Excitement. Euphoria. Absolute exhaustion.
Emotions ran the gamut for the members of Team With A Vision and Team Coastal Athletic Association (CAA) Saturday, Sept. 17, as they stood at the Ragnar Reach the Beach finish line at Hampton Beach, N.H.
“It was euphoria,” recalled Team With A Vision runner Brian Switzer. “I was just high on endorphins, lack of sleep and lack of food, and was so excited about being able to finish as a team.”
For the previous 30 hours the teams ran side-by-side, sharing every step and every moment together as they completed the 203-mile journey that began a day earlier at the Bretton Woods Ski Area.
Now, thanks to a collaboration between the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI), the CAA, and New Hampshire-based non-profit organization 2020 Vision Quest, the teams had made history.
Team With A Vision – which consisted of Massachusetts residents Hannah DeFelice of Boston, Kyle Robidoux of Roxbury, and Switzer of Easton, along with Randy Pierce of Nashua, N.H., Allison Lynch of New York City, and Jason Romero of Denver, Colo. – became the first all-blind or visually impaired team to complete a Ragnar event as an ultra team. Each ran ultramarathon distances by completing between 32 and 38 miles.
The runners on Team CAA – Scott Heffner of Salisbury, Mass., and New Hampshire residents Peter Houde, Keith Levitsky, Kim McCracken, William McElroy, and Mark Ryder – competed alongside Team With A Vision as sighted guide runners.
“Crossing the finish line as a 12-person team (Team With A Vision and Team CAA) was the highlight of the entire weekend,” Robidoux said. “To know that individually two-person teams ran individual legs that culminated in 203 miles, and after all of the stories shared and candy bars and coffee consumed the goal is to reach the finish line. To cross it as a whole team was incredibly sweet.”
Finishing may have brought deep satisfaction, but it was only possible because the runners had the determination to start and not let a lack of sight stand in their way.
As an organization, numerous Team With A Vision runners and their sighted guide runners have completed the Boston Marathon during the past 24 years, and they’ve been a mainstay at starting lines and finish lines at numerous other races. A variety of types of visual impairment exist, and the degrees of sight loss vary greatly, including total blindness. The Ragnar ultra team was representative of this diversity.
“About five percent of people who are blind have absolutely no vision or light perception, so that leaves a large number of people with varying degrees of vision loss,” Robidoux said. “Our team ran the gamut.”
Robidoux has Rehtinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that has caused him to gradually lose his vision. He has a small field of vision during the daytime, but has no vision at night. DeFelice has Leber Congenital Amaurosis. She was born blind and has progressively lost her hearing. Switzer has Usher Syndrome and is blind with hearing loss.
All three and their out-of-state teammates love to be active, and they’ve refused to let their visual impairments slow them down.
When the opportunity to run Ragnar as an ultra team arose, they eagerly accepted the challenge. Robidoux had prior ultramarathon experience, but DeFelice and Switzer did not.
“My biggest concern definitely was fatigue,” Switzer said. “How do you push yourself through 33 miles to the end?”
Robidoux noted that only one of the six CAA runners (Houde) had previous experience guiding a visually impaired runner, so Robidoux organized a training run in Boston three weeks before Ragnar to practice and build camaraderie. That practice ultimately paid off.
Teamwork went far beyond just runner and guide on race weekend. A first-class display of collaboration was required to take on such a big challenge.
“This was only possible because of teamwork,” DeFelice said. “The guides said ‘It’s amazing that you guys did this!’ But really the guides were the ones who were amazing. Two of them were always driving, one of them was always running … they were always ‘on.’ When you think about being a guide, you’re not just running, but you’re helping find a port-a-pottie, helping find food … all sorts of things. I was really impressed with the guide team. They ran the ultra, and they did all that!”
While the guide runners on Team CAA carried the bulk of the responsibilities, running the actual miles and keeping each other motivated was a shared duty.
“When you have two people running the same leg, you’re both responsible for motivating each other and thinking positively and pushing each other through the leg,” Switzer said. “The two of you are only as good as the slowest person.”
While Team With A Vision and Team CAA faced some obstacles that were unique to their particular arrangement, they also encountered many of the same challenges as every other team on the course – fatigue and lack of sleep, in particular.
“Funny story,” Switzer recalled. “Sleep was a big problem for everyone. I probably got the most amount of sleep, but when it was my turn for one of the late-night runs I had fallen asleep and they kept trying to wake me up, but I wouldn’t wake up. By the time they finally woke me up, I had about five minutes to get ready to run. That was probably one of the toughest parts because I had to literally go for a run right from waking up.”
And how did the legs respond?
“Not well,” Switzer said with a laugh. “That first mile was pretty slow.”
There also was a problem that DeFelice came well-prepared for – and that many teams surely endured – but, she was pleasantly surprised to discover was not an issue.
“I was really concerned about how the vans were going to smell, so I brought lavender spray,” she said. “I ran college cross country, so I knew about long van rides with stinky runners – but I actually didn’t need it!”
Sunrise on Saturday morning, Sept. 17, was a sign that the finish line was close. It also marked the start of Usher Syndrome Awareness Day. Switzer – who trains with a running guide dog through the Guiding Eyes for the Blind program – is one of about 400,000 people worldwide with Usher Syndrome, so he and the runners on both teams finished the race wearing blue and yellow ribbons.
“The Usher Syndrome community is really close. It’s a pretty rare genetic condition, so people tend to call us a family,” Switzer said. “To be able to finish an ultra on Usher Syndrome Awareness Day I think symbolizes to other people with Usher Syndrome and parents of newly-diagnosed kids with Usher Syndrome that there is a lot of hope and there is a lot that their kids can do regardless of what happens with their kids’ vision in the future.”
Finally, the runners felt the sand beneath their feet as they officially reached the beach and charged across the finish line.
“It was hugely amazing,” DeFelice said. “It was a mix of a few minutes of absolute excitement – ‘I can’t believe we did this!’ – and absolute exhaustion. It was just really, really exciting. When we finished, people that didn’t even know us were clapping and cheering. It was a really good atmosphere.”
All of the runners were thankful for the opportunity to run together, share the journey, and raise awareness about the abilities of athletes who are blind or visually impaired.
“We know that doing a race like this, or any race we enter, brings a tremendous amount of awareness to runners who are visually impaired and our guides, and we are grateful for the opportunity to run a relay race like this where we come across so many other runners, volunteers, and supporters in the crowd,” Robidoux said. “We had some great conversations with people, talked to folks about the dynamics of guiding, and tried to recruit some new guides to the program.”
Additionally, DeFelice, Switzer and Robidoux also reiterated the importance of having sighted guides and praised the runners on Team CAA for the critical role that they played in making the weekend a success. In fact, Robidoux pointed out, the Team CAA runners’ willingness to share the weekend adventure represents the very best of the running community.
“At the end of the day, the CAA guides were a registered official Ragnar team. They finished Ragnar together; the only hitch was we started and finished at the exact same time,” Robidoux said. “They logged their miles and covered 203 miles as well, and to do it in a way that they chose to support runners who are blind and visually impaired is magic. That’s the magic that we see in the running community, and it’s the reason so many of us gravitate to road- and trail-running is the magic that happens out there on the roads and the trails.”