MEN IN MOTION
For today’s October Men In Motion segment, we’re honored to introduce you to Richard Hunter, a USMC Blinded Veteran. Without giving anything away from the story you are about to read, we hope you’ll agree that Richard is the definition of resilience. Enjoy!
From a Life-Flight to a Marathon Finish-line in 5-Months
By Richard Hunter, Visually Impaired Endurance Athlete & Advocate
I woke up disoriented in my hospital bed taking residence in my living room on the verge of a panic attack. Images of an ambulance arriving at my house with sirens blaring and scaring my family was causing my breath to become labored. I was quietly scolding myself for coming home too soon from the hospital. Having spoken to many groups about my recipe for overcoming adversity as it pertained to my degenerative vision loss, I was wondering if it would also work to overcome my recent accident.
Two days earlier, while on a 5-hour tandem training ride for my second Ironman, my guide and I were struck nearly head-on by a 91-year-old woman. We were cresting a hill in the shadows of the trees lining the quiet country road and the rising sun blinded the driver.
I awoke to the heat of the sun on my face and muffled voices for me to not move. The emergency team was already on-site planning my extraction from the car and helicopter evacuation. I had been catapulted through the front windshield of the Chevy Lumina, coming to rest with my head in the lap of the driver, covered in glass and blood. My helmet was cracked in half and I sustained a broken neck, lacerations, and a severe concussion.
Once I came to, I was keenly aware of everything going on around me, including an awareness that emergency personnel was treating me as though I could die. I recall thinking, “Is dying this easy?” I felt no pain but I still focused my attention on talking to God. Through the entire experience, the only thing that caused me grief was the knowledge of the anxiety and trauma that helicopter ride would cause to my family getting the phone call and of my guide watching the helicopter take flight.
Back in my living room, fearing more trauma to my family, I took my own advice. One of my key tenets to overcoming adversity is, “Focus on what I can do.” Well… I can breathe right now. I literally had been broken down to a single breath at a time. One breath turned into the next breath. Then, without me uttering a single sound, my wife had awoken from our adjacent bedroom and checked on me at the exact right moment, turned on a light and I became oriented to the light and her voice and my breathing started to relax.
Within the first couple of days of my accident, I called the Executive Director of the US Association of Blind Athletes to tell him what had happened and the nature of my injuries. I went on to tell Mark Lucas that I was still going to coordinate the marathon national championships which were only 5-months away. A willingness to step outside of one’s comfort zone is another important tenet to overcoming adversity. People who have known me for a long time know that I’m a planner, not a risk-taker, and am the type of person who has a plan D for my Plan A, B, and C.
I’m anxious and a perfectionist by nature and do not relish stepping outside of my comfort zone. This is not easy for me. However, it is absolutely critical to take risks and take small steps forward in the face of adversity, since the alternative is even worse. I’ve spoken to too many people of all ages and backgrounds to know that depression and anxiety are crippling to so many and I’m not so proud to think that this couldn’t be my reality as well.
Another tenet to overcoming adversity is aligning one’s passions and gifts in the service of other people. I’ve been coordinating the championships since 2009 and have seen the impact of bringing together those on the common journey of vision loss and endurance sports. I am routinely lifted up by watching other blind endurance athletes of all abilities share stories, share resources, and encourage one another like a close family member. I’ve heard from those who have been blinded in combat, through traumatic vision loss at an early age, or through eye disease. I am buoyed by the hope that something I do or say may impact a single person. If I can just help make a transformative difference to a single person, everything I do will be worth it. Since I don’t know who that will be, I must treat every single person with that level of devotion and excellence.
Small Goals Lead To Progress
In addition to the bandages, nerve pain and neck brace, one of the most impactful injuries I sustained was the concussion which immediately destroyed my ability to read magnified print on my phone. Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) already causes extreme light sensitivity, and the concussion made this exponentially worse. I couldn’t even look at a screen of any kind without closing my eyes.
Having already committed to organizing the championships from a hospital bed, I had to teach myself how to use Voiceover on my iPhone which is the built-in screen reader program built into all Apple products. Setting the goal to learn Voiceover, another tenant, was the first of two very important goals that helped me overcome this major setback.
As my healing progressed and the 3-month mark would result in my neck brace being removed, I needed a goal to persevere beyond the rather disabling nerve pain in my neck and shoulders. At the time, with only 2-months to go to the marathon championships, I wanted to work towards at least starting the marathon and running as far as I could go. A close friend agreed to come alongside me, sharing every step as my neck strengthened and the miles built.
Crossing The Finish Line
I needed purpose beyond the pain and wanted to act on my inspiration of the blinded veterans participating that year who had been through so much worse and to show my accident partner that I would be OK. Well…5 months and 3 days after my accident, I crossed the finish line of the California International Marathon, and it remains today one of my proudest accomplishments. Within the first year of my accident, I went on to run the 2014 Boston Marathon in 3 hours and 23 minutes and swimming from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park in San Francisco.
For me, it is important for you to understand that I am no different than you. There was a time when I was taking my first steps and was signing up for my first 10k fun run and taking a swim lesson as an adult. I’ve just found that taking that first step leads to the next opportunity with new learning and new experiences. It’s a cumulative experience that must start somewhere. I’ve also needed to pursue challenging endeavors knowing that I’m either setting an example for my children or helping another person. If you are like me, and getting off the couch for your own sake is not sufficient, figure out a way to engage something you are passionate about in a way that serves others. Think small. Think about that first step.
Richard (53) was diagnosed with RP shortly after being commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the USMC in 1989. Richard worked as a school psychologist for 10 years and as a part-time lecturer at CSU Sacramento prior to losing the majority of his vision. He finds purpose and passion in life through endurance sports and serving as a resource to visually impaired endurance athletes around the world. Richard is a 4-time Boston Marathon finisher and has completed 22 marathons, three 50-mile endurance runs, and was the 2nd visually impaired runner in the USA to complete a 100-mile run. Richard was also the 2nd visually impaired triathlete to complete Ironman in less than 12 hours, and the 3rd to complete a Half-Ironman in under 5 hours. Richard volunteers as the program coordinator for the USABA Marathon National Championships held each December in Sacramento, CA. In 2015, he was the leading force behind the development of United in Stride, an online database resource to unite volunteer sighted guides and blind runners across North America. Also, in August 2015, Richard was paired with Klinger, the first-ever certified running guide dog. Special honors include being selected as the 2014 National Road Runners Club of America’s Challenged Athlete Award recipient and the 2017 SRA Community Runner of the Year. Richard has been featured numerous times in print, radio, and television media for his athletic accomplishments and volunteer service.
Image Descriptions & Advertisements:
- Featured image: Richard is swimming in a pool hooked into lane lines with the shot is taken from beneath the water.
- Cover image is the Beyond Sight Magazine cover. Richard is swimming in a pool hooked into lane lines with the shot is taken from beneath the water. The masthead is teal with “Beyond Sight Magazine” in black text. The dot on the ‘i’ in ‘sight’ is the eye used for our 2020 Year of Vision Campaign (described HERE). There are 4 lines of text that say “Richard Hunter An Ironman’s Vision.” In the bottom left corner is a teal circle with an illustration of a blind man in motion with his white cane and “Men In Motion” is in yellow text under the circle.
- Ford Ironman Florida: Richard is crossing the finish line of Ford Ironman Florida.
- Surrounded by guides: Photo of Richard running with several guides around him, including world-famous Scott Jurek, a couple of CEO’s, a retinal surgeon, and a West Point Cadet.
- Berlin Marathon: Richard running at the end of the Berlin Marathon.
- Cover by Daniel Lubiner