Erich Manser can’t see Andrew Trotman running next to him, but he can hear the padding of his footsteps and the measured inhales and exhales of his breath. Then, suddenly, Manser hears Trotman, in his Australian accent, calmly say, “all right, we’re coming up on a puddle so veer toward me.”
He takes a few steps toward Trotman and they continue down the road, side by side, their footsteps in sync.
Manser has Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that will eventually lead to complete blindness. He describes his vision as looking through a keyhole covered with wax paper. It makes distinguishing between different types of terrain tricky as he runs. Puddles look like stains, and he’s not always aware of traffic cones lining the periphery of the road.
That’s where Trotman comes in. Trotman is Manser’s sighted guide for the 2016 Boston Marathon, a partnership arranged through the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. This year, 20 teams of visually impaired runners and their guides will run.
The relationship between guides and runners is fast-tracked, Manser said. The pair met for the first time a week ago during a practice run, and spent the first mile working together to find their rhythm.
“I told him to tell me like it is,” Manser said. “No information is too much information.”
But they ended up spending most of the run getting to know one another, with their chats about their jobs and friends and families punctuated by Trotman warning Manser of the occasional puddle or pothole, curb or stretch of uneven pavement. On Tuesday, a few days after their initial run, they practiced using a bungee-cord-esque tether, which they’ll each hold onto during the race. The tether helps to keep them on the same pace, and it also lets other runners know there’s something different about them.
“At the beginning of the Boston Marathon, you’re packed in like sardines,” Manser said. “You have company the whole way into Boston, and sometimes people will try to break through small openings in between people to squeeze ahead.”
This is Manser’s seventh time running the Boston Marathon, but his fifth time with a sighted guide. When he ran without a guide, he stuck to the double-yellow line on the road, and followed closely on the heels of the runners in front of him.
“They didn’t realize they were guiding me,” he said. “But I didn’t have any idea of the pace we were keeping, and once you’re a certain number of miles in, it’s hard to correct that. There were some hard lessons there.”
It wasn’t until the New York Triathlon in 2010 that he experienced a race with a sighted guide. As he smoothed his race bib, which says “blind,” Manser said that once he changed to wearing the identifying bib, there was no going back.
“There’s a huge value in having sighted guides,” he said. “And one of them is to have someone help keep you on pace.”
As they practice on a rainy morning in Littleton, the tether swings between their similar 6-foot, 3-inch frames. Trotman gives a little tug when Manser strays too far from him on a quiet residential street, and Manser returns to his side. This dance—the tug and pull, the in and out—is what they’ll replicate on Monday, though Trotman will only be with Manser for the second half of the race. He’ll have another sighted guide for the first.
“Running in general is a community,” Trotman said. “I get to give someone else an opportunity that maybe they couldn’t have done without a guide. It’s just a wonderful feeling to give back something to people who have always given to me.”
They both know that running a marathon, especially the Boston Marathon, isn’t just about the sights or sounds. It’s about energy. It’s about accomplishment. It’s about a feeling that doesn’t have to be seen to be believed.