Woman who is blind runs Boston Marathon with help of guides

Credit: Photo by Steve Andrews
Credit: Photo by Steve Andrews
Credit: Photo by Steve Andrews
Credit: Photo by Steve Andrews
Credit: Rachel Sterzer
Credit: Rachel Sterzer


When Becky Andrews crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon — one of the best-known races in the world — on April 20, her friends and family were there to greet her. As her daughter, Natalie, gave her “the best hug ever” she also whispered in her mother’s ear, “Thanks for showing me that we can do hard things.”

Competing in a marathon can be a daunting task for both professional and amateur runners. Running 26.2 miles offers ample opportunity for possible roadblocks and unforeseen obstacles such as rough terrain, injury, inclement weather and/or fatigue. Yet for Sister Andrews, a member of the North Canyon 5th Ward, Bountiful Utah North Canyon Stake, the feat is further complicated by the fact that she can’t see the course. She’s running blind, literally.

The course that led her to participating in the Boston race has been its own kind of marathon — one that started when she was diagnosed at 18 with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare disorder that involves the breakdown and loss of the cells in the retina. She began to experience “tunnel vision,” until the tunnel got gradually smaller. Now all she can see is a small, fuzzy peephole in one eye.

Sister Andrews didn’t take up running until about 10 years ago after she’d broken both arms. Already restricted with her vision and adding in the inability to move made her feel jittery and hemmed in. “I started going crazy. My husband suggested that maybe we could run together.”

So they created a tether — an 8- to 10-inch cord that wrapped around her husband’s arm that she could hold on to. Suddenly, her world seemed bigger and less restricted.

“I thought, ‘If I can run, what else can I do?’ ”

Sister Andrews met Brenda Petersen and Suzette Hirst in her ward before moving. The trio has been running together four times a week for the last four years. Sister Petersen and Sister Hirst, both of the Val Verda 1st Ward, take turns being the guide for Sister Andrews.

Through the tether, Sister Andrews can sense her guide’s movement but she also relies on good communication. Throughout a run, especially during a race, Sister Hirst or Sister Peterson will call out directions. “Diagonal left.” Or, “To your right.”

As they run side by side, they’re often tethered more by their conversation, however, than by the red cord that connects them.

“I think people get the picture that we’re tethered so they’re slowing you down, but it’s not that way at all. It’s a lift. It’s a support. Having Becky right by my side is the biggest source of comfort to me,” Sister Hirst explained.

“We’re friends that happen to run together,” said Sister Petersen.

Together they’ve run 5Ks, 10Ks, several half marathons and three full marathons. Participating in the “crème de la crème” of foot races in Boston felt like a natural progression.

Despite some setbacks involving injuries, Sister Andrews was able to qualify during the New York Marathon. Previous races had allowed the trio to run all together but the Boston Marathon rules would allow Sister Andrews only one guide. So Sister Petersen ran the first 11.9 miles while Sister Hirst ran the last 14.3 miles.

Running in one of the world’s oldest annual marathons was “inspiring,” said Sister Andrews. The course winds through the historic roads and city streets of Boston and passes historical landmarks such as Boston College, Copley Square, Boylston Street and the Old South Church.

Little pots of daffodils labeled with “Boston Strong” in shop windows and along the course reminded the runners of the events surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon where two explosions occurred in approximately the last 225 yards of the course. Three spectators were killed and an estimated 264 were injured.

“You were very much aware of the fact you were running in the aftermath of the Boston bombings,” Sister Andrews said. “But it was a ‘Rise Above’ feeling. ‘We’re not going to let this keep us down.’ … We definitely felt the strength of the community.”

Unpredictable weather made dressing for the race difficult. Runners were faced with a downpour of cold rain both at the start line and the finish line and battled stiff winds through the hilly Massachusetts terrain.

Heartbreak Hill, the last of four steady climbs at mile 20, was especially challenging. Through it all, however, the trio said they were bolstered by the tremendous support they felt from one another, their friends and family, and the community.

“There were people all along the way, everywhere, cheering you on. It was amazing!” Sister Hirst said.

“Even in rural areas in freezing cold weather, there were kids out there cheering and thanking us for coming,” said Sister Petersen.

At the finish line, Sister Andrews and Sister Hirst were greeted by many friends and family, including Sister Petersen; Sister Andrews’ parents; her husband, Steve, and her children, Natalie and Kendall.

In retrospect, Sister Andrews said she can see how running a marathon is a great analogy for life.

“Things can seem pretty hard and overwhelming, but I love how, in a marathon, you break it down. You don’t go out there and run 26.2 miles right off the bat. You take [time] and prepare and say ‘This is our plan.’ We don’t have to take it all on today. One day at a time.”

Through her life, Sister Andrews said that it is her faith that has provided a solid foundation and given her the courage to do hard things — including learning to run again.

“It requires faith and trust to run blind,” Sister Andrews explained. “In running without being able to see, I rely on a tether and amazing family and friends as my guides. In life, the gospel of Jesus Christ is my tether with the Savior as my guide.”

Sister Andrews said she remembers when she was first diagnosed with her eye disorder at UCLA Medical Center, her mother gave her a little magnet from the gift shop that had Proverbs 3:5-7 etched on it: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”

“That is huge. That is what gets you through life. That faith. It’s our tether in life, what grounds us. It’s what makes something that seems fearful very doable.”

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