One of the more significant races Chaz Davis has run was his modest 59th-place finish in the 8,000-meter America East Cross Country Championship on Halloween this year. It was the first Division I cross country race Davis, a University of Hartford senior, had competed in since his freshman year, when he began to lose his sight.
At Grafton High School in Massachusetts, Davis preferred the openness of cross country over the relative monotony of track running, though he excelled in both. But that freedom became a barrier when Davis lost his vision between his freshman and sophomore years of college, making outdoor running uncertain and potentially dangerous.
When Davis crossed the finish line at the America East event in Stony Brook, N.Y., just ahead of the Hartford teammate who had run the course with him as an unofficial guide, it underscored Davis’ reclamation of a passion he once thought had been taken away.
“Kyle Hamel is his classmate, teammate, roommate, and they ran side-by-side for their last event at the conference meet,” Hartford track and field coach Roger Busch said. “It was pretty exciting for them. It was pretty emotional.”
On Sunday, Davis will have an official guide while running in the California International Marathon, the Folsom-to-Sacramento event that doubles as the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes National Marathon Championships. Davis, 22, will be part of a two-person relay team with Michael Kinoshita of Folsom, another legally blind runner competing at the collegiate level. Davis plans to run the first half of the marathon and hand off to Kinoshita on Fair Oaks Boulevard in Carmichael for the final 13.1 miles.
Richard Hunter, a visually impaired runner from Folsom who helps coordinate the USABA event, said if they chose to, Davis and Kinoshita would have a strong chance to be the first visually impaired relay team to finish the CIM in under 2 hours, 30 minutes.
“They both have the talent and the speed to run that fast,” Hunter said.
But Davis and Kinoshita have larger goals. Both are training toward a shot at representing the United States at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and both are in the middle of their college running seasons (Kinoshita is a sophomore at William Jessup). So they intend to run the marathon at slightly less than full pace as part of their training – likely around the 2 hour, 50 minute mark, which would still put them among the event’s faster finishers.
For Davis, there still is joy in simply running again. He was in the spring of his freshman year at Hartford when he noticed a problem with the vision in his right eye. He consulted a doctor when the problem persisted for a few days, but the progression continued to worsen. By summer, it also affected his left eye, and Davis was deemed legally blind.
Davis was diagnosed with Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, a rare disease that causes sudden loss of central vision, often first in one eye, then the other several months later. It is diagnosed in about 100 people in the United States each year. Davis said he had better than 20/20 vision until March of his freshman year at Hartford, and that any sight-related problems were “completely not on the radar.”
Davis returned to Hartford for his sophomore year but said he was “still going through an adjustment period” and didn’t compete in any track events “because I really didn’t think I could.” He did not return to competition until this time last year, running his first track race in December of his junior year.
When running track, Davis said he’s usually able to make out the contrast of the track and the dividing lines, “especially if it’s nicely painted.” A bigger issue can be the other runners because some of his college events feature groups of 25 to 30 people, and Davis, who needs to be “within a foot of someone” to notice them, said he’ll sometimes experience “a lot of bumping and jostling.”
Davis said his comfort level while running has improved since his sophomore year, even though his vision has deteriorated. Busch said that after his sophomore year, Davis “took it on his own accord to get back into shape.” He put in most of the miles pounding away on a treadmill.
The work has paid dividends. In the America East Conference Indoor Track Championships in February, Davis ran the 3,000-meter race in 9:02.35 (30th). At the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field Championships in June, Davis blew away the rest of the field in the 5,000-meter race, his time of 16:09.71 nearly a full minute faster than the runner-up.
Speaking from the East Coast last week, Davis said he was looking forward to his trip to Sacramento and the chance to meet other athletes from the blind community.
“It’ll be really great to meet them and just get a feel for blind athletics in a greater sense, veterans and other people who have been able to run marathons and things like that,” Davis said.
“Those kinds of things really inspire me.”
- When: Sunday, 7 a.m.
- Course: Folsom Dam to the state Capitol
- 2014 winners: Jacob Chemtai (2:11:55) and Volha Mazuronak (2:27:33)
- More information: www.runcim.org