Legally Blind Austin Man to Run Boston Marathon - With a Special Guest (Update)

Apr 15, 2013

UPDATE 7:15pm: KUT News has spoken with William Greer, who says he is fine, after a pair of explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

He and his sighted guide, Peter Sagal, finished with a time of about 4 hours and 4 minutes. The explosions went off about 5 minutes later.

Greer said, from his vantage point, it wasn't clear at first just what was happening, but when multiple emergency vehicles started speeding toward the sound of the explosions, it became clear that something serious had happened.

UPDATE: Peter Sagal tells All Things Considered that he and William Greer are safe, following two explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Sagal says the pair had just finished the marathon and were making their way through the finish chute when they heard two explosions in quick succession. Marathon staff then told them and other runners to leave the area as quick as possible.

Original Story: Today, thousands will run in one of the country’s oldest and best-known road races: the Boston Marathon.

Among them will be a 43 year-old Austinite named William Greer. And he'll have a special guest along with  him that might be familiar to listeners to weekend public radio.

I met William Greer on a recent morning before dawn at a track in South Austin. It was pitch black, but for the buzzing streetlights and the orange glow of the Golden Corral Buffet sign up the street. It was also nearly freezing.

“I’m just trying to do longer, slower runs right now," Greer said between breaths. "I always the last month before a marathon try to slow and do what’s called long slow distance.”

Greer is tall and lean – he’s got a runner’s build – though he didn’t pick up the sport until 2005. First it was a 5K. Then a 10K. Then a half marathon. The Austin Marathon was his first full marathon.

He's done a total of six now. Boston will be his seventh. He calls Boston the granddaddy of marathons. It’s one of the toughest in the country: Unpredictable weather. Unforgiving hills. But for Greer, there’s one more complication: He's legally blind. 

Not totally blind – but mostly. “I don’t see well enough to read, don’t see well enough to drive a car – hard for me to recognize people,” explained Greer.

Greer lost most of his sight in a bicycle accident when he was 17. He had an open skull wound that took most of his vision. His short term memory is pretty bad too. He had to re-learn how to do almost everything.

But watching him run around the track now years later, you might not even know he was mostly blind.

“You’d be amazed how well a lot of people who are even totally blind can navigate,” said Greer.

But he will have some help as he navigates the 26 mile course in Boston today: Peter Sagal, who hosts NPR's news quiz program, Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!

Turns out, in addition to a game show host, screenwriter and actor, Sagal is also a pretty experienced marathoner. He’s run nine marathons before -- Boston twice before.  He also writes a column for the magazine Runner’s World. The team William Greer is running for reached out to Sagal to be his sighted guide.

The pair have raised about $10,000 for Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired

“So my job, as William as described it to me over the phone, is to run slightly ahead of him, slightly to the left, and my job is to alert him to anything that might be in his way,” said Sagal.

Potholes, other runners – things like that. And Sagal expects that job will make Boston an unusual marathon for him.

“When you run for your own sake, as a sighted person, one of the things you try to do is to try to get into kind of a mindflow … a kind of mindlessness. Because if you’re focusing on every step, you’re never going to make it, so you just get into a flow,” Sagal said. “Your mind wanders, you’re running, the next thing you know, you’ve done a mile and another mile. But with him, I’ll have to be absolutely attuned to everything going on around. Because, say a sewer grate, that has like a two inch indentation in the pavement … could trip him up and send him to the ground.”

Greer says he’s a big fan of Sagal and his show, but there’s a practical reason they make a good team: Greer wants to run the marathon today in 3 hours, 45 minutes. That’s five minutes ahead of his personal record. It’s also about 15 minutes faster than the average time for a guy Greer’s age in last year’s Boston Marathon. And it’s that fast time that’s part of why he and Sagal got paired up.

“His best time is 3:20, so he runs faster than me – and that’s what you need from a sighted guide. The sighted guide needs to be able to go at a better pace.”

Greer says he'd love to hit his target time in Boston, but really, the goal is just to finish.

“There are some people who finish a marathon and say ‘I’m never going to do this again.’ There are others who finish and can’t wait until the next one," Greer said. "And I’m one of the people who just wants to keep going – wants to hit the next one.”

Greer says he’s got a list of the 15 toughest marathons in the country. He’s got his eye on #13 next.