Sunday, January 19

UCLA freshman distance runner guides legally blind competitor in California marathon

Freshman track and field runner Amjed Aboukhadijeh served as a volunteer guide for legally blind marathon runner Richard Hunter in December. Although they didn't win the race, the duo crossed the finish line with a time of three hours and 20 minutes.

Ken Huang

Amjed Aboukhadijeh, left, flew to Sacramento to run as a volunteer guide for legally blind runner Richard Hunter. Aboukhadijeh is a freshman runner on the UCLA cross country and track and field team.


The crowd cheered.

Freshman distance runner Amjed Aboukhadijeh moved at a steady pace when he checked his watch and saw that he was almost halfway through the 26.2-mile course. Everything was going according to plan. From the pasta dinner the night before to the morning glass of water to the no-nonsense preparation routine, he had been ready to run the perfect race.

Yet he would not win. The name Amjed Aboukhadijeh would not be in the top 10 or even the top 50. It would not be found anywhere among the thousand individual recorded results for the California International Marathon held every December. It was as if he never ran.

Success instead was linked to Richard Hunter, 43, who was matching him stride for stride.

Person to your left, Aboukhadijeh said. Curb in five steps. Stop sign to your right.

And as the two made their way from the city of Folsom to the steps of the state capitol building, an observant bystander might have been able to make out the one word on Hunter’s neon yellow jersey that set him apart: blind.

Richard Hunter was 22, a newly appointed second lieutenant in the Marines, when a poor eye chart reading and subsequent tests in a cold sterile room brought on an even colder truth ““ he would eventually become blind.

Retinitis pigmentosa, the doctors said.

Eye disease. Incurable. You will be discharged.

“For me, this was like someone was telling me I had cancer,” Hunter said. “Here I was, in the prime of my life. My goal was to become a Marine Corps officer and within six months, I found out I’m discharged. It was devastating to be told you have to start your life over.”

Yet Hunter could still drive a car and continue his normal activities. The diagnosis simply did not match his personal belief.

“I was able to bury my head in the sand and pretend I didn’t have a vision problem,” Hunter said. “Then once a year I would go in for my annual check-up, and it was always a reminder that, yes, I was going to go blind.”

At some point he would have to be dependent on others, the clarity of life reduced to blurred images and faint memories.

Aboukhadijeh was only 12 when Hunter lost most of his vision in 2004. As a basketball player turned cross country star who traded in his Michael Jordan videos for Steve Prefontaine races when he started out at Oak Ridge High School, Aboukhadijeh lived for competition.

“He always set a high bar for himself,” Cindy Aboukhadijeh said of her son. “Part of it was wanting to follow his brother. Part of it was a desire to better himself.”

“My freshman track season came around, and I ran 4:34 in the mile; that’s when I realized this might be something for me,” Amjed Aboukhadijeh added.

Usually he ran 40 miles a week. And those dim morning practice runs in the quiet chill of the neighborhood streets of El Dorado Hills brought visions of a bright future. He would set high school records, running the two-mile in 9:14. He would be a four-time athlete of the year. He would become a leader to his team.

Little did he know that just across town, Hunter was just waking up, already facing the darkness. Hunter put on his running attire, laced up his shoes and slowly pulled over the neon vest that revealed to others his perseverance.

And out he went, alone, having memorized the bike path and neighborhood streets. Arms pumping and legs churning. Fighting.

“After I lost my vision, I turned to running. It was very concrete, something I could do independently,” Hunter said. “Instead of becoming grief-stricken, I wanted to show my children, my three girls, that in the face of adversity, you can still set ambitious goals.”

He didn’t just run, but he competed. He ran marathons, triathlons and half Iron Mans, establishing himself as one of the top visually impaired athletes in the country.

For both Aboukhadijeh and Hunter, it was clear that running represented more than a simple activity. It brought purpose and clarity, providing them with the strength to keep going for each and every step. The feeling made them not just confident but also complete, enhanced by the understanding that what they were doing was so simple and pure.

But Hunter’s success relied on others. He ran with guides when on the paths, swam tethered to others when in the water and pedaled in the back of a tandem bicycle.

“If a guide is barely at his runner’s pace, it’s a lot harder for him to move and communicate the whole time,” Aboukhadijeh said. “Sometimes the pacer drags down the athlete, and he’s unable to reach his potential.”

Aboukhadijeh was introduced to the United States Association of Blind Athletes when one of its members, Adrian Broca, needed a faster guide for the California International Marathon. But a setback caused Broca to drop out of the race, leaving the UCLA runner available for another competitive athlete.

“I asked if he would be willing to help me; I wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon,” Hunter said. “I’m 6-1 and over 220 pounds. This was not going to be an easy goal to accomplish.”

The athletes recommend training extensively with their guides, to develop a rapport and understand the needed cues.

“If there’s a groove in the ground, you have to call it, because he can’t roll his ankle. Call all the curbs so he knows when to step up,” Aboukhadijeh said.

Most partners work together at least 10 to 12 times before a race.

Aboukhadijeh and Hunter met just once, during Thanksgiving break for a marathon the following weekend.

“We ran only seven miles, and it was difficult. I’m not used to calling out everything,” Aboukhadijeh said. “But we had good chemistry from the start.”

And that, right there, was the hook.

For there’s a certain level of trust that needs to be earned between runner and guide, a trust that’s immediate, built out of necessity and out of passion. The hopes and dreams bounded by forces unspoken and unseen, an investment in each other to reach a common goal.

“I knew I wanted to be there for him. … In a sense you need teammates with you to feel safe, to help you through,” Aboukhadijeh said.

They were teammates in the truest sense.

“I have the most respect for Amjed,” Hunter said. “You take a guy who’s a freshman in college, an athlete at a time when people would be naturally very interested in their own pursuits. And yet he selflessly put himself out there to volunteer to help someone who couldn’t participate in a sport without assistance.”

As their passing footsteps clicked and rattled against the pavement, Hunter let out hard, tired breaths.

How much farther?

He could hear voices. Excitement, cheers.

You’re literally there, Aboukhadijeh said. Twenty more steps, and you’re done.

And as Hunter and Aboukhadijeh joyfully lifted their arms in the air, as the crowd gathered at the finish line erupted in applause, it was clear that sports could really be something special, a reflection of society, allowing us to ““ briefly, yet powerfully ““ better understand what we are truly capable of.

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