Note: This post has been updated.
In 1989, Randy Pierce was fresh out of college, living in southern New Hampshire and working happily as a computer hardware designer. One day in fencing class, his instructor noticed that his blind spot was oddly enlarged. You need to go to the doctor, the instructor said. Today.
A neurological disease was attacking Pierce’s optic nerve. Within two weeks he had lost all the sight in his right eye, and half the sight in his left. In the following years, he lost the last remnants of his sight, and damage to his cerebellum destroyed his balance, landing him in a wheelchair.
On Monday, he ran the Boston Marathon. And he turned in a personal marathon best: 3 hours, 50 minutes and 37 seconds for the 26.2-mile course.
Pierce, 48, ran on Team With A Vision, which supports the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He ran to raise money — and to make a point, about what he calls “ability awareness.”
“I have a disability — I can’t see,” he says. “We all have disabilities, things that we can’t do. I think it’s so much more important to put the focus of our lives on things we can do. And if something is important enough to you, I say anything is possible, you’re just going to have to problem-solve and persevere to get there.”
An example of problem-solving: Last year, Pierce became the first blind American to complete a Tough Mudder obstacle course, and last month he repeated the feat. (See the video below.)
From a platform 25 feet high, he had to leap out about 8 feet, grab a T-shaped, trapeze-like bar, swing farther out and release his grip at just the right moment to hit a remote hanging bell before plunging down into the muddy water below. He used his cane to feel for where the T-bar was, to form a mental image of it, and friends' descriptions of where the bell was hanging.
The crowd went wild.
“You know, those are just moments — every one of those people out there would have told you this is impossible. Now they won’t,” Pierce says. “They’ll believe me when I say everything’s possible — or they’ll believe in themselves, which is the more important part."
As for the perseverance Pierce talks about, he used it to fight his way out of the wheelchair that he occupied "for one year, eight months and 21 days — which tells you how I feel about it. Pretty challenging.”
Pierce’s wife, Tracy, says that somehow, his struggles and losses led him to adopt the supremely positive attitude that uplifts him now.
“From what he’s told me, that time period of losing his sight and losing the ability to walk, those were really difficult times,” she says, “and when he first lost his sight he was unhappy and bitter and not somebody that most people would want to hang around with.
“But he’s always been jovial and charismatic, and I think he was lucky to have a few people to say, ‘Hey, don’t lose who you are.’ And I think that experience added on to the joviality and just made him appreciate things more.”
Pierce got treatment to help restore his balance, and he did hours upon hours of exercises and physical therapy to walk again.
"I didn’t choose to go blind. But the choice I made after going blind, that’s what defined my life."Randy Pierce
Then he decided to hike. He had always loved the mountains as a child, but hike blind? He explains:
“First, when you can’t walk, like my time in the wheelchair, you learn to celebrate and appreciate what a gift walking is in this world. Second, my dog guide and I would walk as many places as possible, and what I learned he loved the most is when we took our walks in the woods.”
That dog guide was The Mighty Quinn, a noble yellow lab who led Pierce to the epic goal he set for himself: to climb all 48 New Hampshire mountains over 4,000 feet in a single winter season. Through snow and ice and wind, they succeeded in 2012. Then Pierce decided to do it again — but in warmer weather this time.
People often ask Pierce: What can a blind man, who can't enjoy the views, get out of climbing a mountain? Many things, he answers. Sometimes it’s picturing the beautiful views that companions describe in his mind’s eye — like, on one demanding winter hike that included Mount Washington, a massive cliff ridge that was glowing neon pink in the sunset, lighting up the fist-sized diamonds of rime ice growing out of the ground, “spreading color like a prismatic spray.”
Sometimes it’s just listening to the wind in the trees.
“I hear these swirls of wind at one speed in this group of leaves — maybe up to my right — and then down at the ravine there’s another wind going through the trees at a different pitch and a different velocity,” he says. “And all these different sounds kind of make this little symphony of the wind there. Even the type of tree will change the sound the wind makes blowing through it. When you learn to appreciate all those little things, you’re given a whole bunch of rewards.”
Soon after leading Pierce to his 48th summit for the second time, The Mighty Quinn fell ill with terminal bone cancer.
As Quinn lay dying in late 2013, Pierce reflected that losing his 24/7 companion of seven years would be the hardest day of his life. “But what do you do? It’s the same thing I talk about when I went blind or went into a wheelchair. Yup, it's hard, but, where do I go? That’s up to me.
“I didn’t choose to go blind. But the choice I made after going blind, that’s what defined my life. I’m not 'a blind person.' I’m a person who does all the things he wants to — and that’s all because of the choice I made. Really, the choice you make in how to respond to any adversity will have a bigger impact on your life than any adversity ever could. And the same thing’s going to be true when I lose Quinn. I will mourn, a lot — but I’ll also set myself going forward.”
Quinn died on Jan. 20 last year, and Pierce is still mourning; he still can’t talk about Quinn without a catch in his voice. But he also did move forward with a new guide dog, a playful black and tan labrador retriever named Autumn. And he pursued his next goal: the Boston Marathon.
He ran with bib No. 25485 on Monday, and navigated by holding one end of a white cane whose other end wa held by a sighted guide — a husband-and-wife tag team each guided him for half the marathon. See more details of his marathon run at 2020visionquest.org, the site of Pierce’s nonprofit; he funnels fundraising and speaking fees to the guide-dog school Guiding Eyes for the Blind and the New Hampshire Association for the Blind.
Overall, among the 30,000 runners at the Boston Marathon on Monday, only about 40 were listed in race's Visually Impaired Division, says Joshua Warren, director of marketing and development for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Most visually impaired runners on the association’s team, he says, ran, like Pierce, with some sort of “tether” — "running side by side with their sighted guide, each of them holding a different end of a bungee cord or a rope or a small strip of webbing.”
The association has just created a website — UnitedInStride — to help blind runners and sighted guides find and partner with each other.
Of Pierce, Warren says, “Randy is the embodiment” of the idea that “with the right support, someone who is blind or visually impaired can do anything.”
Even as Pierce takes on one athletic challenge after another, his medical outlook remains unclear.
He has just a tentative diagnosis — that he seems to have a mitochondrial disease — and along with the blindness and balance problems, he’s lost some sensation in his limbs. He doesn’t know which nerves the disease will attack next.
“As positive as I am,” he says, “do I have a fear? You bet. The wrong part of my brain dying could change who I am.”
He recently had his genes sequenced and is hoping genetic analysis might yield a better understanding of what’s wrong with him — and what his future holds.
For now, Pierce has his next big goal lined up: In late September, he and his wife are aiming to climb the world’s tallest freestanding mountain — Kilimanjaro.
The inevitable question: Are you just driven?
His answer: “Ha! I do have a passion for life and I rediscovered that I didn’t have to let that go, once I learned that I could believe in possibility. Henry Ford really did say it best: Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right. I’m driven to savor life and every step along the way.”
Special thanks to WBUR’s Tim Skoog, who produced the audio version of this piece and who has completed many an epic mountain hike of his own.