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How a visually impaired marathoner will compete in Boston

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The 128th running of the Boston Marathon takes place tomorrow. Tens of thousands of runners will line up to start the race, and one of them will be 29-year-old Nafij Ahmed. He's run a handful of world-class marathons already, but not Boston. So he set himself the goal of running it this year before he turns 30 in August and before his eyesight gets worse.

NAFIJ AHMED: I have a visual impairment. Diagnosis is retinitis pigmentosa. So I like to describe it as looking through a binocular. It's essentially the equivalent of tunnel vision.

DETROW: Because of that impairment, he will need some help to navigate the 26.2 miles in Boston. And that's where Josh Bard comes in.

JOSH BARD: I am 39 years old. I live in Washington, D.C. I'm running with Nafij. We're going to run a marathon together.

DETROW: ALL THINGS CONSIDERED producer Jordan-Marie Smith met up with Nafij and Josh as they train for the Boston Marathon here in Washington, D.C.

BARD: It's an absolutely beautiful day - a little warm, but nice.

AHMED: You can still see, like, some cherry blossoms.

BARD: There are some. And there were some...

I am wearing long sleeves because I tend to run too cold and a vest sort of bib type of thing that says guide on it. Nafij gave it to me, and it matches the one that he's wearing that says visually impaired.

AHMED: It's a special relationship. You know, when you're running a marathon or training for something big like this, it's really hard to, you know, do it on your own. So basically, you know, you have someone to talk to, and it doesn't have to be about the race.

BARD: OK, we're getting close to the turn here.

AHMED: Should we merge over to the left side?

BARD: Let's just wait just in case a car comes.

AHMED: Sure.

BARD: I became a guide - I was actually running in New York City. I was there for just a weekend in September, and I was running in Central Park. And this group of people came running at me. They were just so joyous, and they were all wearing the same, like, highlighter yellow shirt. And I was like, I don't know what's happening here, but this is something that looks fun that I want to be a part of. And so I read the shirt, and it said Achilles International. I had never heard of them before. I went home. I Googled it immediately, and I was like, oh, they have a chapter in D.C. In my second workout, I met Nafij. We hit it off quickly. We ran around the National Mall.

AHMED: Go by Washington Monument.

BARD: All right, Nafij, big puddle coming up here.

AHMED: Big puddle.

BARD: So stay out of the right. Let's stay in the street. Yeah.

AHMED: OK.

BARD: This is fine. No cars are coming.

AHMED: Thanks for the heads up.

BARD: Yeah.

And yeah, it was awesome. I mean, it's like - been a real joy for me.

AHMED: I'm trying to run the World Marathon Majors, and as of now, Boston is one of the six. And I'm hoping to get my fourth star. So they call it getting stars. So I've got three stars so far and hoping to get my fourth star by completing the Boston Marathon. My first marathon was the New York City Marathon in 2019, the Chicago Marathon, the Tokyo Marathon and the California International Marathon.

BARD: Yeah, there's a certain amount of irony, I think, to me, being the guide for Nafij when he's the one who's done all the marathons and I'm the one who hasn't done all the marathons. I've done some 10-milers in D.C., but the most I've run is a half marathon until the training here.

We'll use the sidewalk there 'cause...

AHMED: Following your lead, so if you want to get (inaudible) in front of me...

BARD: ...It's a little wider, a little flatter. Yeah, let's come left with me a little bit.

AHMED: OK, so get on that crosswalk?

BARD: Yeah. And then get on the crosswalk, and then we're going to cross. No one coming. We're good.

AHMED: For me, my eyesight isn't all there. Because of my limited peripheral vision, we'll try to run in a way that Josh is maybe two or three feet to my side or at, like, a 45-degree angle, usually in front of me and kind of running in one direction. So there won't be people coming at us, but let's say there's, like, a pothole or something like that...

BARD: There's a ramp. Yeah, there's a - come this way a little bit.

AHMED: Yep.

BARD: Yep, you're good.

AHMED: Which will be very important throughout the race - Josh will kind of, you know, give me a heads up as he can spot a hydration station and sort of help us navigate, you know, get the water, if there's any nutrition like goos and stuff like that.

BARD: Typically post-marathons, where does your body hurt or where are you, you know, sorest?

AHMED: So it depends on what I got going on after. It doesn't hurt the day of, but the next day when you wake up, there's a lot of aches, particularly, like, lower body.

BARD: The day of the marathon will be the most I've ever run. Having Nafij's race in my hands or in my legs is something that will keep me going, even if it's impossible. I know we'll get there.

We're basically - I like to consider this, like, a greatest hits farewell tour...

AHMED: Oh, yeah.

BARD: ...Of D.C., downtown D.C.

AHMED: And the Capitol and everything (ph).

BARD: I got to get a picture real quick of us.

AHMED: Sure.

BARD: I'll take one of you, and then I'll take one of us. Let's see - one, two, three.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE CAMERA SHUTTER CLICKING)

BARD: Let's flip it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE CAMERA SHUTTER CLICKING)

AHMED: All right.

BARD: All right, let's keep going. We're almost there. I see - got to take...

AHMED: Final stretch.

DETROW: Nafij Ahmed and his running guide, Josh Bard. They're in Boston right now, and tomorrow they plan on running the Boston Marathon together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jordan-Marie Smith
Jordan-Marie Smith is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.

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