Michael Wardian knows a thing or two about marathons.
Since 1996, he’s run in hundreds. He even broke a world record for running one while pushing a stroller.
But nothing, he says, compares to guiding four-time blind national champion Chaz Davis on a marathon course.
“It’s narrating for four or five hours before, during, and after the race,” said Wardian, an ultra-marathon runner. “You’re telling him, ‘Okay, we’re in the first corral. Now we’re 50 feet away from the start. There are 70 people around you and there’s a hill coming up.’”
All while trying to keep a 2-hour, 30-minute pace.
In April, Wardian was supposed to run alongside Davis at the 2020 Boston Marathon. Davis, a Grafton native, wanted to try to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics at the April event, all while coordinating the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired marathon team called Team With A Vision.
However, because of the coronavirus pandemic, Wardian was not alongside Davis during September’s Boston Marathon Virtual Experience, which Davis has completed.
Even from 3,000 miles away, Wardian knew Davis would be able to handle the mental and physical tolls of running a marathon without him by his side.
“I know he’s the type of person who looks forward to these challenges and setbacks,” Wardian said. “That’s what makes him a great athlete and a great person. That’s what sets him apart.”
Wardian first met Davis in 2017 as his sighted guide runner at the California International Marathon, where Davis won his first of four consecutive United States Association of Blind Athletes marathon national championships and ran a time fast enough to qualify for the 2018 Boston Marathon as a visually impaired runner with Team With A Vision.
“Far too often people in the general public look at blind people as incapable, or as having some sort of impairment where they couldn’t imagine themselves in a position to run a marathon,” said Davis, 26. “But I love how running shows what’s really possible.”
Davis remembers a time not long ago when he ran with full vision. At Grafton High, Davis starred on the school’s track team, winning the state championship in the 2-mile event as a freshman. In 2012, he graduated and attended the University of Hartford, where he competed on the school’s D1 cross-country and track teams.
On the morning of March 3, 2013, his life changed when he woke up with what he called a “deep fog” in his right eye. Doctors, unsure of his diagnosis, insisted that Davis stop running.
Davis never regained his vision in his right eye and, a few months later, began losing vision in his left eye too. When he returned home from school, reality set in — Davis had Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, a rare disease that destroys the eye’s optic nerve.
Davis spiraled into a deep depression, one that that saw him abuse alcohol and drugs, gain 60 pounds, and take a year hiatus from competitive running.
“I wasn’t in a good place,” said Davis. “It felt like, one-by-one, I kept having parts of my old life taken away from me.”
Davis' friends and family knew he needed help, so in May of 2014, they organized a fundraiser for mitochondrial disease research at the annual five-mile Grafton Gazebo Road Race.
Davis, touched by the gesture, agreed to run in it.
“Each step just felt awkward at first,” said Davis. “I couldn’t see the ground and I could no longer feel the terrain like I had before.”
The friends who guided Davis along the course inspired him to return to competitive running during his junior year. That season, he earned a spot in the New England Championships and qualified for the 2015 Parapan American Games in Toronto. A year later, he again qualified for the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and he intends to participate in the Paralympics qualifiers for the 2021 Tokyo games when they are held.
Then, running alongside Wardian at the 2018 Boston Marathon, Davis lost what little eyesight he had left in both eyes because of the hypothermic conditions on the course. He still managed to finish with a 2:56:22 net time.
“Just from running with Chaz, especially in the conditions he’s ran in before, I know he’s been able to dig deeper than most people can,” Wardian said.
In July of 2019, Davis moved to Boston to live with his girlfriend Kyra, ready to pursue his next challenge. He arrived with a masters degree in social work from the University of Denver and met with MABVI chief advancement officer David Brown to create a role at MABVI that would allow him to manage Team With A Vision and counsel people transitioning into blindness.
Team With A Vision raises funds for the physical, emotional, and mental health needs of individuals living with vision loss and blindness. The team features visually impaired runners from all around the world who qualify for the marathon along with sighted charity runners.
“Twenty hours a week he wears his social worker hat and 20 hours a week he wears his running shoes,” said Brown. “To have someone who is on our team who is blind helps us in the way we do our own jobs. He makes us better.”
Team With A Vision members are running the virtual Boston Marathon.
“Each year, the biggest takeaway from our runners is the sense of family that Team With A Vision brings our visually impaired runners at the Boston Marathon,” Davis said. “We can still continue to foster that feeling of community, but in our own parts of the world.”