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Blind Runner Richard Hunter Runs Umstead 100 Miler

Date: 
05/01/2017 - 18:40

By Teri Saylor, Running Journal

IMG_8551.JPGRALEIGH, NC — On April 2, deep in the dark woods of Umstead State Park at Raleigh, NC, there was a chill in the air as the black night sky drifted into pink dawn and the stars faded in the early morning light. Richard Hunter, in tears, burst over the finish line at the Umstead 100 Endurance Race, 24 hours, 29 minutes and 47 seconds after he started at 6 a.m. the previous day.

April Fool's Day seems a likely holiday to begin the kind of feat many people consider a folly, but at Umstead Park every spring, the 100-mile race is more like a family reunion. For Hunter, 49, whose vision has been fading for the past 30 years, traveling to Raleigh to compete in the Umstead 100 was like a holy grail.

Later, when the tears had dried and he was properly massaged and fed, Hunter reflected on his journey and vowed to take a month-long rest from running. He’s a Boston Marathon finisher and an Ironman, but this was his first 100-mile ultra-marathon. He considers it his greatest accomplishment.

“I’m so ready for a break, so ready,” he said, between bites of scrambled eggs and French toast. “I respect this distance, and I respect people who can run 100 miles. I don’t take anything for granted.”

Hunter started running when he was a kid, but never really liked it. He jogged for exercise, and as a student majoring in psychology at Oregon State University, he ran as part of his ROTC training. At 6’1” and 230 pounds, he’s built more like a lineman than an elite runner. In 1989, when he was 22 and serving as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, he was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa.

“Eye disease is not compatible with serving in the military, so I received a medical discharge,” he said in a phone conversation about a week before the Umstead 100.

He enjoyed a second career as a school psychologist, but retired in 2005 when his vision had diminished to the point he could no longer observe his students.

“Yet I wanted to continue serving as a role model for children to set ambitious goals in the face of adversity,” he said. He also wanted to be a role model for his own three daughters.

So he started running. Really running.

He qualified for the Boston Marathon and ran that storied race for the first time in 2008. He has run it twice more since then and achieved his 3:17 PR two years ago.

The National Eye Institute defines Retinitis Pigmentosa as a group of rare genetic disorders that involve a breakdown and loss of cells in the retina – the light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye. The disease affects 1 in 4,000 people worldwide.

Common symptoms include difficulty seeing at night and a loss of peripheral vision. In late stage RP, people develop what is known as “tunnel vision,” and eventually they lose most of their sight.

Hunter noticed a rapid decline between 2005 and 2008, and today, describes his field of vision as less than 5 degrees, with islands of grainy spotty, blobs.

“In the daylight, I can see shadows and contrasts. Depending on the light, I won’t be able to see the edge of the trails, and at nighttime I will be blind,” he said. “I will be able to see flashlights and headlamps, but not the terrain and in fact those lights may be distracting.”

Hunter’s dream team:

For Hunter’s Umstead run, he assembled a dream team of guides. None of the three runners he had tapped to guide and pace him had ever served as the eyes for a visually impaired runner, but all of them are experienced ultra-marathoners.

Alan Barachievich has run a dozen 100-mile ultras, including six Western States finishes. A physical therapist from South Lake Tahoe, Calif., he was the first of Hunter’s guides, scheduled to run with him for the first 25 miles before resting up to pace his wife Caroline, who also completed the Umstead 100.

Eric Fogleman, an eye doctor from Southern Pines, N.C., is a prolific ultra-marathon runner who was next in line and guided Hunter for the second 50 miles.

Frankie Stone, an event planner from South Lake Tahoe, has finished seven 100-mile ultra-marathons, including four at Umstead. She “knows Umstead like the back of her hand,” she says, and paced Hunter for the final 25 miles, in the dark.

The Umstead 100 takes place on a 12.5-mile looped course, consisting mainly of a wide bridle trail, and known for its forgiving surface. There is a short stretch of technical terrain and a sloping staircase that leads to the main aid station where runners can change clothes, eat, replenish water bottles and visit the race doctor and other medical professionals for minor pain, illness and blistered feet. It takes eight loops to complete the 100-mile course, and while the course is officially open for 30 hours, many runners strive to complete the race in 24 hours or less. This year’s winner, Olivier LeBlond of Washington, DC finished in 14:05:50.

At Umstead, regular runners are allowed to have pacers after they reach the 50-mile mark or after running for 12 hours.

Hunter, who never felt his limited vision was an impediment, was more worried about his size than his sight, and believed he actually had an advantage over the sighted runners – the ability to have experienced runners guide him and help him through the entire race.

“Frankie and these guys, Eric and Alan, they’re all accomplished ultra-runners and just have a ton of experience, so I was set up for success, no question about it,” Hunter said after completing the race. “A lot of people don’t have the support I had out there, in terms of crew support and the guide support from people who are so experienced.”

Stone admits to having a big case of nerves before the race. Neither she nor her fellow pilots had ever guided anyone with a visual impairment anywhere, let alone on a 100-mile trail run, and the weight of the responsibility lay heavy on her shoulders.

“I think we’re all really a little nervous about this because we want to make sure we’re going to be good at the job we’ve been tasked to do,” she said, sitting in the lobby of a local hotel the day before the race. “I think we are more worried than Richard. He’s as calm as he can be.”

Hunter gave his guides a tutorial he wrote for “United in Stride,” a database of resources and tools to unite runners who are blind or visually impaired with sighted guides across North America. It was founded by the Massachusetts Society for the Blind and Visually Impaired in 2015 and has identified guides in nearly every state and in Canada.

“Guiding a blind person is not rocket science,” Hunter said. “On Thursday (before the Saturday start), we went over to Umstead and we practiced with the tether briefly.”

He held up his tether, a flexible, bright blue, slightly frayed strip of webbing, about 18 inches long, with looped handles on each end.

A running buddy

In 2015, Hunter was matched up with his best training buddy, Klinger, a handsome German Shepherd. It was a newsworthy pairing because Klinger is the first guide dog in the nation trained for running. At the age of two, he graduated from the Guiding Eyes for the Blind school in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. in a pilot program as the first-ever certified running guide dog. It took six months of specialized training and logging more than 200 miles before Klinger was certified to become a member of Hunter’s family. Klinger, who is limited to running distances of six miles or less, did not travel to North Carolina. Instead he stayed home in California with Hunter’s wife and daughters.

The group of novice guides took solace in the idea that if a dog can be trained to run with Hunter, then they should be able to do it too.

“I never even thought about that,” Hunter said. “That’s hilarious. How hard can it be if a dog can do it?”

Stone laughed.

“I’m Klinger’s stand-in on this trip,” she said.

After Stone crossed the Umstead finish line with Hunter, her laughter mingled with tears of joy.

“I learned that people can do extraordinary things,” she said later. “Anything is possible. I feel transformed and forever changed, and my own running has already benefited from spending time with Richard.”

Fogleman, the optometrist, is looking at ultra-running with new eyes too. In his practice, he deals with low-vision patients on a regular basis.

“Richard is an inspiration. It was just a big inspiration to run with him, and I’ve learned so much,” he said. “This was a whole new experience, to have to maneuver stairs, roots and trails with a vision-impaired runner.”

The wreck.

In 2011, Hunter, completed the Ford Ironman Florida triathlon in 11:55:2. He has also completed numerous shorter distance triathlons and two 50-mile ultra-marathons.

But four years ago, on a sunny August day, while training for his second Ironman, his athletic career and indeed his life, were nearly cut short. He was on a tandem bike with his pilot, Justin Waller, when a car driven by an elderly woman attempted to turn left into a parking lot and hit them. Hunter, who was thrown over Waller, shot headfirst through the car’s windshield, his head landing the driver’s lap and his legs hanging over the hood.

His helmet was cracked, and he suffered facial fractures and a fracture of his C-7 vertebrae, which has never completely healed, though his spinal cord wasn’t damaged. He manages muscle tightness and pain with massage therapy and over the counter medicine. On race day, he relied on Barachievich, the physical therapist, to help with pain management.

A naturally speedy runner, Hunter knew his ultimate challenge would be to avoid giving in to a desire to start out too quickly. He relied on his guides to keep him slow and steady. After 50 miles, he was on track to finish the run in 25 hours, but he knew he had a chance to finish sub 24.

Coming into the 7th lap, Stone knew it too and offered to help him push his pace if he wanted to finish in less than 24 hours.

Hunter was beyond caring. He only wanted to finish and feel good. He ran most of the trail, and only walked on the hills. As they approached the finish, Stone hoped he was basking in the glory and his success, but he held onto his emotions until the very end.

“I was surprised at how stoic I was. I wasn’t going to celebrate until I finished because I knew a lot could happen,” he said. “Throughout the run, I didn’t know if my body would hold up. I expected to face my demons out there.”

But Hunter saw no demons that night. Only angels.

A few days after the race, Stone had time to reflect. She has realized a sense of purpose in her running and will be looking to Hunter to help put her in touch with other visually impaired runners.

“I love the accomplishment of finishing an endurance race, but because of Richard, my running has become more meaningful,” she said. “I was able to give someone their race.”

As for Hunter, he is easing back into his routine, taking Klinger for short jogging excursions. He is still amazed he was able to run 50 miles farther and 12 hours longer than he ever had before.

“I’m a big guy and I learned my body can hold up a lot longer than I ever imagined,” he said. “That’s not too bad for someone at 230 pounds. Not too bad for a fat kid.”

And for the record, despite all the jokes he makes about his size, Richard Hunter is not fat.

He’s fit, and has 100 ways to prove it.

(Teri Saylor is a Running Journal columnist. She lives, writes and runs (but not 100 miles) in Raleigh, N.C. Reach her at terisaylor@hotmail.com)
(This column appears in the May issue of Running Journal. To subscribe: http://running.net/subscribe-1)

Photo:Richard Hunter (right) finishes his 100-mile run. Guide Frankie Stone celebrates at left. (Teri Saylor photo)