Ron Marinucci September Column: Blind Runner Ends Running, but Not Physical Activities

Ron Marinucci September Column: Blind Runner Ends Running, but Not Physical Activities

Running for 39 years, Michael Holmes has had quite a “career,” as he called it.  Those almost four decades included “well over 1,000 races, by his own reckoning. Although his favorite racing distance is 10K (“…because of the distance and it’s not a sprint.  I do better when there is more distance to run.”), he’s run competitively from 100M to the marathon, seven of them.

“For eleven years,” he recounted, “I traveled all over the country to compete in the USABA (United States Association of Blind Athletes),” from Seattle and Long Beach, CA to St. Louis, Colorado Springs, Indianapolis, and cities between.  Along the way he accumulated quite a collection of hardware, including his first of many gold medals in St. Louis in 1984. There, “I outkicked my blind Illinois competitor, with a time of 48:51, by one second!”

It’s said that all good things must come to an end.  That may be a dubious assertion, but it looks like Holmes’ running “career” is over.  He explained, “I am retiring from running because I have developed more arthritis in my right knee.  This followed surgery on that knee in 2011. This spring I had to have some fluid removed from my knee.”  His doctor suggested that he quit running. “I hate to give up running,” but ever optimistic, Holmes added, “but I know there are many other sports and activities that I will be able to do.”

If you haven’t picked up on it by now, Holmes is blind.  He ran in those USABA events as a “B1.” That category includes athletes who have no or faint capability to perceive light in either eye.  They have “an inability to recognize the shape of a hand at any distance or in any direction.” He admitted, “Currently I have no usable vision in either eye.”  For those 39 years, being unable to see didn’t stop him from running and running a lot.

Now 62, until the age of 12 doctors diagnosed Holmes as having a “visual impairment.  I was a preemie,” a premature birth baby, “and the weaker of twins.” His twin sister has “compromised vision, but not as severe as mine.”

Doctors treated his breathing difficulties as a preemie with a lot of oxygen.  In the 1950s, they didn’t know the harm being done to the developing retinas. That, along with the premature birth, led to “low vision,” as he described it.

When he was 12, he lost sight in his left eye.  Eleven years later, glaucoma caused the loss of most of the vision in his other eye.  Eventually, that regressed so he is now able to distinguish some bright lights and shadows, but no objects at all.  Still, running was some years in his future.

He and his wife Judy lived in Chicago and Indianapolis, moving to the Detroit area in 1998.  The move was precipitated by the offer of a full-time job as a massage therapist.

While in school, he didn’t run or participate in any other sports.  That’s hard to imagine now, as active as Holmes became. His initial taste of running came in 1979.  That year took him to Seattle for the USABA national championship track meet. He grinned as he recalled, “After I had run the 400M race, I realized that I couldn’t keep smoking if I wanted to run.”  Yes, he liked running that much to give up the cigarettes!  He stopped smoking, began running, and lost more of his vision due to the glaucoma.  He recognized, “I needed to do something to boost my confidence.” Of course, that “something” was more running.

That USABA championship meet in Seattle was a turning point in his life.  “It opened my eyes,” and knowing Holmes well, I’m sure he intended the pun, “to all the things I was able to do.”  He added, “It was a wonderful way for me to meet other blind and visually impaired athletes. They were in the same place as I was!  I made a lot of friends.” Not to be discounted, “It was the beginning of me becoming fit and healthier.”

He recalled two of those “friends.”  One was Rick Joy, who was completely blind and deaf.  “He was a dedicated athlete. After our races,” Holmes said, “we would find each other with the help of our guides.  We would communicate through his interpreter. He was older than me, but he had the same determination as I did.”

Another “friend,” one with whom he maintained contact, was Harry Cordellos.  He was another completely blind athlete, “an exceptional” one, Holmes said, “who became my mentor.”  Holmes even passed out copies of Cordellos’ book, No Limits, a story of his athletic and other “exceptional” endeavors.

“Since I have no usable vision to keep me safe when I run, I have always found guide runners to run with. They have been the key for me being able to run and train and compete.”

He cited his first guide, Bill Schumann in Chicago.  “He taught me all about running—shoes, clothes, keeping track of time and distance, etc.  He became my running coach.” Schumann also guided Holmes in several USABA championships.

The late Hubert Aronhoff led Holmes in the 1985 Chicago Marathon, “my first!”  He also remembered, “Roshier Creecy saw me in a Chicago television interview. He later saw me jump-roping near our homes and wanted to be a guide runner for me.”  Also guiding him in Chicago-area races, including different distances, was Susie Terwedow.

When Judy and Michael moved to Milwaukee, Bill Hoffman read an article about Holmes in the Milwaukee Journal.  The two “became a good running team and great friends.”

Moving to Michigan, Holmes built a stable of guide runners.  Accompanying an article by Tom Henderson, he “advertised” in Michigan Runner for guide runners.  A certain Oakland Press running writer then also wrote a profile of Holmes. That’s when I began to run with him.

Coming with me on that first cold December 1999 morning run, with 5 or 6 inches of freshly-fallen snow, was Bob Drapal.  Drapal and Holmes made an immediate connection through their work with goal ball, a team sport for the visually impaired.  We both continued, individually, as mostly weekly guides until last year.

Included in this group of guide runners was Mike Hennessey, now departed, and Mike Rollason.  Both had seen the Oakland Press article and “called immediately after reading it.” In addition to training, Hennessey and Rollason also guided Holmes in many races, from cross country relays to marathons.

Not long afterward, Bill Guissinger and Dave Vanker joined the stable.  Guissinger became interested in guiding after meeting Holmes through massage therapy.  Vanker came on board after being impressed with Holmes’ finish at one particular Crim Ten Mile Road Race.

Holmes thought he was in runners’ heaven—six guide runners!

In a 1500M race in St. Louis, Holmes faced the disappointment of being disqualified.  Typically, blind runners and their guides run with a short tether, one about 20 inches long with loops on each end.  In that St. Louis race, Holmes’ guide runner finished before he did, appearing to be “pulling me across the finish line with the tether.”  He noted, “The rules are that the guide runner is not allowed to run ahead of the blind runner. So, I needed to figure out a new technique to run [legally] with my guide runners.”

He and Schumann developed one, something Holmes calls “the circle technique.”  With it, the guide runner creates a circle with his, say, right fingers and thumb.  The blind runner then places his left pinky and ring finger in the circle. This allows the two to run in tandem, side by side, easily coordinating arm swings.  It was a great discovery, easy to learn and use. From experience, I found that it took less than half a mile of running for this method to feel very natural. When on long runs during marathon training, we’d occasionally switch sides with no difficulties.

There were other advantages, too.  Both runners feel safer and more secure.  With practice, Holmes received more information about when to turn, without verbal instructions.  “It’s easier to talk and hear each other, too. Once any guide runner gets familiar with this finger technique while running with a blind person, it is smooth sailing.  Sometimes,” Holmes quipped, “you don’t know who is guiding who!”

Lest you mistakenly think Holmes’ only physical activity is running, note these.  He has cross country skied, ridden on a tandem bicycle, and used weights and the elliptical.  He is also “a big fan of yoga.” He added, “On one of my favorite workouts is to run in the pool.  It’s freeing because I don’t need to rely on a guide.”

As noted, he was a player of goal ball.  And in Chicago, he lived in a 24-story apartment building.  He started running the stairs, “two steps at a time,” several times each week to get into shape.  Eventually he participated in stair-climbing events.

With so many races under his belt, Holmes has plenty of favorites.  Among his seven marathons he singled out the 1985 Chicago Marathon, “on my 30th birthday!”  He also recalled that first USABA gold medal in St. Louis the previous year.

He often singled out the Dipsea Race, in Marin County, California, as among his favorites.  The oldest trail run and one of the oldest races in the US, it is more than 100 years old. And it is very challenging, even for those with vision.  The race is up and then down on a treacherous trail, often so narrow Holmes was forced to run right behind his guide, hands on his shoulders. The trail and its steps are very steep, with a drop-off on either side further challenging runners.  Toss in running through redwood trees, Dipsea “was challenging,” recalled Holmes, “especially for my guide runner.”

In Michigan he fondly remembers the Great Lake Relay, a two-day event in which he ran several legs daily.  With Hennessey as his guide, Holmes traversed sandy trails in the thickest of woods and even ran through running streams.  “We took off our socks and shoes.”

One race he looked forward to each year was the Crim.  He ran the ten miles there ten times, nine with Drapal.  “I have always been impressed with wheelchair athletes. I especially liked starting [the Crim] with them and running with them.”

One of his favorite memories was “my last USABA competition in Colorado Springs in 1990.  I had won three gold medals and one silver medal.” In celebration, “Judy surprised me with a Wheaties box [“The Breakfast of Champions”] with me on the cover!  I really like that Wheaties box!”

He’s also a practical joker, “a bit mischievous” he called it.  In races, “several times I accidentally stepped on the heel of a runner in front of me.  Sometimes it didn’t stop the runner, but sometimes his shoe came off. I always apologized, but then pointed to my guide runner to indicate that it was his fault.”

Drapal noted, “Michael runs with a tee shirt that reads ‘Blind Runner.’  One April Fool’s Day he wore his ‘Blind Runner’ shirt, but also gave one to me.  We both wore ‘Blind Runner’ tee shirts! The looks we got were priceless.”

Holmes’ guide runners chimed in with their thoughts and memories.  Drapal also recalled his nine Crims with the blind runner and the half hour head start they had, going off with the wheel chair participants.   They “almost made it to the seven mile mark before the Kenyans blew by us.” And one year, “following a wheeler” who was apparently lost, “we got off the course.”  But Drapal was quick to add, “but only once!”

One time a Detroit television station did a profile on Holmes during its nightly news broadcast. The reporter, Paula Tutman, came out in advance and needed footage for the piece.  Drapal was called to guide and led him on a short run for the cameras, “right into a curb and a fall! Very embarrassing,” he said.

Bill Guissinger also had a memory, one he fretted about and thought might turn out badly.  “Michael had a friend, ‘Charles,’ come visit him from Washington, DC. He joined us for a run.”  What Guissinger didn’t know was that Charles was also visually impaired! “We drove to the local high school track.  I was thinking, ‘This is going to be a challenge.’” Compounding matters, he remembered, was that a high school physical education class was also using the track, with high hurdles all over, at the time.  “I described this to Michael and Charles and they both just laughed it off. But it was nerve-wracking for me. We had to do some maneuvering during our workout. But we, all of us, got through it unscathed.”  And Guissinger remembered, “As always we had a nice breakfast after the run.”

Mike Rollason also had some fearful thoughts, ones I think most guide runners encounter.  Perhaps, Rollason suggested, people don’t realize the responsibility, indeed the pressure, that accompanies guide running.  Rollason does. “I will never forget just the second time I ran with Michael. We came upon some heavy construction, with piles of sand and soil.  Traffic was down to one lane. I told Michael, ‘We must walk. There are holes and stuff everywhere.’ I guided him through and then said, ‘OK, we can run again.’’  Not so fast. After two or three steps, Holmes fell, “really hard. He cut his knees and forearms. I tried to wipe him down, saying, ‘All the cars are stopped and looking at us.’”  Holmes nonchalantly replied to Rollason, “They’re not looking at me. They’re looking to see what sort of guide runner lets his blind runner fall.”

Holmes was, naturally, joking.  But Rollason was serious. He recalled, “I knew he was right.  When I got home I phone him and said, ‘I don’t want to guide [you] any more.  It’s just too much responsibility.’” Putting him at ease, Holmes responded, “It’s nothing.  It happens all the time.” So the two kept running together, “for the next eighteen years. In all that time, both he and I fell just once each.”

My memories are practically countless.  Of them, two are recurrent. The man loved to run hills!  He’d almost get giddy on our hill workout days. Holmes lives in a pancake flat neighborhood.  Hills, or even one hill, are tough to find. We managed to locate one, though, a pretty good incline of about a quarter mile.  A slight slope turned into something a bit steeper, working out nicely for alternating short hill bursts and longer repeats, a workout Holmes developed.  He enjoyed running that workout, invariably grinning and charging up the hill, six, eight, ten, twelve repeats. And he always counted, knowing I’d try to slip in a phantom repeat, not wanting to be short-changed.

It’s an hour drive from my home to his.  Occasionally, on a Saturday morning, that ride was not one I eagerly anticipated.  It wasn’t the running, but I don’t like to drive. But once I arrived, Holmes’ positive attitude took over, always.  It’s contagious! Never, not once, did I drive back home not feeling great. And not once, in almost twenty years, did we finish a workout or race without Michael expressing his gratitude.  Thanks, Michael.

Despite not being able to run, Holmes vows, “I will always stay active.”  In fact, his taped phone message is “Get fit; don’t quit!” He continues to use his Bowflex and elliptical each day.   He is a weekly regular to his yoga class. Running will be confined to the pool. He still has his tandem bicycle which he plans to use.  And he thinks he’d like to get back into cross country skiing, “which I first learned through Ski for Light, an organization that plans cross country ski events for the blind.”

Holmes finished with a further paean to his guide runners.  “Over the years,” 39 of them, “they’ve been fantastic. I give heartfelt thanks to all of my guides.  Thank you,” he repeated, “for working together with me as a team. I hope my guide runners have learned as much from me as I have from them.”  He reminisced, fondly, “During and after our races, it always did me good to hear others pat my guide runners on the back and say, ‘Good job!’ They are the gold medal winners.  It’s been a joy to become close friends with each of them.”

And thanks to Judy Holmes for her help with the interview questions.