BOSTON, Mass. — Kyle Robidoux’s running journey has been all about pursuing the uncomfortable, but he looked fully at ease as he stood in front of the crowd of runners who gathered to watch a screening of a short film about his adventure at the Western States Endurance Run.
For Robidoux, public speaking is the easy part. He has done plenty of it during the past few months. In June, he became the first visually impaired or blind runner to start Western States, ultrarunning’s original 100-mile footrace. Clif Bar provided him with the race bib to participate, and the company produced a 6 1/2-minute film documenting Robidoux’s experience, titled “Narrow Vision.” Since then, the 43-year-old resident of Roxbury, Mass., has spoken to running groups around the country. He was also a featured speaker at the American Trail Running Association’s annual conference last month in Estes Park, Colo.
On Thursday, Nov. 7, the film made its Boston debut. That’s what brought Robidoux, his neighbor and longtime sighted guide Cory Gardner, and around 60-75 other runners to the Heartbreak Hill Running Company’s store at 652 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End on this chilly, rainy fall evening.
The event began with a short workout. Around 30-35 attendees ran a mile to a nearby track for some stretching, a demonstration on how to guide, a brief 4X400-meter workout, and then an opportunity to try guiding before running the mile back to the store. By the time those who’d taken part in the track workout returned, the crowd had nearly doubled in size.
After a few minutes of social time and the cracking open of beers, Robidoux and Gardner moved to the front of the store and the crowd settled in to listen for a bit before the film began. Robidoux talked to them about the importance of putting himself in positions where he is uncomfortable, of pushing the boundaries of what is possible, and of community. All were captured to varying degrees in “Narrow Vision.”
“One of my goals is I try to put myself in positions where I’m uncomfortable,” Robidoux told them. “I like trail running, I like running, and I particularly like running really long distances because it does mirror that cycle of life. It makes me uncomfortable either physically or mentally in that space and it provides the opportunity to think about how I’m going to work through that. Whether it’s life, or it’s work, or it’s relationships or it’s running, you have to put yourself in situations where you have to think really hard, you have to adapt in the moment, you have to adjust and you have to figure it out. Maybe it’s at mile 20 and you think it’s ridiculous that you have 80 miles to go, but you have to figure it out.”
Robidoux has been “figuring it out” in all aspects of life for years. At age 11 he was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that has slowly taken away his vision. Legally blind since age 19, his field of vision during the daytime is around 3 to 4 percent; he has no sight at night. He started running in 2010, and after a few years he improved so much that he started running marathons and began running on trails. He fell frequently, so he turned to sighted guides for help. He has run with sighted guides for four or five years, and now spends some of his time connecting runners and guides through the United in Stride at the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
“The number one barrier to getting outside and being active is the access to guides for individuals who are blind or visually impaired,” Robidoux said.
The reward of guiding goes both ways. For the blind or visually impaired runner, it opens a whole new world of possibilities for physical activity and adventure. For the sighted guides, the experience can be equally fulfilling.
“I started running with Kyle when he was getting ready for the 2016 Boston Marathon,” Gardner told the audience. “At that point I had only run half-marathons; I’d never run a marathon, and I actually had never run with another person. Kyle is actually what made me figure out that running with other people is actually the thing that makes our sport a lot of fun. If I hadn’t started guiding, I definitely would have never found the Heartbreakers and I just never would’ve realized that I enjoy running with other people who would bring so much joy into my life.”
Robidoux has enjoyed numerous successes in his running career, from running the Boston Marathon and Boston Double, to completing more than a dozen ultramarathons including three 100-mile races (Vermont, Ghost Train, Yeti), all with the support of sighted guides. During each of those efforts Robidoux pushed the barriers of what he believed he was capable of accomplishing. At Western States, he broke new ground for visually impaired runners just by stepping foot on the course. His story made headlines. Other runners with visual impairments took notice; so did runners who benefit from full vision. His story captivated the other runners in the field, as well as ultrarunners across the country.
While Robidoux broke through a barrier by starting Western States, the race didn’t go his way. “Narrow Vision” is unusual in the ultrarunning film genre in that the film shows him coming up short of his goal. After several early miles struggling on snow and ice and falling more than a dozen times, he missed the cutoff at mile 15.5. The film doesn’t sugarcoat Robidoux’s struggles, but it does showcase his resilient spirit. He returned to the course, and later the finish line, to cheer for other runners still chasing their Western States dream. He immersed himself in the community, soaked up the full range of emotions that came with the experience, and returned to Boston as determined as ever to push on barriers and create opportunities for others.
“My daughter came up to me and we both started crying, and she said to me, ‘Daddy, you did it. You worked as hard as you could and they pulled you off the course. You ran as long as you could,’” Robidoux recalled. “That was the moment where I knew I did the right thing. You put yourself in those situations that you may not always succeed, but you may not always want to succeed because you need those trials and tribulations to be able to pull back and keep working.”
By toeing the line at Western States and sharing his story through Clif Bar’s film, Robidoux has taken awareness of visually impaired athletes to the starting line of ultrarunning’s most prestigious race and to television or computer screens across the country. Just like those who inspired him in the sport, he has pushed the boundaries for what is possible and opened the door for other visually impaired runners to put Western States on their radar. Maybe Robidoux will go back one day and cross that finish line — or maybe someone else in the room at Heartbreak Hill will be the one, or they’ll be a sighted guide for the one who does.
His race may not have gone as he’d hoped, but “Narrow Vision” presents Robidoux’s story in a way that’s real, raw and honest. That’s why he was particularly proud to share it with his community on this night.
“I feel like it is important to know that particularly in today’s society where we can create these personas on social media, we often create them in which they are great and where we are succeeding and doing great things,” Robidoux said. “But films like this and my experience at Western States … I feel like it shows that we may fail in the sense of we didn’t achieve our goal, but then true failure is not going back after that goal. I’m very thankful to have a video like this that does show utter failure in the sense of not completing the race, but a huge success in trying to push the envelope to raise awareness. We wouldn’t be standing here today if it wasn’t for this video and it wasn’t for me trying to toe the line, so I define Western States as a huge success because it really did raise awareness about the abilities of all runners.”
Become a Sighted Guide with United in Stride
If you are interested in helping blind or visually impaired runners keep breaking barriers — whether personal barriers or for the sport — go to UnitedInStride.com for more information. The website has details about what guiding entails, as well as tools to pair guides and runners.