SACRAMENTO — When runners Richard Hunter and Amjed Aboukhadijeh crossed the finish line of the California International Marathon in 3 hours, 20.18 minutes, no one was more surprised than Hunter, a visually impaired veteran from Sacramento.
“I was worried about the race; I had a severe hamstring injury,” Hunter said. “I underwent aggressive physical therapy leading up the the CIM, but I didn’t know if I could finish. I credit Amjed for finishing in a Boston Marathon time. He kept encouraging me and calling out where the 3:30 pace groups were, which made me push harder.”
The duo was second in the visually impaired division of 15 runners. It was the first time Aboukhadijeh, a four-year varsity cross country and track star at Oak Ridge High who now runs from UCLA, took on the role as a guide for a visually impaired runner, and it won’t be his last.
“I was helping John Mansoor (Oak Ridge coach and USA Track & Field executive director Pacific) work on the cross country course at Willow Hills when the father of Michael Kinoshita, a visually impaired Folsom High runner, reached out to me about guiding him,” Aboukhadijeh said. “He needed a faster runner than his usual guide.
“I had no idea about this and I thought ‘this is cool.’ I mean my dream is to make a living being involved with running like coach Mansoor, and this seemed like it would be great, a new experience. I guess Michael’s dad said something to Richard about me and that’s how I got involved with the CIM.”
Aboukhadijeh was originally scheduled to run with Adrian Broca, a Southern California runner who won the visually impaired division of the Boston Marathon in 2:53. But Broca had another commitment and Hunter offered to run. Guide Alan Gulledge ran the first six miles with Hunter and then Aboukhadijeh took over.
The two had just one training run together over the Thanksgiving holiday before the CIM. But Aboukhadijeh turned out to be “a natural,” according to Hunter.
“He has such infectious enthusiasm. Amjed’s talents far exceed mine but I’d be honored to run with him again,” Hunter said. “It’s rare to find guides fast enough for our athletes because many of the very accomplished runners are pretty wrapped up in their own pursuits. It takes kindness and compassion to give back.”
Hunter was a second lieutenant in the Marines in 1989 when he was diagnosed with retinitus pigmentosa, an eye disease that damages the retina and slowly progresses to complete loss of eyesight. Not really fond of running because he was a big man, Hunter did take it up more and more as he lost his vision. He decided to try and qualify for the Boston Marathon and ran it in 2008. He’s been running much harder ever since and has started competing in triathlons.
Hunter competed in three half Ironmans and in September he completed the 70,3-mile Augusta in 44:49.04, cracking the five-hour mark. Because he has some limited vision left, Hunter doesn’t have to be tethered to his guide except in the swimming portion of the triathlons. He has hired a coach to help him prepare for his first full Ironman in Florida next November. The event includes a 2.4-mile swim in the Gulf of Mexico, an 11.2-mile bike ride and a full 26.2 mile marathon.
But aside from his personal pursuits, Hunter’s focus is on the C Different Foundation, whose mission is to “inspire, educate and change the public’s perception of blindness.”
He brokered a deal with the directors of the CIM to let the visually impaired compete. The event is officially called the United States Association of Blind Athletes Visually Impaired Championship. Two blind athletes ran in 2009; this year 15 entered the race — seven full marathoners and eight relay runners.
“The C Different Foundation makes triathlons possible for visually impaired guys like me,” Hunter said. “My triathlon guides, who are CDF volunteers, guided at the CIM as well. Otherwise, CDF did not have a team at the CIM. Whether or not they are present, it is their mission statement that I have adopted.
“This venue (the CIM) has become a community event,” Hunter said. “Our sponsor is Dr. Michael Schermer and I’m also thankful for the support of the Lions Club and the CIM board of directors. I’m very passionate networking in the visually impaired community — it’s just as important as running to me.”
It was a new experience in a lot of ways for Aboukhadijeh. “I felt like a medic — I stopped at every station to get water for Richard, then I’d have to sprint up to catch him,” he said. “I gave him salt tablets every 30 minutes. For the first couple of miles I didn’t know what to call out but then I just started telling him, ‘runner on your left,’ ‘turn ahead’ and so on. When we were done I realized I’d never done anything like it before and it was so much fun. I loved it. It was a great experience.”
Aboukhadijeh didn’t know what to expect from Richard but after attending a pre-race dinner with him and the other visually impaired athletes, he came to understand that Hunter is passionate about being a competitor.
“After just one day training with him I thought he would be more laid back but he wasn’t,” Aboukhadijeh said. “I mean there’s no point in running 26 miles and not competing.”
Aboukhadijeh, who will begin training with the UCLA track team after the holiday break, plans to guide Kinoshita in a 5K soon if it doesn’t interfere with his college schedule.
“The team comes first, but I’m going to guide whenever possible. I really enjoyed the experience,” Aboukhadijeh said.
For more information about the C Different Foundation e-mail [email protected]
Side note: Former Oak Ridge distance runner Scott Crawford, who won a silver medal at the state meet in the mile, is the captain of the UCLA track team.