Guide runners prepare to be the ‘eyes’ of visually impaired competitors at 30th California International Marathon

Brian Szydlik and Adrian Broca have never met. Both are 37 and accomplished endurance athletes. This weekend, Broca will fly from Los Angeles to compete in Sunday’s California International Marathon, while Szydlik will make a shorter trip from his Folsom residence. And when Szydlik sets foot on the course, it will effectively be as an extension of Broca.

Broca is legally blind, the result of a genetic condition that damaged his optic nerve and first manifested itself when he was in high school. A veteran marathoner, Broca finished last year’s CIM in 2 hours, 57 minutes and 36 seconds, a pace of about 6:47 per mile. He can distinguish between light and dark, but most shapes on the course appear as a blur.

Therefore, Broca, like most visually impaired runners in Sunday’s Folsom-to-Sacramento race, will have fully sighted guides helping him navigate the course. Szydlik and a second guide will divide the 26.2 miles, aiding Broca with a tether and verbal cues. While the three are considered a team, only Broca will be scored.

“They’re totally my eyes out there,” Broca said by phone this week. “I know I couldn’t run the pace and times that I’m running without their help.”

For the fifth time, the CIM is doubling as the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes’ Marathon National Championships, with 19 visually impaired runners registered for the full marathon and 14 for the relay competition. Running with them will be 43 sighted guides, including 26 local runners and others arriving from the Bay Area or out of state, said Richard Hunter, a Folsom athlete helping coordinate the USABA event.

(Guides) are highly motivated to do this,” Hunter said. “They consider it a huge honor.”

While some visually impaired runners bring guides, many other guides are volunteers who have been paired with a competitor, Hunter said. Some, like Szydlik, will meet their runner for the first time just days before the race, when they will be asked to adapt to the runner’s style and pace so the two move almost in tandem.

Guides, Hunter said, must be slightly faster than their partner to keep the runner’s desired pace while handling other responsibilities. They include handling their runner’s hydration and nutrition, as well as their own, calling out split times at mile markers and being “hyper-vigilant” about their surroundings as a matter of safety.

Broca, for example, said he can sometimes make out the path but not debris on the ground or the sudden movements of runners around him. That can make the starting line and jumbled first mile particularly challenging, so Broca relies on his guide to take charge and navigate him into more open space.

“It takes patience and, I think, good communicators as well,” Broca said. “Sometimes, we’ll run two or three miles before I get a split, and then I’m kind of lost. If I have to be thinking about them and asking, it kind of distracts me, but a good guide will be saying, ‘We’re coming up to the seventh mile – how do you feel?’”

The role appeals to Andrew Grant, a 42-year-old Folsom resident who will run as a guide for the first time at this year’s CIM. Grant will run the first half of the course with Aaron Scheidies, who won the USABA event in the 2012 CIM in 2:53:36. Grant, a marathoner and triathlete, said his first task in preparation was to spend more time at the track.

“The challenge they placed was to run at about a 5:45 (per mile pace), so I wanted to make sure my old body could do that,” Grant said. “It’s just being able to do what is asked of you. I think it’s great that if you can, you give him the chance to compete at the best level possible.”

As for the nuances of guiding, Grant said he isn’t sure what to expect.

“Moving through the first group of runners is going to be important,” he said.

Beyond that, Grant said Scheidies has “already told me, ‘I want to do this at this mile, ease back a little and roll through 13. … I think people will see us. But I don’t know what extent he requires me to talk to him.”

Grant said he and Scheidies, who is flying in from the Seattle area, plan to do a trial run Saturday. Afterward, they’ll catch some college football. Grant said the plan is for Scheidies to stay with him through the weekend.

“I have three little kids, and I’m sure they’re going to ask a ton of questions,” Grant said. “Their first already is, ‘Daddy, is he faster than you?’”

A bond often forms between runner and guide. Matt Linderman, a 36-year-old Folsom resident, will run all 26.2 miles guiding Hunter, with whom he began running in January. Hunter, whose visual impairment results from a genetic condition that causes retinal degeneration, was hit by a car while on a bike ride in July and suffered injuries that included a broken neck vertebra. But he began running again in October and intends to finish the CIM.

“He had called me and said, ‘Let’s try this,’” Linderman said. “I showed up at his house, and we ran seven miles that day. When I got home, I told my wife, ‘I think we have a problem – I have to train for a marathon in eight weeks.’”

Linderman said he has run one marathon and helped guide Hunter through the American River 50-mile Endurance Run earlier this year. Though he “has never been a big fan of racing,” Linderman said he set his personal-best half-marathon time earlier this year. He credited Hunter for “basically prodding me along, saying, ‘You have to do this.’”

“Being there for him as he was recovering, he’s inspired me to really run differently,” Linderman said. “He’s challenged me a lot from the standpoint of, what do I think I can do, vs. what’s really a possibility.”

Danielle Zemola, meanwhile, is flying in from Fort Myers, Fla., after winning an essay contest for the chance to guide Brad Snyder, a military veteran competing in the relay. Zemola said her preparation included running with a friend and taking turns donning a blindfold, with the other, unencumbered runner giving directions.

“You don’t know how many verbal cues are needed, so you err on the side of telling them everything,” said Zemola, 35.

Communicating, though, doesn’t figure to be a problem for Zemola, an attorney who said she typically converses with training partners. Zemola said she entered the contest having seen others running as guides and “just knowing you can help somebody do something that they love.”

“We’re just going to run at a comfortable enough pace that we talk and enjoy everything around,” Zemola said, adding, “I’m way more excited than he is.”

For Broca, running with a guide did not come easily. A high school cross country athlete when he began losing his vision, Broca said he quit running until his mid-20s, when he began training again and entered his first L.A. Marathon. For several years, Broca said, he competed without a guide, instead trying to follow the shapes of other runners ahead.

“Other runners would stop to tie their shoes, and I would run into them. I wouldn’t be able to see the hydration stations,” Broca said. “I realized if I was going to reach my potential, it was by losing that pride and letting people help me.”

Sunday, that responsibility falls partly to Szydlik, a civil engineer in Folsom who heard about the opportunity from a training partner. Szydlik said he normally scales back his training at this time of year. A competitive triathlete, he said he competes in six or seven races a year, but that “started to get a little mundane, actually.”

“I’d go out and run a race, and you finish, and it’s great,” Szydlik said. “But knowing I’m training to get up and help somebody else – that I can’t really have a bad day – it’s a whole different mindset. I’m preparing for him. In essence, I am training with somebody.”

Szydlik plans to run the second leg with Broca, meaning he’ll guide Broca to the finish. For many, crossing the finish line is the reward for weeks of difficult training and hours of physical exertion. For the guides, it’s a little different. Guides must cross the finish line behind their runner and are not counted among the official finishers of the race.

“I’ve thought about it, and I think I’ll just slow down and watch him on the finish line,” Szydlik said. “It’s not about me. It’s about getting him to the finish. I’m pretty excited about that, too. It’s going to be fun.”


•  What: 30th annual California International Marathon

•  When: Sunday, 7 a.m.

•  Where: The 26.2-mile course starts at Folsom-Auburn Road near Folsom Dam in Folsom and ends at the Capitol in downtown Sacramento.

•  Cost: Free for spectators

•  On B1: How runners plan to stay warm in low temperatures.

•  On B3: Course map, road closures and more.