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SF Marathon: Blind veteran Rich Hunter has helped revolutionize marathon running for the visually-impaired

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Blind marathoner Rich Hunter and his guide dog, Klinger. (Courtesy / Rich Hunter)

In November of 1989, five months after being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, 22-year old Rich Hunter went in for an eye exam. After graduating from Navy ROTC at Oregon State, he attended Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, and was well on his way towards achieving his dream of serving his country.

The eye exam, though, revealed that something was interfering with his ability to see 20/20, even with glasses. He got a referral to an ophthalmologist in Bethseda, Maryland. There, the doctors said Hunter was “a poster boy” for retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that leads to blindness, so much so that on a follow-up appointment, medical students were brought in to see his case as an example. Even though he could still see, Hunter was told, he would no longer be compatible for military service, and was medically discharged in April of 1990.

“That’s not easy,” Hunter said. “That’s kind of a do-over point in your life … I lost my career. That’s what I wanted to do.”

After a yearlong funk, he went to Sacramento State for his Master’s degree, became a school psychologist, and had two daughters and 15 years of normal vision. Then, Hunter suddenly and rapidly lost his sight. Having to leave his job, Hunter needed a goal to strive towards, so he took up endurance sports: marathon running, Iron Man triathlons and ultra-running. This Sunday, Hunter, who has run 17 marathons since going blind, will run half of the San Francisco Marathon, which will for the first time feature a visually impaired runners’ division, a division Hunter helped establish.

“It’s a huge platform for educating people,” said Hunter, now 51. “It’s San Francisco. There’s people from all over the world that want to participate in an athletic event in San Francisco. It has a true international reach, which is absolutely amazing, and what a great example the San Francisco Marathon is setting for the world. Not a lot of races do this. To want to showcase physically challenged runners at their race is a really big deal.”

The San Francisco Marathon hooked up with Hunter through his work with United in Stride, an online resource and support network for the visually-impaired running community.

Because of Hunter’s work with both United in Stride and the race organizers, there will be a visually-impaired runner from Peru — Hugo Estrada — traveling to San Francisco run the full marathon. Because the race now tracks disabilities and interfaces with United in Stride and Achilles International — an organization that enables disabled athletes — Estrada will have a place to stay, a ride from the airport and two local guides for the course.

When Hunter first started running, there was no such resource.

While he could see well enough to drive for the next decade and a half after his initial diagnosis, Hunter’s vision rapidly began to deteriorate at the end of 2004. By early 2005, he was declared legally blind, and now, his visual field is barely pinhole-sized, where he can see only shapes, darkness and light.

Hunter had to go on early disability retirement from his job with the Winters Joint Unified School District. No sooner did he adapt to each new tool he was given to do his job effectively, than his vision became too bad to use them. Being unable to drive, he couldn’t commute the 50 miles each way, every day.

He began to take high-level volunteer opportunities with local disability groups, started with work that would get him out of his comfort zone.

Hunter had always been goal-oriented: He’d gotten straight-A’s in high school in order to earn a full scholarship at Oregon State for the Navy ROTC, and from there attended Officer Candidate School, all to follow in the family business: the military. Now, he needed a new objective, so he began running. Hunter started with a simple target: He wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

“I had young daughters at the time, so I really felt that I needed to model for my daughters, and still set goals, and I needed a tangible goal to strive for,” said Hunter, who now has three daughters — Kiersten, 21; Lindsey, 17; and Makenna, 12.

Hunter had run a marathon when he still had his vision, and completed it in three hours and 43 minutes. He needed to run a sub-3:20 at the 2007 California International Marathon to qualify for Boston. Not only did he drop 25 pounds and run a 3:18, but along the way, he started the visually-impaired division of the CIM. In the process of starting that division, he became somewhat of a go-to guy for not only visually-impaired runners looking for resources to compete, but also for those looking to guide visually-impaired runners.

Since then, he’s run the Boston Marathon four times, run three 50-mile endurance runs, was the second visually impaired runner in the US to complete a 100-mile run, the second visually impaired triathlete to complete Ironman in less than 12 hours, the third to complete a Half-Ironman in under 5 hours and been able to recruit blind runners from Hong Kong, the Dominican Republic, Jordan, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, India, Norway, the United Kingdom, Canada and other countries to run in the CIM, along with helping with fundraising to get them there.

His database became so extensive that he hooked up with a web development firm in Boston, and founded United in Stride, a website where runners could connect with guides, and vice versa, across North America.

Hunter and his wife Heidi funded the development, partnered with the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI) — the oldest social services agency in the United States to serve the blind community. That organization had been instrumental in inclusion of blind athletes in the Boston Marathon — Hunter’s first post-blindness goal.

“It’s not an organization,” Hunter said of United in Stride. “It’s a resource that all these organizations can refer to, to get people involved in guiding, and with guides … People are literally using it around the world. It also has resources if a race director wants to add a visually-impaired division.”

In December, after the 2017 California International Marathon, Eric Schranz, host of the Ultra Runner Podcast — who through United in Stride had guided a visually-impaired runner through the CIM — introduced the SF Marathon’s race organizers to Hunter, who consulted on how to get a year-one division up and running.

“What the San Francisco Marathon wanted to do is find a way to make it a VIP experience for the people with disabilities,” Hunter said. “The difference that that makes, is they are asking up-front if you’re an athlete with disability, and then they, for example, have a start tent for all the disabled athletes, an area for the blind runners, their sighted guides … If they need extra assistance, there are systems and people in place to make sure that those needs are being met.”

Hunter hopes that parents who have children with vision impairment see him, his fellow runners and their guides, wearing their neon vests, as an example, or that sighted people on the course or watching at home realize that they, too, can donate their time to organizations like Achilles International, or create a profile on United in Stride.

“In a city like San Francisco, that’s by its very nature is inclusive, it makes a ton of sense that the marathon would reach out to the physically challenged community to showcase people with disabilities running in the San Francisco Marathon,” Hunter said. “People will see blind runners in their vests, people in wheelchairs out on the course, and it’s a form of educating the public. It inspires people.”

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