Blind runner looks to conquer Boston Marathon

Kyle Robidoux’s office door closed shut at 11 a.m., just as it always does at that hour. His coworkers didn’t need to ask where he was going. They knew he’d be back by noon from his six­-mile run, another small step in an unlikely journey to his first Boston Marathon.

Robidoux absorbed the icy Boston air and started down his familiar path through Mason Square, bounding down Essex Street before hanging a right on Commonwealth Avenue. He then crossed a bridge over the Charles River and continued on the Esplanade, passing only a few geese cackling despondently alongside frozen waters.

Finally, a fellow runner smiled as she passed nearby, but Robidoux kept his steely gaze straight ahead. The woman shrugged off the encounter and kept grinding. She couldn’t have known the man she passed was legally blind.

Robidoux wasn’t always this way. The 38­-year-­old recalls an active childhood filled with the usual exploits of a boy in the countryside, though there were a few signs here and there.

“As a kid I remember running through one, if not more, screened doors,” Robidoux said. “My parents weren’t overly impressed or happy that I did that, but looking back it was probably because I couldn’t actually see that the door was open or closed.”

At age 11, Robidoux was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease that leads to severe vision impairment. His sight remained mostly intact for awhile, but gradual deterioration of photoreceptor cells in the retina has made things particularly difficult for him in the last five years. With little usable central vision and no peripheral vision left, Robidoux’s eyesight is similar to peering through a toilet paper roll.

Yet physical limitations haven’t kept him from staying active. A youthful proclivity to ball sports eventually gave way to an obsession with distance running, a hobby borne out of annual trips to Reston to visit his wife’s family. Robidoux’s sister­-in-law, Julie Kimmel, opened his eyes to new possibilities on their two­-hour runs through Reston’s paved trail network.

In 2010 Robidoux and Kimmel entered the Maine Half Marathon in Portland. Kimmel provided verbal cues to her brother­-in-­law throughout the race, signaling potholes, sharp turns and anything else that might trip him up. The only miscue came when she neglected to warn him about an orange cone that sent him tumbling to the pavement.

That setback didn’t do much to deter them. Robidoux planned to complete the 13.1­-mile race in two hours, but he ended up shaving 10 minutes off that time.

“After that it was just like he was unstoppable,” Kimmel said.

The two returned to Maine the following year for Robidoux’s first full marathon, the Mount Desert Island Marathon in Bar Harbor. Kimmel couldn’t keep up with her partner that time, watching him take off on his own around mile 10. Since then Robidoux has run other races on his own, including last December’s California International Marathon in Sacramento, where he finished in a personal-­best 3 hours and 50.18 minutes.

Upon learning he was a distance runner, friends always used to ask Robidoux if he planned to one day compete in the Boston Marathon. Until last fall, his answer was always no, as he doubted his ability to qualify or to train during the icy winter months.

“I realized that those were excuses,” Robidoux said. “I’ve been inspired by a ton of other blind and visually impaired athletes who have run the Boston Marathon. I learned about their success running, and they motivated and inspired me to do the same.”

In September Robidoux became the director of volunteer and support group services at the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI). There he was introduced to Team with a Vision (TWAV), a group of athletes geared toward involving runners with disabilities in the Boston Marathon, as well as raising funds and awareness for the blind and visually impaired through MABVI. Robidoux trained his focus on breaking the five-hour barrier needed to qualify for the marathon as a visually impaired runner, and in December he did just that.

On Monday Robidoux will compete in the world’s most prestigious marathon as one of 27 visually impaired runners on TWAV’s 70­-person team. He’s the only MABVI staff member of the bunch, but to do it he’ll need a sighted guide at his side. That’s where his sister­-in-­law comes back into play.

“I never thought I would be able to run the Boston Marathon,” said Kimmel, a freelance copy editor who owns Reston-based Lower Lake Editing. “Now I’m kind of inspired to try to qualify on my own. Kyle being up there is pretty inspirational.”

Kimmel has participated in several marathons since running her first in 2006, her most recent accomplishment being a personal­-best 1:52 in the Reston Half Marathon last month. She will run alongside Robidoux for the first half of Monday’s race, letting Robidoux’s older brother, Jayson, take over for the second half.

Jayson, 41, will be making the cross­-country trip from Washington to run in his first distance race. It will mark his first athletic endeavor with his brother since they were kids, when they used to play neighborhood hockey, wiffleball, football and baseball growing up in Sanford, Maine. Jayson remembers his brother as a power hitter on the high school baseball team, a lefty called up to varsity as a freshman to play first base.

Only a few momentary failures to locate balls in the dirt revealed Kyle’s disability in those days. There were a few incidents on the ski slopes too, but Jayson chalks that up more to his brother’s ambition than his vision.

“Kyle ripped it. He lived on the mountain at one point, and he became just a tremendous skier,” Jayson said. “There are some funny memories of him wiping out on the trails with me and my dad, but I don’t know if that was necessarily his
vision. I think it was more just going crazy and getting aggressive on the slopes.”

So far Robidoux has raised $7,412 for MABVI, well over his initial goal of $5,000. Altogether TWAV has raised over $158,000, far exceeding its goal of $100,000. According to Josh Warren, MABVI’s annual giving manager, fundraising
totals have more than doubled last year’s effort.

As Robidoux looped back from Cambridge along the Esplanade’s quiet trail, he thought about how nothing seemed able to stand in his way. Physical imperfections and senseless bombings couldn’t alter his course, his eyes fixed firmly on the road ahead.

“I personally feel absolutely no trepidation as a runner,” Robidoux said. “My number one goal is to run the entire race with a smile on my face and finish it knowing that the hundreds of miles and hours that I’ve been training for this just paid off.”

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