I looked around the picnic tables, and only about half the audience looked back at me. I kept talking anyway.
“So William and I were only about 90 metres away when we heard a huge BOOM!”
Some of the kids flinched. Some of them marvelled. A few of them grinned but still didn’t look at me. I was (once again) telling the story of how I had guided William Greer, a blind runner, to a 4:03:54 finish at the 2013 Boston Marathon, crossing the line five minutes and 49 seconds before the first terrorist bomb exploded. I stressed how William’s courage in gutting out the last kilometre, when his body and stamina were flagging, might have saved us both – if he had slowed to a walk, as part of him had wanted to, we both would have been approaching the line just as the first bomb went off.
“I know he saved your life!” cried Luke, 10 years old. “He knew the bomb was there! He just knew! And that’s why he ran! Because he knew!”
“You think so?” I asked.
“What’s a bomb?” asked Amar, 9.
Luke and Amar and all the other children around me, dressed in pale blue knit shirts and light khaki shorts, were residents at the School for the Visually Impaired, and they were gathered for an evening run. This nascent running program had been organised by Michelle Forte LeBlanc, owner of a local running store. Twice a week, she brought a cadre of volunteers to the school to escort 14 of the students there on two very slow laps around the school grounds to help train them for an upcoming 5K to be held at the school. As they jogged and mostly walked around the bland 1970s institutional buildings, they could see nearby the towering, modern, multimillion dollar football stadium, an amusing irony lost on the many present who, in fact, couldn’t see it.
When Michelle asked me to visit the group during a recent trip, I thought I’d be addressing a group of older kids, distance runners, perhaps, and their coaches. But these were little kids. Some of them had thick glasses and looked me in the eye when speaking to me, as the school’s standard for admission was legal blindness or a degenerative eye condition. Bobby Simpson, the school’s director was there with his running shoes as well, and he told me there are about 70 kids studying at the school, about 50 of them in residence ranging in age from toddlers up to kids who could legally drink, if they could find their way to a bar.
Luke, the kid who insisted that my friend William must have known, somehow, about the bombs – because he just did – immediately grabbed my hand and walked with me to the driveway to start our run. It was a little sudden, seeing as I had known him for all of seven minutes, but as was explained to me, these kids live far from their families – if they have families. They can’t go anywhere on their own, and no one comes to take them away, so I was the most exciting thing to happen to Luke all week. Maybe all month. Maybe since he got there.
“Okay, let’s go!” said one of the volunteers, and Luke shouted “AAAAAAAAH!” and sprinted full out for 20 metres before he gasped and pleaded for a break. I kept encouraging him to pace himself, but moderation wasn’t in him. He was a switch with two settings, walking and AAAAAAAAH! After making our way halfway around the school grounds and talking about many things with Luke, I decided to run ahead and spend some time with another group. As I jogged away, he shouted, “Hey! You’re not going to leave your kid behind, are you?”
Up ahead, two more volunteers were keeping Evan-Anthony company, if they could catch him. Evan-Anthony was by far the fastest runner of the bunch, although Evan-Anthony, like Luke, wasn’t very good at moderating his pace. Evan-Anthony liked to stop, get down in a sprinter’s starting stance, paw at the ground with one hand, growl like a tiger, and then take off. Evan-Anthony was 5 years old and had thick Coke-bottle glasses, through which he, too, seemed very happy to see me. Evan-Anthony’s world, like that of all 5-year-olds, was very immediate and very concrete – that bush, that tree, that building, all of which he sped toward, growling.
I managed to keep up with Evan-Anthony as we finished our second circuit, and then I decided to circle back, running the way I had come. Each time I jogged back through the darkening evening, thinking – as has been my habit of late – about my own troubles and woes, 20 or 50 or 100 metres later I would fall in with a child who had a much more serious problem, and a much better attitude about it.
Here was Brandi, 8, who wanted to be a cheerleader someday, which was unlikely at best. And then Luke again, who either couldn’t see me in the dimming light or pretended not to, angry that I (too?) had abandoned him.
And then, finally, a girl I’ll call Lydia, one of the few kids who was obviously, and completely, blind. Her eyes were rolled back in her head, only the whites showing. She was no bigger than an 11- or 12-year-old, but after a few minutes of conversation, it became apparent that she was older, much older – in fact, she was 18. She said she wanted to interview me for her current-events project, and as we walked around the drive, her hand firmly holding my elbow, she asked me about running, when I started, why I did it, and what I got out of it. These are complicated questions, made harder when asked by a young girl who never has, and never will, see a sunrise on a dawn run or the promise of an approaching finish line. Or, for that matter, will never run anywhere, ever, without someone to hold on to.
It’s impossible, if you talk about running, not to eventually extol it as a cure for what ails you – your sedentary lifestyle, your 10 kilos, your depression, your anxieties – and as I walked along with Lydia, chatting about all the effort I once put in to set a marathon PB, it occurred to me that no amount of running would ever cure her, and no amount of running would ever give me her equanimity and grace.
I grew self-conscious and eventually asked her to tell me about herself. She was blind since birth, she said, born four months premature. “Oh,” I said, “you must have been really eager to get here!”
“No,” said Lydia, in tone of patient correction. “I was a crack baby.”
We were about 50 metres from the finish, delineated by all the other students and volunteers who had walked, run, or in Evan-Anthony’s case, growled around the campus two times and were now waiting for Lydia and me, the last two stragglers. I said to her, “Do you want to run?”
“How far is it?” she asked.
“Not far,” I said.
She grabbed my arm tighter, and I said, “Go!” And I and Lydia – old and young, thick and thin, sighted and blind, ran for the finish.
PETER SAGAL is a 3:09 marathoner.