Seeing The Finish Line in a New Way
"Almost 7 months after the 2016 Malibu Half Marathon & 5K I was looking at a picture of Steve Walker and his guide running the Half Marathon. Stories like his are what help us be reminded to never give up, no matter how big is the obstacle. A special thank you goes to Carl Finer whose words captured Steve's story and made us all part of his journey"
Sep 29, 2016 - Marine veteran, two-time Ironman finisher, and blind athlete Steve Walker will be running the Malibu Half Marathon on November 6, in preparation to chase a Boston qualifier later this fall. He understands better than anyone that taking control of your life sometimes only comes from letting go of control.
In 2001, a year out of high school and into his enlistment as a Marine infantryman at Camp Pendleton, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited degenerative disease that gradually limits a person’s field of vision. He describes his current vision out of his left eye as like “looking through a straw” now blurred by a cataract, and his right eye as completely obstructed, only able to tell if the lights are on or off.
Steve will be guided at Malibu by friend David Witkin, a Redondo Beach school board member with a shared interest in triathlons and local schools (which are attended by Steve’s 11-year old daughter, Jordan). After discussions over coffee about doing a race together they decided on Malibu. It holds a positive place in Steve’s mind, the site of one of his strongest and most comfortable triathlon performances.
At the start of the race, it will take him a while to get in his comfort zone. At six feet tall and “a little tense” in the middle of a concentrated pack, he has to be careful to shorten up his stride. After the first mile and the pack loosens up a bit, he opens up his stride and follows the lead of his guide.
“In the past, I wanted to be in control, and you have to give up control because it’s just not going to work. I rely on my guide to take me where I need to go, and that frees me up” to enjoy the run.
Growing up, he played Little League, Pop Warner football, karate, basketball, and wrestled. But running has always been the time for clearing his head. “Running in a beautiful place is the best therapy there is.”
Out of necessity, he does most of his training in his backyard, outfitted with a treadmill, a bike on a Computrainer, and an Endless Pool, which projects a consistent current. During especially long Ironman workouts, Jordan or his wife, Kacey, will keep him company, sitting next to him or running alongside on the treadmill while he cycles. They both come to his races and now that Jordan runs 5Ks, he goes to hers.
He laughs thinking about people yelling, “Hey! You’re cheating” while on a tandem bike during a race, or saying, “But you don’t look blind.” With ten years of progressive adjustment to diminishing sight, he’s learned to move naturally around race courses, restaurants, and to feel comfortable talking about it.
But he wasn’t at first.
“When I was struggling with losing my vision, I was trying to hide it from people. There’s this weird transition . . . this gray area where you go from being just like everybody else to having a white cane or a guide dog . . . One day you’re at Starbucks by yourself and the next day you have a guide dog.”
So now he’ll answer any question and helps others through their own transitions. Visually impaired athletes find him on Instagram. “If they send 1,000 emails, I’ll answer them all.” He talks to veterans with disabilities struggling to get back into the workforce. He gives speeches.
He recalls the advice Richard Hunter, a mentor, fellow Marine veteran and visually impaired athlete, gives to guides: “Listen, don’t worry if something happens. Life as a blind person is a contact sport. There’s so many variables out on the course and out on the world that the guide can’t control, so don’t feel bad if your runner falls down. We fall down all the time.”
He’s learning to be more forgiving of himself when he falls down, accepting the process of taking control by letting go.
After finishing his military service in an administrative role and working as a mortgage broker, he’s one semester away from finishing his bachelor’s degree in psychology at Cal State Dominguez Hills. But first, he needs to re-enroll.
“It took literally doing two Ironmans to realize that I was my own worst enemy when I was at school.” He refused testing accommodations, avoided on-campus resources, got anxious when walking into new classrooms. “I felt like [accepting help] was admitting defeat. Now I’ve come to the realization that I was just being stubborn.”
He’s getting back on track, “going to school to go to school” in a program to learn how to navigate college without sight, will launch him back to finish his degree. Then, he’ll continue on for his master’s, either in clinical psychology or in social work leading towards working with veterans.
“Through [triathlon] I learned how to give up some of my hangups about losing my vision . . . that I can accomplish more when I accept the help that’s being offered.” Through it all, Steve is grateful.
“Losing my vision has turned out to be a pretty wonderful thing in my life. Didn’t seem like it at the time, but so many amazing things have happened.” Starting with fulfilling his dream of completing an Ironman, so many doors have opened.
“It may sound weird, but at this time and age, I’m almost lucky to lose my eyesight. In 2016, not a lot inhibits you from accomplishing the things you want to accomplish.”
He’ll apply everything he’s learned in Malibu.
“I’m big on trying to find my breath and rhythm. Once I find that, then the race . . . goes one aid station at a time. Don’t run over anybody, find your breath, listen to your guide, and go from there.”