I was instructed to train my body to run WAY slower, ultimately that meant running 1:30 to 1:45 min/mile slower than marathon pace for all my training runs. He threw in a few fartlek runs a few weeks out from the CIM and told me my body would remember how to run fast. Boy was he right! I ended up setting a personal best at the CIM, finishing in 3:17, despite driving rain causing isolated flooding and 35 mph headwinds during the first half of the race.
Humbled by Snowy Hills:
A few weeks after the CIM, I was back building mileage. We spent the New Year break outside of Klamath Falls, Oregon and the training plan included a 20 -mile run. It was cold and the roads were covered in snow and ice. I was in luck. I learned about the Linkville Lopers running group and they had scheduled a 20-mile training run and they were willing to guide me along. When I heard that some were ONLY going to be running a 9 min/mile pace, I said I’d have no problems keeping up. Well…needless to say, to date, AR50 and Ironman included, I have NEVER gone for a run in which my cardio and legs suffered so much! Similar to trail running, the roads and sidewalks had no bold color contrasts to keep me in line, so it was incumbent for me to stay behind someone and listen to cues. As we left town and found ourselves on a country road, I quickly realized that I had embarked on a challenge I wasn’t sure I was up for doing. Not only was the altitude around 4500 feet, this run included some very long uphill climbs. It was slick and steep enough for my feet to slide back 6 inches with each step. My heart rate soared! I was humbled by the ease at which they ran up these hills. I couldn’t even talk at many points and was starting to wonder how in the heck I’d get back. I was growing colder and more exhausted as time went on. I became keenly aware that there was NO way Heidi could come and pick me up. She would have needed a 4-wheel drive with snow tires. I was too aware of the dwindling side roads and lack of structures. At one point, I recall asking if there were houses out that far. I was nervous that I didn’t have an “out” and was embarrassed by the prospect that this Ironman was going to crap out on a 20 mile run. I had never been stressed about a run in my life, and kept it to myself because I didn’t want to alarm these kind people that the blind guy was going to become a casualty. My spirits lifted when we turned around. Every step would be closer to civilization. While I slowed down my new friends a little, they were now friends, so I allowed myself to walk a little more, let myself fall a little farther behind on the hills, and had shed my pride and arrogance long ago. My spirits started to lift on the way back, and I kept at it, feeling like a wimp the entire way. I was beyond relieved to see Heidi’s car at the finish, exclaimed “Thank God!” loud enough for everyone to hear, and watched my friends extend the 20-mile run as we drove off. This was not the confidence builder I was hoping for. I could rationalize that I had just ran a marathon and wasn’t used to running at altitude, but my goals this year included a 50-mile uphill endurance run and an Ironman at 6000+ feet of elevation. I had a great wake-up call and realized I had a ton of work to do!
I’ll never forget one of my early runs with Diane Forrest and her Fleet Feet running buddies; it also happened to be the first time Bob Halpenny took a turn at guiding me. We were planning to run the first 14 miles of the AR50 trail section from Beal’s Point to Rattlesnake Bar, which included the infamous Meat Grinder. We didn’t finish where we had planned, and it had nothing to do with me getting hurt. With about an hour to go, a young fawn slowly ran towards us. Bob first questioned if it had rabies because it was foamy at the mouth, panting, dehydrated, and not behaving like a wild animal. It came right up to us and sniffed at us as though it were a dog. Diane’s motherly instincts kicked into over-drive, and leaving the deer behind wasn’t sounding like an option. I kept my mouth shut. After all, I was along for the run, and these caring people obviously extended their humanity to more than just blind guys. I recall thinking, “There is no way this is going to end well!” I was trying to imagine dragging a deer out of the forest for several miles and trying to fit it in the back of a car. Or, we would eventually have to leave and my new friends would be grief stricken. My own thoughts revolved around the injustice of survival of the fittest, and knew that this poor little dear was going to be cougar food. Again, I kept my mouth shut and let things evolve, and evolve, and evolve.
As good fortune would have it, a couple of women on horseback came along and informed us that there was a fawn rescue nearby. I must admit that my only contribution here was my iPhone. It sure sounded more promising than initial calls to people with trucks. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around where that one would lead. As Diane made calls and wandered around the immediate area for the best cell connection, the fawn followed. We were in luck! The fawn rescue lady could meet us at Horseshoe Bar Road, but it was well over a mile away. “WHAT, I’m thinking, isn’t there going to be some sort of team extraction?” Unlike the rest, I wasn’t feeling that we were much better off than before. In fact, now survival was clearly an option if we could get the deer out of there without scaring it off which would certainly result in its peril. First a lasso was fashioned but that was not appreciated by our new companion. Someone suggested, “Let’s just start running and see if the deer will follow.” After all, it seemed to be anxiously sticking close by. What a sight we must have been! We started jogging along the single track trail, and wouldn’t’ you know it, that deer got in line, and ran right at our heels, moving up and down the line. Someone would call out, “Richard, it’s coming up behind you,” and I’d feel little hooves clipping at my shoes as though it was trying to give me a flat tire, and then it would run up along my side, and I could extend my hand and brush it’s big floppy ears with my fingers. Crazy cool! Our savior greeted us at the road and informed us that she couldn’t get her truck started, and Plan B started taking form in front of my eyes. I was dumbfounded. “What? We miraculously got this deer to its final destination. Bring in the back-up, the back-up vehicles,” all of which was internal heartless dialogue. Plan B was to run back to where we were and then negotiate the terrain off trail to find the rescue off road. At this point, I turn off my brain, recognize that Diane and crew are going to live and die in those woods for that fawn, and I was just going to roll with it with great skepticism and admittedly great respect for those I was with. About the time we got back to our starting place, the iPhone rang, and we found out the truck had started. So… back we went. Now, about 4 miles with deer in line, you’d think I’d have a little faith, but I’m a stubborn soul. When I saw the crate for the deer, I could not keep my mouth shut. “How in the heck are we going to get that deer in there?” It was a canvas crate that resembled a large dog kennel. She responded, “I don’t know, but keep walking past the kennel.” Wouldn’t you know it, that fawn walked right into that box without incident!
Out of water and hours behind schedule, we asked for a ride to the car. First, however, we stopped at the rescue to drop off our little fawn. At that time, I didn’t know my new friends very well, but I gained a ton of respect for them and had no doubt that I was in trustworthy hands. I’m forever in debt to them for creating this experience, and I’m humbled by their resolve and willingness to tackle a problem when a clear solution was not in sight.
How do I run on trails?
Retinitis Pigmentosa is a degenerative eye disease with progressive vision loss which can result in total blindness. While my missteps and mishaps occur with greater frequency, I’m still able to run by myself on familiar paved surfaces by following painted lines, the edge of a path with clear contrasting colors, and flow of the landscape. Since it is getting more difficult for me to visually discern the contrast of surfaces, I have been growing my own network of running partners, even in familiar places. I do not run in unfamiliar areas by myself and it would be impossible for me to run on trails on my own. On trails, the colors are all washed out and I have no depth perception. The landscape is a foggy wash. I couldn’t even walk on a trail solo without feeling my way, expecting at any moment to crash through the thinly veiled surface of an icy pond. In many places, only the feel of my feet distinguishes the trail. I think you get the picture. Running on trails requires extra special attention, especially when one has to negotiate areas with names such as “The Meat Grinder.” I tend to run about 6 to 10 feet behind my guide as they call out the obstacles they are negotiating. I can see the movement of their body and know when to anticipate steps as they call out things like “big step up,” “tight wire, tight wire, tight wire, stay behind me,” “root,” “stepping over a rut,” “running over the crest,” “quick feet.. land on your toes… technical,” “smooth runnable trail,” When there are gnarly and slippery, steep, or high risk areas, my guide stops at the obstacle, I put my hand on their shoulder, and I feel for the ground as I take a step, pretty much negotiating the section as a toddler. I don’t look down. I always look at my guide’s upper back. If I look down, I can’t see them at all due to the extent of my peripheral vision loss. At times, I close my eyes as I negotiate very difficult steps so all of my focus and energy goes to the feel of my feet. I quickly learned that the greatest challenge was going to be in staying focused. I must stay in the present and no amount of daydreaming is an option. One misstep could be the one that puts me on the ground. Consequently, I’m very slow on trails which ironically take off some pressure because it isn’t about how fast; it’s a matter of just doing.
Quite uncharacteristic for me, I had no serious setbacks in my AR50 training journey. More often than not, I normally spend several months in physical therapy while simultaneously building for a key event. I credit slowing down and a relaxed mindset to the difference. I discovered a new level of joy in running through my regular running partners Diane, Bob, and Matt. Even 20-mile runs began feeling routine and my weekly mileage entered new territory with no issues. 2-weeks out, however, my youngest daughter caught the flu and had a 104 temperature; I did what anybody would do, I gave my little 6-yaer-old the love and comfort she needed, started taking more vitamins, and crossed my fingers. Then my wife and oldest daughter caught a bacterial flu, accompanied by a rather nasty case of pink eye. I even told Heidi that, if I was going to get sick, it better happen early in the week, so I’d have time to recover. Then, on Monday of race week, I started showing the same early signs of the same flu, and the doctor prescribed antibiotics sight unseen. It must have been perfect timing, because my double pink eye didn’t go anywhere else, and I was feeling close to normal race morning.
Since injury and illness would not be standing in the way, negotiating technical trails safely, mental toughness and my ability to diligently follow my nutrition plan were going to be the keys to success. My friend and Ironman sport’s nutritionist Sheila Leard crafted a plan that was much different than my triathlon plan. My calories were coming from solid rather than liquid sources, but I had plenty of time to practice this so we could tweak the plan if necessary. She calculated the amount of fluids, calories and electrolytes I’d need and we set up a “feed” schedule. I set my Garmin to send me an alert every 15 minutes, and with the help of my guides, they’d let me know if we were on the top or bottom of the hour, because clock position meant different things and my mental clarity would deteriorate.
About the same time that illness took hold in the Hunter household, I started getting a few race jitters. This is the same time other ultra runners were reminding me that I’d learn a lot about myself that day, that I’d suffer, question my sanity, perhaps feel that I couldn’t continue, but that this feeling would pass, and I’d come through the other side. Suffer? Coming back from the dead? That was not part of my mental imagery. My image of success, branded into my mind by Diane Forrest, was that I’d be one of the few running up Last Gasp, which is a long 1000 foot elevation climb at the very end of the race. So, the jitters resulted in an unpleasant picture of ominous clouds in the distance as I ran with ease during the first 30 miles. I had to fight to rid myself of that negativity and remind myself how much fun I’d been having running in recent months with people exploding with positive energy. By Saturday morning, my brain was in the right spot. I was now repeating the mantra I had heard months ago, “Don’t be an idiot the first half, and don’t be a wimp the second half.”
After an expected amount of sleep on the eve of AR50, which means between 15 and 30 minutes for me, my alarm sounded while I was awake at 3AM. “No problem!” I didn’t sleep a wink before Ironman and I was fine.
A couple of weeks before the race, Bob introduced me to Erik Escher, also from Fleet Feet. He was tasked with helping me negotiate the logistics of the dark start and guiding me the first 14.5 miles. We stayed right on track with our pacing plan and he handed me off to my good friend Matt Linderman who had been running with me weekly for several months. While Matt only had to guide for just over 12 miles, he also had the responsibility of getting me through the first 4 mile section of trails; a misstep that early in the day would not be good. Having never run a trail race before, one thing I hadn’t given much thought to was how your relationship is so much different with other participants. When people pass you, you end up having a quick one-on-one connection with each person. Since I was wearing the word “Blind” on the back of my hydration pack, everyone coming up behind me saw it, and more often than not, gave me words of encouragement, even while standing still as packs of runners blew by us on technical sections. I was surprised how many people knew who I was, and complete strangers would shout out, “Richard, I heard your interview on Ultra Runner Podcast.” Some had questions as they jogged behind, and I quickly realized that my attention would be divided throughout the day, and I had to be extra vigilant.
Matt got me to Beal’s Point at Folsom Lake incident free, and Bob Halpenny ran up alongside to direct us to my pit crew to change into my trail shoes, refill my hydration pack, and replace my electrolyte water bottles. My pit crew included my wife Heidi and 3 daughters, Kiersten (16), Lindsey (12), and Makenna (6). They were all a great help. I felt great at mile 27 and knew I might not look so great at mile 40 when I saw them again. My longest training run was 30 miles and I knew I’d have to get through the gnarly section of the Meat Grinder before the next pit stop at Rattlesnake Bar.
Now, a little about Bob… For those of you who have read the book, Born to Run, Bob, 63, exudes the same positive love of running and has the ultra runner charisma that is involuntarily injected into your soul. He is a Western States 100 finisher and has helped a lot of people reach their running goals. He’s a student of form, diet, and kettle-bell. Bob would later tell my wife that he has never talked so much while running in his life. My wife laughed as she knew I bend many ears, but Bob didn’t throw me under the bus. While I’m sure the former was true, Bob had to constantly talk as he ran to keep me safe, and he took that part VERY seriously. I trust Bob implicitly because of this and didn’t have to waste an ounce of energy worrying about the terrain. It was impossible to take away the risk, but Bob knew how to make it manageable.
Although I had ran nearly all of the trail sections of AR50 while training, and knew that I’d be going slower than my real fitness level, I still got a little frustrated by how much slower I was than other people. It was the only way, but it was a tad frustrating nonetheless. We had to stop and clear the way countless times as packs of people would go streaming past. Bob would say, “Don’t worry about that. We’ll catch them later.” But, later didn’t seem to come fast enough. Even though the others also had to hike through and up the steep, rocky, slippery sections, I was much slower still. On top of that, it was exhausting. I was breathing harder and my heart was pounding faster on these sections than when I was running. It took an intense amount of focus and each step was uncertain which added to the fatigue. This went on and on and on… Risking sounding negative and a little whiny, I said aloud, “Geez, this is going on forever!” Bob quickly responded, “Stay in the present!” As an experienced ultra runner, Bob knew I couldn’t worry about the grandness of what lay ahead. I also had the benefit, however, of having countless words of encouragement from Bob about how “powerful” I was running, which meant a lot to me as I wasn’t feeling like that.
It’s also important to note that I had an additional benefit that others did not. All of those people streaming past me were saying things like, “You are my inspiration for today.” Others would call out, “You two make a great team!” I had a steady flow of angels passing me and lifting me up on their wings, so the frustration of going slow was trumped by these endless one-on-one quick encounters. One runner was so enthusiastic about my participation that Bob directed him to the podcast (linked below) if he wanted to learn about my story. At this point, Bob knew I was starting to struggle staying directly behind him and my attention could not be divided. Good man!
As we were approaching mile 40 for my 2nd and last crew stop with my family, I started becoming emotional. I knew two things: I knew I could finish and I’d be seeing my family, well behind schedule, in a few seconds. My throat constricted and I could barely breathe. My eyes welled up and some audible sobs escaped my mouth. Instead of entering the aid station with a smile, I was starting to look like a train wreck as though I was struggling much more than I was. Heidi later told me she had texted a friend saying she wasn’t too sure what would happen because I wasn’t looking very good. I sat down on a chair as they went through my pre-prepared check-list, and I simply tried to focus on my throat opening up so I could breathe. It wasn’t until we’d gone another half mile that I relaxed to the point that I could breathe easy.
We were anticipating smooth sailing and catching those who had passed us over the next several miles. Yet, we quickly realized, that while there were many areas of runnable surfaces, there were still sections we had to negotiate that felt like downhill river beds. We’d start to catch a group of people, heightening Bob’s enthusiasm, and then we’d be back at the side of the trail watching people stream by in packs. I was looking forward to Last Gasp, while I’m sure others were not. I had run that section a couple of times and knew that they were access roads, not single track trail. I thought of Diane’s expectation for me that day, and it strengthened my resolve.
The last several miles are a steep uphill climb. When we left the aid station at the bottom of Last Gasp behind, I was absolutely determined to run up that doggone hill. Bob knew it, and at this point started calling out, “Come on horse!” He lengthened his lead to the edge of my foggy vision and plowed ahead. Those around me were all walking up that hill. I thought about Diane’s words and I thought about the “Blind” sign on my back. Out of sheer respect and admiration for all my visually impaired and blind friends, I told myself, “Everyone I pass will remember a blind guy was running up Last Gasp and never stopped running.” That act alone, in my opinion, might change a few people’s perception of those with vision loss. I didn’t take pride in beating them up the hill necessarily as each one of them had said kind things to me as they had passed me earlier in the day. Bob continued to yell out “horse” and I kept plowing along. I was admittedly tired, but nothing was going to stop me from running up that infamous section.
I was greeted by the shouts of friends and family as I approached the finish. My swim partner Tom Leard jogged a stretch alongside us. Not only did I live out the vision of my finish experience, I crossed the line with my dear friend Bob in 10 hours 24 minutes and 35 seconds. My family and more friends were there to congratulate me and I received my AR50 finisher’s medal and jacket. Real race closure for me, however, didn’t happen until I sat in church the next morning, weeping once again, thanking God for those who helped me accomplish this goal and for the memories that will last a lifetime.
Links to Recent Interviews of Me:
Ultra Runner Podcast Interview: http://ultrarunnerpodcast.com/richard-hunter/.
2013 USABA Military Sports Program Video: http://youtu.be/438tcN6cgEw
If inspired, please help me in my goal to raise funds for visually impaired and blind runners taking part in the USABA National Marathon Championships, Sponsored by VSP Vision Care, by making an on-line donation at: https://usaba.myetap.org/fundraiser/runforareason/individual.do?participationRef=849.0.255528971. I started this event, am the volunteer program coordinator for the USABA National Marathon Championships, but this is the first time I’ve ever asked my friends to give to this cause. You can also mail checks made payable to USABA to me at the address below. Each dollar counts, so please consider helping even if you can only afford $10.00.
Filled with gratitude,
Visually Impaired Ironman, Marathoner, and now… ULTRA RUNNER
988 Palmer Circle
Folsom, CA 95630