Blind faith

Richard Hunter was a U.S. Marine intent on making the corps his career when he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited, degenerative eye disease that ultimately leads to blindness.

“I was numb,” he says. “It took me a year before I could think long term. I had worked hard to earn an ROTC scholarship to Oregon State University. In June of 1989, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant at the age of 22. Then in a matter of months, my vision degenerated.” He was honorably discharged in 1990.

Today, he likens his sight to looking through a toilet paper roll whose opening is covered in wax paper. “I can see high contrasts.” Ultimately, he will go blind. Back then, “It was a big shocker, time for do-over number one.”

That involved working with emotionally disturbed children and running a group home. The Folsom, Calif., resident became a school psychologist and taught part time at California State University, Sacramento until he could no longer see well enough to drive.

“By the time I left my job as a school psychologist I was a father. I wanted to be a model for my (three) daughters — that one can be blind and still be relevant.”

Time for do-over number two, and that’s where Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights comes in. As program coordinator for the United States Association of Blind Athletes’ National Marathon Championships, Hunter would play a key role in Guiding Eyes’ Running Guides pilot program — as its first graduate this past summer.

“I had run for exercise and running a marathon had been on my bucket list,” Hunter says. After leaving his career as a school psychologist, he started training using sighted volunteer partners. To date, he’s run 11 marathons, including three Boston Marathons, though he qualified for five. He did the Ironman triathlon — a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run — in 11 hours and 55 minutes, the second visually impaired man to complete the race in under 12 hours.

At the Boston Marathon last year, Hunter asked Guiding Eyes President and CEO Thomas A. Panek — himself a visually impaired runner — what he thought about running with a guide dog. Panek brought that challenge back to his staff in Westchester.

“When he posed that question, we had to check our belief system at the door,” says Ben Cawley, class supervisor at Guiding Eyes. “We have a blanket policy that we don’t recommend running with a guide dog even though we knew people who were doing it under the radar. (The dogs are) not trained for that. They guide at a walking pace.”

But Guiding Eyes decided to see if it could be done safely. The team re-evaluated the harness to give a running dog more shoulder room and consulted veterinarians, who pointed to the Iditarod, the 1,000-mile sled-dog race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska.

Now the organization needed to find the right dog, which it did in Klinger, a German Shepherd who went through Guiding Eyes’ Canine Development Center. Even before meeting Hunter, Klinger had more than 200 miles of training as a running guide, which he achieved three times a week over six months, working with Cawley, instructor Jolene Hollister and Nick Speranza, a member of Taconic Road Runners. (Cawley and Hollister coached Speranza as a running partner for Klinger by blindfolding him and riding behind him on a bike.)

On Aug. 22, Hunter and Klinger graduated from Guiding Eyes’ Running Guides program and their future together looks bright. They’re back in Folsom where Klinger has become part of the Hunter family. He won’t accompany Hunter during all his training for the California International Marathon in December. A dog can only run so much. But he can help him to train safely and effectively on the shorter runs. (Klinger runs a mile in 9 minutes.)

Hunter will still need a sighted two-legged running partner and to that end became a leading force this year behind United in Stride, a North American online database that brings blind runners together with sighted human guides.

Says Hunter: “I just want people to act on their own inspirations.”

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