UPDATE; October 10, 2014: Dan Berlin successfully became the first blind runner to run across the Grand Canyon and back, completing the trek in 28 hours.
Charles Scott and Dan Berlin have been close friends ever since their children attended the same preschool class. But for the first five years of their friendship, Scott didn’t know that Berlin was going blind—until on the way to a race together, Berlin’s car hit a curb and lost a hubcap, and Berlin didn’t laugh when Scott tossed it back at him and joked, “Nice driving, idiot.”
Berlin never let on that he had cone and rod dystrophy, a degenerative condition that has been slowly impairing his sight since he was diagnosed at age seven. He played football in high school, drove a car, read menus when he was out to dinner with his family, and went to cheer on Scott at his triathlons and races. But in 2007, after the hubcap incident, his sight took a turn for the worse. Berlin could no longer work around his blindness. His lifestyle changed. He decided it was time to give up his driver’s license before a more serious accident occurred. He started using a mobility cane. He also started running.
“I never ran when I could see, but all of a sudden, running became this thing that allowed me to be on my own,” said Berlin. “I could do it myself. It was freedom.” He began by taking to the familiar bike trails and roads of his neighborhood, learning to let the sound of his footfalls guide him as he ran. By the end of his first month of running, Berlin signed up for his first race: a half marathon.
The race director paired Berlin with a guide who would help him maneuver the course with the help of a tether. The tether allowed Berlin to run shoulder to shoulder with his guide, Connie, who would pull on the tether or nudge Berlin to give him a head’s up about the path ahead.
“It was such an uplifting experience, and Connie was so supportive,” said Berlin. “It was a big undertaking for me, but it felt great.” Soon, Berlin was signing up for marathons and even relay triathlons, always competing in the running leg of the race.
With Berlin now racing, he and Scott had more in common than ever before, and Berlin asked Scott to guide him in the New York City Marathon. “When he called and asked me, I had a lot of self-doubt,” said Scott. “But he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll show you how.’” That positivity led the duo through the NYC finish line and multiple tris, including a half Ironman. So they set their sights on something bigger: the Grand Canyon.
“Charles wanted to run 46 miles for his 46th birthday, and chose the rim-to-rim-to-rim route in the Grand Canyon,” said Berlin. “When he asked me to go with him and allow him to guide me, I didn’t hesitate, even though I’d never done trail runs.”
Berlin started running on singletrack trails holding a trekking pole between him and his training partner, often his wife, to acclimate to rough terrain. On a training plan of 60 miles a week, he’s building up for the run—a feat considered impressive for any runner, let alone a blind runner who must navigate switchbacks and technical terrain along mile-deep canyon walls.
“I’ve never run more than a marathon distance, so my biggest fear is not being able to finish it,” said Berlin. “Every runner on this run is a reservoir of strength, and even though I may not be able to cross the street alone, I can run across the Grand Canyon with my friends.”