“I was his guide but he was my teacher.” Michael Spradlin
What Was I Thinking?
The St. Jude Children’s Hospital Race Weekend is a big deal in our fair city of Memphis, Tennessee. Over 26,000 runners will participate in races ranging in distance from 5k to 26.2 miles. The half marathon (13.1 miles) is a lifetime goal for many weekend runners and the cause (raising money for the kids at St. Jude Hospital) is awesome. The December 2019 race would be the third time I had run the St. Jude Marathon and each time I had loved the crowds and the spectacle of the big event in downtown Memphis.
“Who’s running in the St. Jude Marathon in a few weeks?” Several students in my evangelism class immediately responded that they were signed up for one of the St. Jude races. Several were running the half marathon, making the 13.1 miles race the longest run of their lives. One hand in class went up just after the others. Anthony Bonetti raised his hand and said he wanted to run the full marathon but he didn’t have a guide. Time and space slowed down for me. Anthony was a first-year student in the College at Mid-America. Called to preach, 21-year-old Anthony enrolled in our school and began his journey of preparation. With the semester almost over, I knew that Anthony was smart, athletic, independent, and adventurous. I also knew that he was blind.
I had seen blind runners and their guides in other marathons but had never given it much thought. I admired the courage of it but never considered serving as a guide myself. In most marathons (and one 50k ultra marathon), I was worried about getting myself across the finish line let alone being responsible for someone else. Could I be his guide? I swallowed, took a breath, and announced in front of our class, “I’ll be your guide.” Just like that.
Anthony immediately accepted my offer, but my mind began to race with questions. “What’s the longest you’ve ever run before?” “Nineteen miles on the treadmill,” came the answer, “but I rode in a 100-mile bike race and ran track in high school (Tennessee School for the Blind). “Are you in shape now?” I asked. “I’m in pretty good shape. I work out regularly,” he responded. Great answers, but experience tells you that “pretty good” doesn’t cut it for 26.2 miles. The physical toll is one thing, but the mental part of running a marathon is quite a challenge. At some point, your brain begins to tell you that, “This hurts really bad, so you have to stop now. Are you crazy?”
For my part, I had no idea what a visually-impaired guide should do, so of course, I searched the internet. I found several methods of guiding were common. Method one involved using a short cord held in both runners’ hands, and method two was for the blind runner to hold the elbow of the guide runner. Anthony and I decided to practice together, so we ran on the Mid-America campus for about a half a mile. I told him, “I’m an older runner so we will run at my pace. Our goal for the marathon will about 12 minutes per mile.” Anthony replied, “Oh, so just a little bit faster than walking.” It turns out Anthony is a really good athlete and very light on his feet. He also calls them like he sees them.
Chris Luther, a reporter from WMC Action News 5, came and interviewed Anthony and filmed us making a second attempt to learn to run with each other. For part of the interview, we were filmed while running. Chris the reporter impressively backpedaled in front of us while holding the large video camera at a low angle. I had no idea all that it takes to be a great reporter. This interview aired the night before the race and would play a key role during the ordeal to come.
The Starting Line
The alarm clock at 4:30 AM hurt, but we had a long drive and an early race start. We drove downtown, parked, and made our way to the starting area near the Memphis Redbirds ballpark. The place was packed with people. The 5k race kicked off at 7:00 AM and the half marathon and marathon started at 8:00 AM. We made a few important stops (Too Much Information Alert: getting to the race early to get in line for the porta-potty is a very important pre-race ritual). The day was cold. I had brought a throwaway jacket, but since Anthony looked colder than I was, I gave my jacket to him which he wore for the entire race. We found our corral (starting group) and settled in for the wait to the start of our race. People are grouped by their race pace, and since I had signed us up to run slow, we were well in the back of the 20,000 runner pack. Even with the race starting promptly at 8 AM it would be another 30 minutes before we crossed the starting line. My teeth were chattering which made talking hard, but I knew I would heat up once we started running. Even though I don’t like the cold, it really was good weather for a marathon.
With the big crowd, Anthony decided it would be better if we did the hand on the elbow method and could then stay in close contact. Fellow student, track coach, (and recording artist!) Jacki Drane decided to run with us for the first half of the race and help us navigate the crowd of runners. The National Anthem played, the race started, and we worked our way to the starting line.
The First Ten Miles
We started out at a great pace with Jacki leading the way and cruised along at about 11:00/mile. Jacki found us clear paths time after time, and we stopped at the water stations along the route. The crowded pack of runners turned out to be a bigger problem than I anticipated. We needed to zig-zag to bypass slower runners and normally this is not a problem but since Anthony and I needed to talk whenever we changed directions, I ended up talking much more than I thought I would. Also, with each zig-zag, we were adding distance to our overall run (It’s called “vectoring”). In a marathon, you need to run as straight a route as possible. You are already running over 26 miles and, in the past, I have added an additional half a mile to the race distance by not watching my route closely. This didn’t seem like a problem now, but I knew we would pay for it later in the day.
We ran through the campus of the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital which is always very moving (this is, after all, why we are running this race). In his TV interview, Anthony had declared that often it is assumed that handicapped people can only receive help, but he wanted people to know that he and other handicapped people could help others just like anyone else.
We did bump into runners in front of us once (we clipped heels). The runner looked back and saw that we were in tandem and said it was okay. Anthony explained, “I’m having guide dog problems today.”
Hills and Cramps
The Memphis St. Jude course is considered flat with very little elevation changes, but we had just climbed a hill (actually a ramp up to an overpass) when Anthony cramped up. We stopped at the water station so he could stretch his back and legs. I was worried because, with only 11 miles completed on a cool day, this is early in the race to have problems. One thing you learn racing, however, is that in every long race you will have bad moments when something feels like it’s going to break. We started running again, and I told Anthony that we could split off after the 11-mile mark and make this a half marathon. No shame in that and this would give us just 2 more miles to go. It would be a great first attempt for a new marathoner.
Anthony was adamant that he wasn’t going to quit short of the marathon finish line, so we kept going. I had a running vest with lots of supplies including sports pickle juice, gels, and electrolyte salt. We started going through our stuff at an alarming rate.
Long-distance races can be blissfully solitary or painfully lonely, depending upon your situation. Jacki had left us at the half marathon turn, so we were on our own from now on. But help was on the way. Somewhere around mile thirteen or fourteen, a good friend, Bob Dawkins of Love Worth Finding Ministries, flagged us down and said Anthony’s Mom was just ahead. I thought this would be an awesome time for encouragement so we veered over to the side of the course to say Hello. Thinking it would be an emotional moment (“Hi, son, proud of you!” “Love you, too, Mom!”) I forgot that 21-year-old sons don’t always make a big deal out of seeing their Mom in public. When we met her, Anthony deadpanned to his Mom that he was running a race and needed to be off, so the meeting was short, sweet, and to the point!
Miles 13 to 19 bounced between power walking and fighting cramps and fatigue. I began to worry that we were going too slow. I explained to Anthony that the “sweeper” might catch up to us. The sweeper is a race official who runs towards the back of the pack and if they pass you then you are disqualified from an official finish. Most races have a cutoff time and we were falling well behind our pace goals. We caught up with another runner who turned out to be one of the pacers for the race. He was an ultramarathoner who had volunteered to run as a pacer, but he had an asthma attack and was now gutting out walking to the finish line. He was a huge help in keeping up with where the sweeper was and how far ahead of him we were.
As we crossed an intersection one of the police officers called out, “Keep it up, Anthony, I saw you on TV.” Anthony asked me who said that, and I told him an officer. He replied “Shelby County or Memphis City?” “City,” I said. Other fans called out to Anthony and said they saw him on Channel 5 and to keep going. Some students from Mid-America waited all day for us and had even asked kids in the neighborhood to join them in cheering us on. What an encouragement!
Anthony told me he was starving and where could we get some food? “We are in the middle of a race!” I said, “Didn’t you eat breakfast like I told you?” “I was nervous,” he responded. About that time, we came to an aid station (manned by the Boys Scouts, I think). I had long run out of sports pickle juice, and we were plowing through the gel supply but this station had sliced pickles! He began wolfing them down and someone offered him a chocolate gel . . . and a coke. Pickles and chocolate washed down with Coke. I told him to be careful because that would upset his stomach. “They have porta-potties along the route, just let me know if we need to stop.” “I feel great now,” Anthony said.
Mile 20-24. Newly revived, we actually began running again. We ran/walked/ran but I was stunned that Anthony could recover from cramping and pick up the pace like he was. Amazing. I knew that I needed to keep his mind off of his troubles, so I started talking about all kinds of random things. I said that we needed to start planning our finish line pose. When we cross the finish line, they will take our picture so do we want to look steady and cool or go full “Rocky,” arms extended like the champions we were about to be? Next, we started planning our post-race meal. Cheeseburger, pizza, all of the above?
At this point, people started calling out and saying, “You’re almost there.” Anthony was stunned and said, “Is that true?” “Not even close,” I said, “We’ve got miles to go.” “Why would they say that if it’s not true?” “Well, they think that they are helping but all encouragers at the end of marathons are liars, remember that!”
Around mile 24 Anthony thought that his feet were beginning to blister. I asked him if he wanted to stop, and he said “No way.” I stated that the best thing I could do for him was to get him off the course, and the best way to do that was to speed up and finish the race. He agreed, and so we made our way to the finish line.
Anthony crossed the finish line of his very first marathon in 6 hours and 31 minutes. On a really cool personal note, the paramedic who checked out his feet at the finish line was the Dad of one of my high school basketball players. The doctor on call, though his services were not needed, was another of my former players. Dr. Ben Meis was one of the best players I ever coached and one of the finest people I’ve ever known. We had a few minutes to catch up on old times before I dragged myself to the post-race food area.
Originally, I was more relieved than moved when we crossed the finish line. I knew that not only had I finished the marathon myself (my seventh plus one ultra) but also I had helped Anthony to the finish line. That was his goal from the first. He didn’t want to just participate in the race. He wanted to help the St. Jude kids by finishing the race, and finish he did.
I slept great that night until sometime in the wee hours of the morning. Somewhere in the predawn hours, I dreamed that Anthony and I were back on the course, and I couldn’t feel his hand on my elbow. I woke up with a start thinking that I needed to find him. The next day, the emotion of what we had accomplished sank in a little bit more, and then the thought hit me and wouldn’t let me go.
I realized that Anthony had taught me a great picture of how my faith relationship with the Lord Jesus should work. During our race, it didn’t help Anthony for me to tell him what was 5 miles ahead. In fact, that information was nearly useless to him. All Anthony needed was to have a trustworthy guide and to take the next step.
I hope I can learn to apply this lesson to my own faith. I frequently pray and ask if the future will work out. All I really need to know is that I trust my Guide and to keep taking one step at a time with Him. If you do trust your Guide, the Lord Jesus, and take the steps He requires, then nothing matters but running the race with Him to the finish line. I wish I had seen that sooner.