The Mighty Quinn–he guided me physically in life and now guides me spiritually on my journey to Boston.
As my guide dog, the Mighty Quinn, led me across the finish line of the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) 5K in April of 2013, I was inspired to make the Boston Marathon 2014 one of my next goals. The positive and powerful community response to the tragic events of that Boston marathon enhanced my desire significantly. Yet when the veterinarian discovered bone cancer in Quinn’s body, there was no question in my heart or mind that I would set aside my running goals and the hours of training to lovingly tend my beautiful boy who had brought me to such incredible heights.
Along with reaching the summit of all 48 of the 4000 foot mountain peaks in NH, Quinn also guided my way back to running. Tragically, Quinn ran out of time on January 20, 2014. As a result, I decided to dedicate the following year’s running to him: #Miles4Quinn. Effectively from the BAA 5K on April 19 until the Boston Marathon in 2015, every step run will be in his honor. Boston, the Superbowl of road races, is most important for me to run in his honor.
Determined to qualify as soon as possible, I set my totally blind ‘sights’ upon the Cox-Providence Marathon on May 4, 2014. Yet when the schedule shifted in mid-March and my new guide dog, Autumn, began her training with me, I realized a significant setback was likely. Exclusive time spent in training with Autumn would be followed by critical, time demanding bonding and work with her to the general exclusion of long runs.
Winter weather and the loss of my primary running guide/partner, Quinn, resulted with me running near exclusively on a treadmill. With so many possible human guides gearing up for and then recovering from the April Boston Marathon, my options were reduced further still. Specifically, longer runs outside were severely lacking and there was cause to question whether I could or should run my first marathon under these conditions.
I knew how important it was for me to give Quinn my very best effort.
I knew how important it was for me to give Quinn my very best effort. I knew also that my life challenges and accomplishments had built up significant determination and perseverance particularly for endurance events. I knew one very valuable bit of additional information which would work in my favor. Thor Kirleis had volunteered to bring his considerable marathon experience to work as my human Guide.
Though we had met just once for a 10 mile training run the week before the marathon, we both felt confident in our ability to communicate and work well together. Qualifying for Boston was our primary goal, and he knew more than I did how very challenging that would likely prove given the factors working against us. He somehow also knew we both thrived on giving our utmost towards facing challenges with every bit of gritty determination possible.
With no vision, my feet must quickly react to every angle, bump or twist in the pavement. My Guide may steer us around many obstacles when possible or warn me to help the mental preparation as my foot strikes the pavement, but each of those turns causes a body adjustment to the turn through the rigid tether we use to link us while we run. Each turn is a mental concentration to evaluate and adjust while working many different muscles than the treadmill requires. Even the necessary interaction of weaving and communicating with other runners requires adjustments to running which also takes a toll beyond much of the basic training I’d managed in advance of this race. So as we began with our field of runners, I placed my trust in Thor’s ability to sustain the high focus, awareness, communication, and running condition necessary for our success. He did not disappoint.
The first few miles passed at a comfortable pace with the excitement of the experience sustaining many playful conversations. My breathing was relaxed, the muscle movements felt smooth and fluid, while my mental concentration sustained at a naturally high level. Early surprise greetings from various friends on and off the course helped bolster promising spirits, highlighted by my wife Tracy and the wagging wonder of my guide dog Autumn!
As we passed the 10-mile mark, matching our prior run together, Thor had steadily been coaching me and indirectly many around us on some simple long run techniques. This included using a short stride for best handling running uphill. Our guiding terminology had reached peak efficiency and small challenges of interacting with the course had become well enough understood that we were easing my fairly natural, blind tendency to over-emphasize each turn, experience post turn wobble and most importantly give attention to all of the ground obstacles. Thor’s mind seems to always be analyzing and problem solving, a trait I aspire towards as well. I quickly noted that he began to enhance subtle use of the “rigid tether’ (simply a short version of the white cane used by many blind people) such that he could more smoothly guide me through turns, into slow downs, or across lane shifts. In this, the work became easier. The overall work was starting to show upon me in other ways however.
I took the time to reflect that less than ten years prior, I was confined to a wheelchair.
Doctors believe my blindness is caused by a mitochondrial disease. My optic nerves are dead. Along with this loss is damage to my cerebellum (the balance center of the brain) and my peripheral nervous system (most affecting the sensation in my hands and feet). Having adapted to this for several years, the immediate challenge is often not in my conscious thought.
As physical weariness increased, food and water reserves decreased and winds whipped; all of these difficulties seemed to rise to the forefront of my awareness. My gels for nutrition weren’t settling well in my stomach, a sign my heart rate was probably a little too high for proper digestion. I took the time to reflect that less than ten years prior, I was confined to a wheelchair.
Thor recognized my introspections, the impact of all these factors on my breathing and stride. He encouraged me to consider many of the aspects of support we had discussed in advance. The incredible community of encouragement who had wished us well. I also began to mentally and emotionally lean upon the supportive comments of our fellow runners, attempting to return the support as best possible. I was quite struck by the courtesies extended constantly along our route.
We pulled over there for a Tracy hug and Autumn lick. I was deeply emotional but their support supplied me with more resolve.
The comfortable miles behind us, I felt the increase of effort needed as we passed the 15-mile marker. Passing that point I was beyond my longest outdoor run. As Thor had predicted, my body was already tapping reserves normally built with more depth through training. Muscles were sore, breathing was a bit more shallow, and mental fatigue was growing at a time when will-power and determination were going to be my primary means to push forward.
At this point the wind intensified as we ran along the ocean. It caught us front and left side. It slowed and buffeted me into many staggered strides. I was already reaching deep for mental reserves to push through, and Thor had wisely begun to encourage me to ease our pace, and even walk some of the up hill portions. I recall Thor telling me that if we could make Mile 20 we would find the way to complete the last 6.2 miles. I set my target on mile 18 where I expected to hear Tracy and Autumn for the final time. We pulled over there for a Tracy hug and Autumn lick. I was deeply emotional but their support supplied me with more resolve. I needed 2 more miles for Thor’s suggestion to become true.
I gave all my will towards running as long as I could. It seemed to me those times grew increasingly shorter as I requested to walk a stretch or had Thor suggest it from my physical reactions to the effort. Always I’d ask to run as quickly as I felt it and when that 20th mile was crossed, I promised him I’d run every time he asked me to do such. I knew at this point I would cross the finish line. I was fairly certain it was going to be painful and among the most difficult challenges I’d undertaken.
It seemed we might have enough time to achieve our Boston qualifying time as well. That, however, was based on my normal ability to run 6.2 miles, and now I was in a hybrid run-walk cycle. It was hard for me to accept the need to walk for a little recharge, but my body was making it clear to me. All the while Thor encouraged, distracted, coached, and most importantly, guided me along our route.
Thor was ever attentive, patiently sharing my frequent requests for distance and timing updates, as they were part of the motivation and drive I was using to test the limits of my body. When my thigh muscles began to spasm and seize, we poured more Gatorade into me. When my hydration pack ran empty, he shared his with me while we kept running, or walking, or (if necessary I suspect) crawling. It never quite reached that point, and the final miles grew closer with familiar terrain as we returned to the route we’d run more than 20 miles earlier that morning.
The supportive crowds on corners grew larger and louder. Thor used them as distraction. My ankles were probably the most painful from the many readjustments to the terrain, but all aches and pains are managed by our mind. The thing about any endurance experience is the really deep look inside yourself. In this instance, I have no doubt I was baring all of the thoughts, hopes, beliefs, weaknesses, and strengths to Thor as well. He took them all in stride after stride as he glided beside and slightly ahead of me.
All of this in as organized a fashion as my mind allowed amidst the chaos of emotion, exhaustion, pain, and love for Quinn. He was never far from my mind …
My brain was a little sluggish and my reactions followed suit as he called out the timing of high steps, turns, and the infernal New England Potholes!
Focus on his voice. Run. Listen. Walk. Focus. Run. Ignore the pain. Walk. Listen. Drink. Breathe. Repeat.
All of this in as organized a fashion as my mind allowed amidst the chaos of emotion, exhaustion, pain, and love for Quinn. He was never far from my mind, but the last stretch Thor, too, reminded me why I was doing this.
I hope to never feel time diminish the love and devotion I felt both for and from Quinn. My life is so vastly different from what it might have been in large part because of the bond we built. Our life can be so full of powerful bonds. Bonds with family, friends, community. Bonds with our pets, our fellow participants on any journey. Bonds with those we teach and guide at times, and certainly bonds with those who guide and teach us.
My bond with Thor was built on an incredible foundation over those 26.2 miles we were completing. My bond with Quinn was forged over most of his entire, though all too brief, nine years of life. Each buoyed my spirit and strengthened; my resolve to push myself through the challenges of the goal I had set.
I crossed the finish line with Tracy and Autumn running beside us as Thor and I triumphantly thrust our arms into the air. The euphoria of the accomplishment made me stronger than most of the final grueling six miles which I barely recall.
I was filled with pride for the human spirit which could move Thor to have made this choice and embraced our teamwork to such tests of will. I felt Quinn with me so strongly, guiding my spirit with the love and care he had used to guide me physically in life. It doesn’t matter to me whether it was a spiritual presence or the intensity of my returned love for him that drove me to such a powerful feeling. Love, in all of its wonderful forms, is enough spiritual presence for me to understand, appreciate, and embrace the gift of strength it bestows upon me.
I ran in honor of Quinn and felt the kindred nature of my two Guides who crossed the finish with me.
The Marathon complete, the Qualifier obtained, and my confidence in my determination tested, I am resolved to ensure all of the proper training necessary to continue on my path towards my Boston goal. This year will have many races, many training runs, and will culminate with my running the Boston Marathon in Quinn’s honor in April of 2015. I hope to ensure it is a testament to the training and progress possible. I hope it is a celebration of all the steps of the many journeys shared. I’m sure it will be an entirely different experience through and through.
For now and always I have the knowledge that May 4, 2014 was an excellent day to undertake a worthy challenge, rise to meet the challenge, and be thankful for every aspect necessary to do such. This race means most to me, particularly due to the Guides. Thor, my friend, I hope you understand the most deep meaning of this compliment. I ran in honor of Quinn and felt the kindred nature of my two Guides who crossed the finish with me.
Feature image credit: Scott Erb Photography
*For a different perspective on Randy’s experience, read the companion piece, “Guide on the Side: Helping My Friend With Visual Impairment Achieve His Boston Dream”, published on Monday, May 12 by GMP contributor Thor Kerleis.
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The post Qualifying for Quinn: Miles in Memory of Man’s Best Friend appeared first on The Good Men Project.