Blind and Visually Impaired Runners Take On Boston Marathon

By Valdya Baraputri
BU News Service

For the 25th year, blind and visually impaired runners will come across the finish line at the Boston Marathon along with their sighted guides.

At an annual pasta dinner sponsored by the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired on Saturday, April 15, one guide gave the runners the credit. “People said: ‘Awww, that’s a very sweet of you, being a guide for blind runners,'” said Matthew Vance of Humble, Texas, a guide for blind runner Matt Oliver of Santee, California. “No! These runners are kicking our ass!,” Vance exclaimed as the other runners and guides in the room cheered.

Blind and visually impaired runners might start the marathon with one guide and finish with another.

“The joke is that a guide can’t keep up with us, so we have two,” said Aaron “The Tank” Scheidies of Seattle, Washington. His vision is about 20 percent of a fully sighted person’s due to juvenile macular degeneration, a condition where the eye’s macula, a small area in the retina — breaks down over time. He has progressively lost his central vision. His peripheral vision is blurry, as well.

Scheidies has run 19 marathons. The 2017 Boston Marathon will be his fifth. People call him “The Tank” because of his ability to push a lot of power. He’s won the Men’s Visually Impaired Division for the last three years.

He will have two guides with him at the Marathon who will trade off at the halfway mark. One guide has run with him many times and the other just met him on Saturday, two days before the marathon.

“I have a history for going on too fast,” said Scheidies. “They’ll tell me if I went too fast. We’re not gonna let that happen this year.” His bib number is 1789.

With someone like Scheidies, it’s hard to tell who faces the biggest challenge in the Marathon. Is it the blind and visually impaired runners or is it the sighted guides?

Sara Ferniza of Austin, Texas, will be the guide for Ary Tsotras of Ontario, Canada. Ferniza also just met her running partner two days before the race. Ferniza’s experience running 45 marathons, including five Boston Marathons, has made her confident.

“I’m confident because I’ve been a pacer for 15 years, we’re just gonna have fun!,” said Ferniza. She qualified for this year’s marathon but gave up her place to be a guide.

Guides can come in all forms. Technology, in the form of smart devices, can be a guide.

Erich Manser of Littleton, Massachusetts, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa when he was a child. He is losing his peripheral vision gradually — he describes his vision as looking through a drinking straw with cloudiness in it.

As a tester for IBM, Manser will give Aira technology a try this year. He will wear a Google Glass device and receive commands from a certified agent somewhere else, as far away as California. At the end of the marathon, he will report on how successful the technology was for him, in hopes of pushing further progress in the future.

“We live in an exciting time where technology is moving so rapidly. It’s the best time to be blind,” he said.