NPR radio show host Peter Sagal finished running the Boston Marathon last year about four minutes before the bombs went off. This year, he says, he wants to reclaim the race — and he will do it as he helps someone else run, guiding a visually impaired runner down the course and across the finish line.
“Today, I stood where I was standing when it happened, about 100 yards from the finish line, and tried to remember the image of the cloud of white smoke rising into the air,” Sagal said in a phone interview Saturday. “I don’t know how to feel. Grateful but horrified, thankful, or traumatized. All I know is that it was a really signal event for the city, and for me.”
He said the option of not returning to this year’s Marathon was never considered. “It’s about reclaiming this, that it’s not the site of the bombings, but the best Marathon in the world,” he said.
The 49-year-old host of the Chicago-based show “Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” said it would be the second time he has guided a visually impaired runner through the race.
Sagal will be running this year with Erich Manser, 41, of Littleton, who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, when he was 3 years old. The two runners met for the first time Friday.
“I’ve been running marathons for about 10 years, and after a certain point there’s a diminishing return in terms of what can motivate you,” Sagal said. “In contrast, I get to do this for somebody else, and it feels effortless.”
Each of the team’s blind runners will race with a guide, who will steer his or her partner away from other runners or hazards along the course.
Some partners use lightweight tethers during the race so as to not get separated. Sagal said he and Manser would use a tether for the first half of the race when it is most crowded, then drop it for the second half and just use Sagal’s voice as a guide.
Manser, who describes his vision as “a cloudy keyhole . . . like looking through wax paper,” will be running his 11th marathon. He said the benefits of running with a sighted guide are “too numerous to mention.”
A guide, he said, can read a watch for you and keep you aware of your pace, keep you safe, and get you water.
“I’m so appreciative of Peter, and of guides in general, who really give up their own race so I can run mine,” Manser said. “It takes what might not be possible and makes it possible.”
Blind runners face big challenges preparing for the race.
“Whereas a sighted runner can just come home from work, lace up their shoes, and go for a 30-minute run, every run for a visually impaired runner has to be very deliberately thought out,” said Joshua Warren, a coordinator for Team With A Vision, a fund-raising charity for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
“They’ve been out there training in rain, snow, black ice, all of those obstacles sighted runners face, but with the added layer of being visually impaired.”
Team With a Vision is running its 21st Boston Marathon this year with 71 participants, 25 of whom are blind or visually impaired. The team more than doubled last year’s fund-raising total, surpassing $164,000 by Sunday.
Team With A Vision hopes that the runners’ participation will help shift the public’s perception of the visually disabled.
“We’re excited to show that vision loss doesn’t mean loss of a full life, and that a disability does not mean inability,” Warren said. “It’s a really public opportunity for us to show that these runners, when given the proper support, can do anything.”