Kyle Robidoux is legally blind and will be making history as he takes on the Western States 100 this weekend
When 43-year-old Roxbury, Massachusetts resident Kyle Robidoux sets foot on the starting line at Squaw Valley Saturday morning, he will be making Western States history.
According to Race Director Craig Thornley, Robidoux will be the first known runner in the 45-year existence of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run who is legally blind.
With the help of a team of sighted guides, Robidoux will attempt the 100.2-mile trek from Squaw Valley to Auburn. But he is no stranger to ultra running. Since being declared legally blind at age 19, Robidoux has completed a number of premier running events, including five Boston Marathons.
"I've run in three 100-mile races, all with varied terrain, but Western States by far will be the most challenging," said Robidoux, who is being sponsored by Clif Bar. "There are a variety of conditions, so it'll be important for me to run really hard when terrain is runnable, knowing on climbs I'll have to walk. I'll have to make up my time during the runnable stuff."
Robidoux was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that affects night vision and typically leads to complete blindness, when he was 11. Though he still has an estimated 3 percent field of vision, his eyesight has gradually declined over time.
"I have very extreme tunnel vision, like looking through a paper towel roll," Robidoux said. "I have no peripheral vision, no up or down, no night vision at all. I'm not colorblind but I can't see contrast very well. When I'm running, I can't tell the difference between dirt, rocks or roots. I can't see elevation change and I can't see if I need to step up or down."
That's where his guides come in. Connected through an organization called United in Stride, which helps recruit sighted guides for visually impaired runners and vice versa, Robidoux's guides run side by side with him, bound together by a tether. The guides act as a sight coach throughout the race, giving various verbal cues to the visually impaired runner.
"Their goal is to keep me safe and keep other runners safe during races," Robidoux said. "They keep me moving forward and upright. That puts me in a position where all I have to focus on is running; not if I trip on something or run into someone else."
Among Robidoux's guides is seven-time WSER champion Scott Jurek.
"It will be fun seeing this course in a different light," said Jurek. "It's so cool to have an opportunity to be someone else's eyes."
After getting to know each other over the past several years, Jurek feels Robidoux is up for the challenge.
"Kyle's got a tenacity to him," Jurek said. "He might not be the fastest, but he's got an intense desire, something you have to have for Western States, whether you can see or not."
That desire sprouted from depression. Robidoux's initial resentment toward his diagnosis made him inactive, overweight and on a path toward Type 2 diabetes.
"I essentially dealt with it by not dealing with it," said Robidoux. "I was bitter and angry about my eyesight. I was convinced things were being taken away from me that I loved doing."
With the support of his family, Robidoux began seeing a therapist to help deal more effectively. Soon after, he started running again to improve his health and be able to play with his daughter, Lucy. He dropped 70 pounds and completed his first event – the Maine Half Marathon – by age 34 in 2010.
“I started to realize that things weren’t being taken away from me, I was giving up on them,” Robidoux said. “I still have days when I get really angry and frustrated. It’s a continuing process. There’s a strong likelihood that I’ll lose all of my vision. It’s scary, but I’m learning how to adapt and emotionally prepare for that.”
Robidoux has finished over 25 marathons and ultra marathons and plans to continue for as long as he’s able.
posted Tuesday June 25th
by Nick Pecoraro