Friday, April 29, 2011

Robbie and Chris Take on Boston

Here's a great "Believe and Achieve." article written by Won with One guide, Chris Barnes about his experience with Robbie in the Boston Marathon that was published originally in the USA. Thanks for sharing, Chris!

Racer number 21585

     The Boston Marathon, the oldest marathon ran and the most prestigious race.  All the top athletes from around the world qualified, trained, and have now completed the 115th running of the Boston Marathon.  

     Robbie Burt, an athlete you did not see on the podium, not in the top 1,000, but one of the most inspirational people and runners at the 2011 Boston Marathon.  I know this because I was with Robbie every step of the way.  Robbie is a visually impaired runner/ triathlete from Canada whom I had the privilege of guiding through the 26.2 miles and ending the race with him getting his qualifying time for the 2012 Boston Marathon. 

            Robbie and I met a year ago in New York City at the New York City Triathlon where I was guiding another Canadian for the triathlon.  It was in NYC where we quickly became friends, sharing our love for tattoo's and running; we stayed in contact over the year leading up to Boston.  We also have one more thing in common; we are both blind.  Robbie is blind in both eyes with only a small portion of vision in his right eye.  At the age of 15 I went blind in my left eye due to a disease called Coats Disease.  I found out about an organization that guides blind athletes from Scott Johnson and quickly contacted them.  I started guiding with CDifferent and in New York City I met the director of the Canadian organization for visually impaired athletes, called Won with One, which Robbie races with.  I have fallen in love with guiding and for me, it's more rewarding finishing a race with a visually impaired athlete than any race I did on my own.   

     Robbie contacted me in late 2010 and asked me if I would guide him in Boston.  He told me that I did not have to qualify on my own; all I needed to do was come run the race.  Well, being the competitive person that I am I entered the Richmond Marathon to try to qualify, so I knew that on race day, I had paid my dues to get to that starting line, just like everyone else.  I qualified with a 2:58 and thus, earning the Boston guiding job.  

     After months and months of talking, the Boston weekend was here.  We got together on Saturday and perfected our running and instantly we were good to go.  We knew that we trusted each other and we knew everything about each other so the race was ready to be run.  

            Race morning the butterflies were flying in full force.  With 27,000 people running, this was going to put my guiding to the test.  Having to weave and pass people, jumping in front of people to get water for Robbie, and then a quick drink for me, not to mention the hills and the crowds that we would soon learn helped us through the race.  

     Okay, let me paint a picture for you so you know in your head how we do what we do before the race starts.  Robbie and I are connected by a tether, or rope, around his right wrist and my left wrist.  He does not use a cane when he runs, but relies on my voice.  He hears what I say and only knows what is on the road by what I tell him.  I am talking to him the entire race; the pace, distance, time, describing the hills, flats, downhill’s, holes in the road, curves, water stops, food stops, porter potties, and yes, what the crowds are yelling at.  Oh yea, one very important side note, Robbie is Canadian, where there they do not use miles, feet, yards, they use kilometers and meters.  So where I would normally say we have 13 miles left, I would have to convert it to 21 kilometers left.  So the entire race was a math class that I am pretty sure I got a B- in.  Robbie would gladly correct me and say that hill was WAY longer than 100 meters.  Looks like I need to do some more practice on that.  Okay now to the race... 

     The time was 10:38, we had 2 minutes to get to our corral for the start.  Making it just in time, the gun went off and everyone started slowly running.  Robbie was ready to go.  He told me we had to pick it up from the start.  This might sound easy to an individual runner, but weaving through a crowd with another person is not that easy.  We quickly found some helpful phrases that would help us through the entire race.  One being shoulder left: this translated to grab my left shoulder, we are moving to get water or food.  Another key phrase that stuck with us the entire race was Center Back: translating to put your hand in the center of my back and get directly behind me, we are going through close areas to pass and move ahead.  One more key phrase that we used was squeeze.  This one translates to exactly what it sounds like; we would squeeze together if the hole was big enough to get through without us going single file.

     The first 13.1 miles went great.  We were holding a steady pace, with the help of the land being mostly downhill and the wind blowing 20 mph at our backs.  I did have to stop 7 miles into the race and do some repair work to my shoe situation but a quick sock take off we were good to go.  You have to remember that this is Robbie's race and any time I have to stop to go to the bathroom, take off my socks or anything to that nature, it takes off of his time.  I am there to help him get to the end; this is his race, not mine.  However, I do have to take care of my body also; it is a marathon after all. 

     With the half marathon split being 2:04:38, the second part of the race is where we would have to do some real work.  There is a hill on the course called Heartbreak Hill, which is the notorious killer hill of the race.  Well, what you don't hear about is the other two hills that are only a little shorter than that before and after Heartbreak Hill.  With this being the first Boston Marathon I had run, it was a surprise to me to actually see these hills in person.  From the beginning I described to Robbie that lowering your shoulders and using your arms to help you push yourself up the hill you save your legs on the uphill and keep a steady pace.  He picked it up the first little hill and we were all dialed in.  

            So now there weather is heating up, the crowds are getting louder, most likely due to the amount of alcohol I saw on the course, and we are still taking it one step at a time.  Mile by mile we were going to finish this race, come heat or rain, we would do it.  

     Around mile 17 I took a glance over at Robbie and I knew something was going on with his body.  I asked if he was okay and he said yes, let’s keep going.  Now I know this is his race but at that point it was time to play coach and doctor.  The last thing that he would want was a D.N.F (Did Not Finish), those three words are not in our dictionary.  I told him that we need to pull off to stretch a little.  His legs were feeling the hills and the amount of time they have been going.  We stretched the legs out, got some water and salt, and back on the road we went.  Moving along to mile 20 where the second part of a marathon really starts.  I say that it is the second part of the marathon because the marathon is said to be split up into two parts, the first 20 miles then the last 6.2miles (10k).  Most people do long runs of only 20 miles so the last 6.2 miles is new to them.  At mile 20 of the Boston Marathon you start to come back into town, where the crowds are going crazy and you have the help of the crowd to get you to the end.  The crowd does help, but for us, we had been going for over 2 and half hours and the legs want to stop.  They are telling you to stop, just walk, it will okay if you walk the rest.  Well, Robbie's legs were saying just that.  I had to remind him that we were running the marathon, we had to keep going, we needed to keep the legs moving so they would not cramp up.  We started power walking, go ahead and laugh, it was actually quite amusing, two grown men power walking up the hills and running down the downhills. 

            Another reason to keep the legs moving was a PR for Robbie.  I knew his PR’s and wanted to help him get one today.  We started the race wanting to finish in four hours.  At the four hour mark I started doing the math in my head.  We really needed to push it to get his PR time on that course.  With the legs fading and your body wanting to stop, I talked with Robbie the entire last 5k.  I am guessing he wanted to hit me for talking so much.  What I said to Robbie was something that I have heard in my training, racing, and in life.  Words of encouragement to help the brain overpower the body.  The brain is a powerful thing, you have to know where to go inside of it to keep going when the rest of your body says stop.  The encouragement worked and as we enter the last long stretch of road before making the turn onto the home stretch.  

            Robbie was going to do this, we were going to have a new PR on that course and we were going to secure a slot for next year’s Boston Marathon.  The last stretch was challenging but I reminded him that we ran that same stretch a couple days before and he knew how close the finish was.  He could feel the crowd yelling and it lit a fire under his feet.  Robbie took off, with shoulders dropped, a determination on his face, the last turn was being made.  

            The home stretch was something that I have never felt before.  It was something out of a movie, thousands of people yelling and screaming and cheering for people they don’t even know.  I am not going to lie to you, I was tearing up.  I tear up every race I guide.  Robbie had no idea that I was almost bawling my eyes out.  I tried to pull it together but then I told him what that race meant to me on the last half mile with tears flowing like rain.  What was said will be between Robbie and me but it was basically telling him what he meant to me.   

            When we cross the bright blue finish line Robbie said to me something I will never forget, “Are we done yet?”  I started laughing and told him, “Dude, now you can walk”.  We turned to each other and had a great man hug.  With tears still coming out I told him what that race meant for me.  It was a day I will never forget. Robbie finished the race in 4:42:17 which was a PR for Boston and qualified him for the 2012 Boston Marathon.  

            Having the honor to guide Robbie was amazing.  Knowing that he could not complete that race if I had not been there is pretty heavy.  I would give up any race in my past and trade it for that day in Boston.  He is a huge inspiration to anyone thinking they can’t do a marathon.  Robbie started his training 250 pounds and visually impaired.  When he crossed the line at Boston he was a 160 pound machine and nothing but smiles.  Words can not explain what I felt when the home stretch was being ran.  I have overcome a lot in life but to be able to use my love of running and my strength in a way to help others is something that everyone should experience.  I hope that this story changes one person; that is all it takes, one person to change and myself and Robbie will be happy.  

            With the Paralympics coming up in 2012, triathlon is going to be tested.  Robbie has a five year goal that takes him to the 2012 Paralympics and then to the 2016 Paralympics.  Now, if that is not an inspiration, I don’t know what is.  Believe and Achieve!

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