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Blind Marathoner Meets His Goal
Detroit Free Press
By Bill Laitner, Free Press Columnist
October 21, 2003
He couldn't see the thousands of runners bunched near him at the start. And couldn't glimpse the miles of spectators shouting from curbs.
But Richard Bernstein could hear them.
He could hear the plop-plop of countless sneakers, an amorphous mass of will pulling him through Windsor and Detroit. And he could hear the bystanders -- incredulous to see his white cane -- screaming extra emphasis into their marathon cheers: "Nice job! Way to go! You're gonna make it!"
And so he did. Bernstein, 29, of Birmingham, blind since birth, jogged and speed-walked the full 26.2-mile course of the Detroit Free Press/Flagstar Bank Marathon Oct. 5.
It was an extraordinary day for him, and so many others.
Yet Bernstein already was something special. He's one of the few Michiganders who is blind -- his word -- and practices law. He's one of even fewer to win statewide office. He was elected last fall to the Wayne State University Board of Governors. While jog-walking with his cane, he has memorized volumes of law and and composed political speeches.
This fall, he found a new way to show the world and himself that disabilities can't stop him or others.
First, he trained. In downtown Birmingham near his apartment, Bernstein learned every bump in the sidewalk, and which corners had impatient drivers who might accidently hit him. That's right -- bash into a guy with a white cane. Bernstein laughs about it.
"When I lived in Chicago, going to law school, it was a lot easier," he says. He used to take the Windy City's popular bike paths, following the lake shore well out of drivers' reach. He would speed-walk for hours, memorizing law-school lessons. He says bluntly, "I can't read or write."
Born with congenital cataracts, he has one glass eye and another that he says "is just about useless."
Just before the race, he told me, "I hope this changes some stereotypes. People tend to think blind people are so fragile, we must be sedentary. But a lot of us really love being in shape and getting out there and doing stuff."
Even 26 miles of stuff. At his side, marathon day, was his occasional training partner Tom Barwin, 49, of Hazel Park. Barwin is Ferndale's city manager. The two met through a strong interest in having metro Detroit build mass transit.
Last year Barwin ran the Free Press event at 10 minutes a mile. This year, he decided to guide Bernstein, jogging to keep up with Bernstein's high-speed walk. There were unforgettable moments, Barwin recalls. As when the pair passed a faltering marathoner who muttered, "Oh no! A blind guy is beating me."
That didn't faze them. Bernstein had the guts and the quads. Barwin had the eyes.
"Tom was able to point out every inconsistency in the pavement," Bernstein says, including "those little metal things" that join sections of the Ambassador Bridge.
"When you're blind and you're on a path you're not familiar with, it's so much more challenging," he says.
"But we had a system down. Tom would say, 'Make a hard right.' That means turn right now! Or 'Make a soft left' means you can glide into your turn. Once you follow those commands, you're good to go."
Also invaluable, Bernstein recalls, was the sheer sound of other runners.
"People aren't really talking because they're focused. But you can hear their feet hitting the pavement. There's a rhythm I've never experienced before.
"It's very soothing, very tranquil. I followed that sound the whole distance, hearing the presence of other runners guiding me."
He and Barwin jogged hard most of the first nine miles, frantic to get through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel before it closed to runners. Then they slowed, ultimately averaging 13:45 per mile.
Bernstein tells me I need to thank all the bystanders and volunteers for him.
"They'd look at me and yell, 'You're doing a great job! You look good!' And you feel like crap, you know? But you're so grateful to them," he says with a laugh.
He wasn't the first to have a marathon epiphany.
"Your mind feels close to the heavens. But the pain you're feeling constantly reminds you you're mortal. You're in two distinct worlds," he says.
Finally -- and this made me proud to be part of the event -- Bernstein says Detroit's marathon officials welcomed him, especially race director Patricia Ball.
"The Free Press marathon is wonderful" because it encourages first-timers and people in wheelchairs and handcyclists -- in short, "all the people who might not try something like this," he says. Including him.
When it was over, he was thrilled that he slipped into Ford Field just under his goal. He broke six hours by six seconds. Whew!
Now, like every other first-timer I've ever known, he's vowing to train harder next year. And then to inspire me all over again.
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