Ron Marinucci February 2015: Spotlight on blind runner Richard Bernstein, Michigan's newest Supreme Court Justice
by Ron Marinucci, Feb. 4, 2015
Richard Bernstein has run many races. Included are eighteen marathons and a full Ironman Triathlon. Last fall, he won a different type of race. In November, voters elected him to a seat on the Michigan State Supreme Court.
Blind since birth, Bernstein was sworn in on January 1, 2015 to serve an eight-year term with his six fellow Supremes. He is the first blind justice to sit on the state’s highest court.
“Running had a lot to do with my election,” Bernstein admitted. And he noted, running will influence his performance on the court. “Running sends a message,” he said. “In running, nobody gets counted out. The marathon demonstrates nobody should ever be counted out. That’s what running teaches.”
The 41-year old began running “about seven or eight years ago,” he recalled, “with the Achilles Club in New York.” The Achilles Club was formed to encourage and enable athletes with disabilities, including blindness, to participate in mainstream athletic events. “It completely changed my life, my entire life,” Bernstein noted, “everything about me. It was incredibly transformative.”
It’s not as if Bernstein had never achieved anything of import before starting to run. He graduated from the University of Michigan, where he was Phi Beta Kappa. He then earned a Juris Doctorate from Northwestern University School of Law in 1999. Law degree in hand, he joined his family’s famous law firm and set about to establish a disability rights division. In that capacity, he’s taken on, in court, governments and corporations, big and small.
Yet, despite these accomplishments, he admitted, “I always had an issue with confidence. As a blind person, I had to struggle. Nothing came easy. Everything takes more work, more effort, more intensity.”
“In secondary school,” he recounted, “I had the idea that I could never do anything athletic. Athletics were never anything I could participate in. It has an effect on how you view yourself. I thought I’d never be one of those types of people, those leaders.”
He remembered his first experience with running. It was in New York City. “Here’s your guide [runner],” he was told and off they went. He found that run to be conflicted with emotions. “I’d never experienced anything like it, to run in total darkness. It was an intense experience, powerful.” That first run, “We did one mile. It was terrifying.”
But running had lessons for him, too. “You have to learn to trust your guide. There’s a level of trust in running. [Running] taught me how to trust.”
He continued to run, “two miles, then three, five, ten, fifteen to twenty,” ripping off the distances. Someone suggested the New York City Marathon and he decided to “give it a chance.” After that first run of a mile, though, he’d thought, “I’d never be able to do a marathon or a triathlon.” Yet, here he was.
Bernstein has run seventeen marathons since that first one, many the New York City Marathon. “It’s a great course for a blind person,” he said. “There are lots of straight-aways, not many twists and turns. It’s very manageable, not overwhelming.” In fact, he’s memorized much of the course, able to explain various sections of it in conversation. “The challenge of the New York marathon [for a blind runner] is 50,000 runners,” he said, which makes for a lot of congestion.
In the marathons, he runs with Achilles Club guides, “four or five of them.” The same team of guides runs the whole race with him. “They rotate,” using the tether. When not tethered, the others “form a diamond” as protection from the 50,000 others. “I like the tether,” he said. “It has to be long enough to be free, but short enough to feel the guide runner,” especially, he said, “on turns.”
Bernstein has run marathons in Los Angeles, Miami, Detroit (the Free Press), and Jerusalem, too. The Jerusalem Marathon, which he finished twice, “was a challenge. I had a fantastic guide and it was not overly crowded. But we ran through the Old City. The surfaces of the streets were different. We were running on stones a lot of the time.” He added, “And there were stairs!”
He completed his Ironman in Cour d’Alene, Idaho. In some ways it wasn’t as challenging as his marathons. “The course isn’t as busy. There aren’t as many people. It was spread out, like I was the only one out there.”
When in New York City, Bernstein likes to run in Central Park. “I’m very comfortable there on the loop. I’ve memorized all of the crevices, the twists, the turns. I know them all. My guides navigate me around people.”
It was in Central Park where he received a devastating injury in 2012. While walking the loop, he was struck from behind by a cyclist traveling at 35 miles per hours, well in excess of the posted speed limit for bikes. In addition to fractured teeth and many cuts and abrasions that required surgery, he “shattered” his pelvis and left hip. Bernstein spent ten weeks in New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital. “Everyone runs for their own reasons,” he said, “often significant meanings. I didn’t want the accident to be the end of my running. I didn’t want people to say, ‘He had a great running career.’”
He set about meeting that goal, to run again. He recalled the pain, “It was so intense, so sharp.” There was the constant “struggle of defeating pain. I wouldn’t let pain win.” It was as if his “spirit” battled his “body—the spirit, the soul versus the mortality of the physical body,” he explained.
“I had to start all over again, from nothing, after seventeen marathons and an Ironman.” Initially, he learned to “celebrate the simple victories, the small things,” such as “swinging my legs off the bed and getting in and out of a chair [by myself].” One of his “biggest goals” was “to make it to the nurses’ station. It was very difficult. I got there, to the nurses’ station. It was a real celebration.”
When he told himself, “I was able to do this,” an eighteenth marathon came into focus. “I was told I couldn’t do any more damage. It would just hurt. I was determined to make a comeback, to push myself back up.” And he entered the 2013 New York City Marathon.
“It was not like marathons I used to do. It was horribly painful. I had to accept it was a different kind of race, not a fast one.” That was another lesson running taught him. “It’s not always about your best time, your fastest time.”
Each step of the marathon was excruciating, he remembered. At mile eighteen, “I never felt pain to the degree, at the level, I felt there, up 1st Avenue.” But he didn’t give up, struggling against numbness and loss of consciousness, signals that his body wanted him to quit. He didn’t stop until the finish line and marathon number eighteen was completed.
Bernstein is “still recovering” from the accident; the pain is still there. But he continues to work out daily. “I always find time to run,” he emphasized. “It’s so important. It becomes a part of life.”
He alternates running days with swimming days, seven miles on the treadmill and ninety minutes in the pool. Although, “swimming doesn’t hurt, I prefer running because I’m a runner; at heart I’m a runner.” He finds swimming to be “more tranquil,” but running gives him “a greater sense of meaning…of connectivity with spirituality.” In addition, his morning run “helps me to organize my day and my thoughts.”
Bernstein’s running, the good and not-so-good, has helped prepare him for his seat on Michigan’s Supreme Court. “If I can survive a marathon and an Ironman, I know I can work through the challenges and struggles of life. Running has allowed me to realize I could do things I never thought possible.”
He went on, “Running and athletics represent every facet of life.” He expects that to translate well on the bench. And like running with his guides, he’s looking forward to working with the other justices, “as a team. What excites me is working, functioning as a team for the interests of the people. Everything to me is team. The team is most meaningful.”
Congratulations to runner Richard Bernstein, the newest member of the state’s Supreme Court.
(Photos courtesy of the office of Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein.)