Matthew Rodjom has peripheral vision, but ever since he lost most of his sight to a rare genetic disorder while in college he can’t see what’s ahead of him.
It would be a challenge for anyone to adapt to such a major life change, let alone an athlete who was on his college track and cross-country teams. Rodjom has done much more than just adapt, however. He has remained a competitive runner who has completed a total of nine marathons, eight since losing his vision.
And on Sunday, Rodjom will pair with ultra-running legend Scott Jurek as his guide at the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes Marathon National Championships sponsored by Hanson McClain in Sacramento, California, where Rodjom hopes to finish in under three hours for his fastest time ever.
When told that Jurek would be his partner in the endeavor, Rodjom said there was “no question” that he was excited.
“I was a little in awe,” said Rodjom, 36, of Fairfax, Virginia. “I’ve been trying to explain to my non-runner friends that he’s the Michael Phelps of ultra running. And I get three hours to run with him.”
Every runner-guide relationship is different, Rodjom said.
In his case, he likes to have his guides run at his side.
“Since my vision loss is central I can’t see turns and things like that, so I want (my guide) at my side calling out when water stops are coming or we’re about to turn quickly,” Rodjom said.
Then if they’re coming into a zone with a lot of people or the road is narrowing, the guide will call out “shadow” and Rodjom will move behind him. He can see the guide’s shirt color, he said, and will stay close until they can move back alongside one another. Rodjom also relies on his guide to call out mile splits.
Jurek began guiding several years ago when a fellow runner who works with the Boulder, Colorado, chapter of Achilles International, which works with athletes with disabilities, asked him to guide a fun run. Since then, he’s guided runners in the Bolder Boulder, the Boston Marathon and even on the Appalachian Trial.
“I’d always wanted to guide and thought it would be a great opportunity to give back to the community,” said Jurek, whose extensive résumé includes wins in such prestigious and grueling ultramarathons as Badwater and Western States, which he won seven straight times. “My mother had multiple sclerosis and it affected her vision. She never became fully blind, but she did lose some of her vision, so it’s something that hit home. Being a runner and someone who spends time in the mountains running trails, vision is so important. It always amazed me how visually impaired athletes could do what they do.”
Jurek said that although it is a huge responsibility acting as the eyes of another runner, he’s always considered it a great opportunity to see running from a different perspective. The first time he guided a runner in a marathon was in 2015 in Boston when he led Thomas Panek, the president and CEO of the non-profit Guiding Eyes for the Blind. The two met for the first time the day before and went on a two-mile run to get to know one another and game plan for the next day.
“It was such an amazing experience because I’d never run Boston before and yet here I was running for two people,” said Jurek, 43, of Boulder. “I really absorbed every aspect of it. You have to see everything; all the minutia in terms of cracks and potholes and undulations in terrain and give feedback, then you’re telling him we’re at mile such and such and that was how many minutes per mile. I saw it from a whole different perspective.”
Jurek and Rodjom were paired by Richard Hunter, the volunteer coordinator for the USABA, because of Rodjom’s goal of breaking the three-hour mark. While there are a number of volunteers at the ready for visually impaired runners who finish around four hours, Jurek said, there aren’t as many who can keep a faster pace. It’s also important that guides aren’t running at their max or PR because there’s so much more to focus on both mentally and physically.
Rodjom said he’s been close to three hours many times before.
“I had it last time out, but at mile 24 my left hamstring locked up on me,” Rodjom said. “I was on a 2:55 pace. So we’ll see how the day goes, but I’d love to do a 2:55 or 3 hours and just go have a good time and enjoy the experience.”
That includes getting to spend time alongside the man made famous by the book “Born to Run” and who has conquered some of the most difficult endurance races in the world.
“I’ve read the book, like most everybody else,” Rodjom said. “I started thinking about a few questions already, like Death Valley. How do you survive that? We’ll have at least two hours of talking before I get to the point where I can’t talk anymore.”