Ultra-runner Scott Jurek to lead legally blind champion in California International Marathon

Scott Jurek runs along the Appalachian trail. Jurek, a highly regarded ultra runner, will serve as a guide for the blind in the California International Marathon this weekend.
Scott Jurek runs along the Appalachian trail. Jurek, a highly regarded ultra runner, will serve as a guide for the blind in the California International Marathon this weekend.

Scott Jurek, one of the most highly regarded trail runners in the world, is worried about keeping up with legally blind marathoner Matt Rodjom this Sunday.

As Rodjom’s guide for the California International Marathon, Jurek is committed to staying a few steps ahead of the visually impaired runner in the race from Folsom to the state Capitol. They plan to run the 26-mile course in three hours or less.

Accustomed to the solitude of long, winding trails in rural Colorado, Jurek said he’ll be out of his element on the streets of Sacramento but is looking forward to being at Rodjom’s side.

“I’m not a super fast marathoner. … I just hope that I can keep up,” said Jurek, who specializes in distance running and won the prestigious Western States 100-mile run seven times. While running at a fast clip, Jurek has to keep Rodjam safe and give him “a feel of what’s out there visually in terms of the environment and the atmosphere.”

“And that to me is one of the most powerful things – to be their eyes for them,” Jurek said.

Jurek is one of 50 volunteers who will run with 43 visually impaired competitors in Sunday’s marathon – which doubles as the national championships for the United States Association of Blind Athletes. Participation in the event has grown every year since it began in 2007 and draws blind runners from all over the world, the association said.

Many visually impaired runners require a sighted guide on a marathon course to navigate crowds, anticipate turns and changes in terrain and avoid obstacles such as potholes and curbs. The fastest visually impaired athletes tend to be the hardest to find guides for, said Richard Hunter, the local volunteer program coordinator for the USABA championships.

“It is a huge challenge in the Sacramento area, because the CIM is one of these races that a lot of the fast runners really want to do,” Hunter said. “Sometimes I’m able to engage triathletes and ultra-runners, who are very fast but who typically don’t run marathons.”

That was true for Jurek, who spends most of his time tackling rugged terrain near his home in Colorado and beyond. For the past three years he’s also been helping visually impaired runners train as a volunteer with the Boulder chapter of Achilles International, a nonprofit group that helps disabled athletes participate in mainstream running events.

Jurek, 43, said he has always been interested in running with blind athletes because his mother lost her sight to multiple sclerosis. In 2015 he ran the Boston Marathon as a guide for his friend Thomas Panek, and said it motivated him to push harder toward his own athletic goals.

“Guiding visually impaired runners just gives me a whole new level of respect,” Jurek said. “These individuals are doing this without sight or with less sight than me, and they’re doing amazing things. It’s truly inspiring. If they’re doing this, I should be able to go out and tackle my biggest goals and the things that I sometimes think I can’t do.”

This weekend Jurek will meet Rodjom for the first time to work out a system for race day. Rodjom was the 2010 winner of the USABA championships and ran the CIM in 3 hours and 4 minutes last year.

Rodjom, who is partially sighted and can make out colors and shapes, trains solo on a treadmill and on some routes near his Washington, D.C., area home. For marathons, he relies on a partner to provide verbal cues about upcoming turns and the proximity of other runners.

He was surprised and impressed to hear that Jurek, whom he described as the “Michael Phelps of ultra-running,” would be his guide, he said.

“Richard (Hunter) emailed and texted me and said call me ASAP,” Rodjom said. “He said, ‘Do you know who Scott is?’ And I said, ‘Of course I know who Scott is.’ 

Rodjom, 36, started losing his eyesight at 20 due to a condition called Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, which affects central vision. It happened over a period of six months, gradually rendering him unable to run with his college’s cross-country team.

Competing in marathons continues to be a source of self-confidence and a way to meet other athletes, he said.

“It’s a stress relief,” Rodjom said. “It’s my one thing where I don’t feel visually impaired when I’m running. I can still be in the top 2 percent of these races, even having some vision struggles. It’s my outlet.”

10,000 runners participate in the 33rd annual marathon from Folsom to downtown Sacramento. Elite racers use finish times to qualify for the Boston Marathon or Olympic Marathon trials.

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

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