Legally blind, he rides for cancer care
Every weekday, Chris Smith rides his bicycle to and from work, 24 miles roundtrip. That’s to Waltham from Dedham, year-round, rain, shine, and even snow. “I’ve got studded snow tires,” he says.
It’s an impressive feat, but add the fact that Smith is legally blind and can only see with peripheral vision, and it’s an extremely brave feat. “Or stupid,” says Smith, 35.
But his commute — from Dedham into Boston briefly, then through Newton Centre and Newtonville and into Waltham — is nothing compared with the fact that he is gearing up to do the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, the 192-mile, two-day course from Sturbridge to Provincetown Aug. 4-5. He did it last year, and his 3-year-old son, Jack, did the PMC kiddy course the day before Father’s Day this year.
Smith has encouraged Jack to get on the bicycle, and the two ride around together. “I don’t want my eyesight to be a big deal to him,” says Smith, who works for a technology startup. “Everyone’s got something going on. You can either say you’re just going to sit here on the couch, or you can deal with it.”
Clearly, Chris Smith has dealt with it.
In 2000, at age 24, he was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, a condition that causes central vision loss. By 2009, he was declared legally blind, and had to give up his driver’s license. There is no treatment or cure, and Smith wears contact lenses to help with his peripheral vision, all that he has left.
“If I’m sitting across a table from you, I won’t be able to see your head or shoulders, but I’ll be able to see everything else in the room,” he says.
Likewise, he can’t see in front of himself on the bike. “It’s all periphery. I’m constantly scanning as I ride, constantly checking the pavement and what’s going on around me. The periphery is where you see lots of things that may happen, like a car pulling out from the side.”
The biggest problem is navigation: He can’t see the street signs. But he’s got a GPS on his handlebars that tells him which way to go, and warns him when a turn is coming up. “Technology has been a great help. This is a great time to go blind,” he says, with a chuckle.
What can trip him up are “the big things right in the way.”
So how on earth did he do the Pan-Mass Challenge, which is a challenge enough for riders with perfect vision? He joined Team Kermit and rode with them. Team Kermit — the members wear small stuffed Kermit the Frog toys attached to their helmets — was started in 2005 by the family and friends of Jared Branfman while he was undergoing treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Kermit, a star on TV’s “Sesame Street,” was one of Jared’s favorite childhood characters and, to the team, represents rising above challenges. “It’s not easy being green,” was Kermit’s motto. In 2005, at age 23, Jared passed away. The team has raised $1.2 million for the Jimmy Fund through the Pan-Mass Challenge.
Smith says the green Kermits on all those helmets near him was a big help in identifying teammates, who would give him a shout-out when necessary. (“Hey, Chris, I’m on your left.”)
The toughest physical part of the ride came at the end of the 110-mile first day. Emotionally, the toughest part was when his friend and riding partner got up to participate in the “Living Proof” photo of all the riders who have battled cancer. The man had dealt with leukemia quietly for a year, telling only close family. Smith was shocked, and moved.
“He’s fine now, but it will stick with me as a reminder of why I’m out there riding, and why Jack’s now taking to the road with me,” says Smith.
There are 11 routes of varying mileage; 5,500 riders are expected this year.
In this year’s PMC Kids Ride, Jack rode the entire mile loop meant for the older children, wearing a Kermit jersey and a Kermit stuffed animal on his helmet. The fund-raising minimum for the youngest kids was $15, or you could be a “heavy hitter” if you raised at least $250. Jack raised $280. For adults like Smith, who are doing the entire course, the minimum pledge is $4,300.
“It’s a weird concept to him that there are kids who are sick and he can get on his bike and do something about it,” says Smith. “My message to him is to not let things get in his way. If something’s important to you, go for it, do, find a way to get it done.”
Jack has seen his dad disappear on weekends and evenings, as he trains for the PMC. But now, with the “froggy rides,” as the boy calls them, father and son are bonding over biking.
Last year, Smith’s own father came up from Connecticut to cheer him on during the ride. He had cancer, and died three months later. “This was my first Father’s Day without him,” says Smith. “So watching Jack ride in the PMC was a great way to honor him.”
This year, he will be riding in honor of his father and so many people he knows who have cancer.
On his PMC fund-raising page (pmc.geosmith.com), Smith says he knows that his blindness will be a stressful challenge on the ride. But having done it once, he knows he can do it again.
“Most importantly, I know that through all of this, my challenges will be easier than the challenges that those battling cancer are fighting,” he says. Smith is waiting for the day when he and his boy can ride the 192 miles together.
Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.