2016 Asheville Marathon to Welcome First Visually-Impaired Participant
February 16, 2016 — The Asheville Marathon & Half at Biltmore Estate is excited to welcome its first visually impaired runner to its 2016 events. Veteran marathoner Mike Merino, of Hendersonville, North Carolina, will be joining 1,400 other participants for the full marathon on Sunday, March 13, 2016, guided by Curtis Nash of Greenville, South Carolina. Why did Merino choose the 2016 Asheville Marathon? “It’s a Boston qualifier, it’s conveniently close, it’s well-timed — a great time for keeping that holiday and winter weight off, and it’s non-urban, something that isn’t found too often in marathons,” he says.
Merino, 45, has a hereditary disease, Usher Syndrome Type II, which caused moderate hearing loss at birth and an onset of Retinitis Pigmatosis (a degenerative eye disease) in his 20s. He was not formally diagnosed until his late 30s and has coped with his condition and prognosis by competing as a visually impaired athlete since 2013 – a year after he crossed the threshold for legal blindness. He now has zero peripheral vision as well as night blindness.
Merino now races with a guide, who he usually doesn’t meet until race day, and uses a rope tether to stay connected to his guide. A self-described “old football jock” who picked up running to keep himself in shape, he has completed several marathons, including finishing Boston in 2013, where he forgot his tether and wound up racing with a necktie as a rope. Merino finished Boston safely, five minutes before the explosions, and was at the finish receiving his medal as the bombs went off. He is ready to take on Boston again and hopes to finish the Asheville Marathon with a qualifying time.
Because he does have some degree of vision remaining, Merino is able to train independently during daylight hours. However, his total lack of peripheral vision makes it dangerous for him to race without guidance. While he tries not to dwell on the deterioration of his vision, he did once run a 30K race blindfolded to get an idea of what it would be like to run when he loses his sight entirely. Aside from that, he says he has, for the most part, stopped worrying about what will eventually happen to him, though he does still experience moments where he worries about his future.
For now, Merino runs for himself, as well as to promote awareness of the visually impaired – a race demographic that many runners forget about. While he knows he gets stared at a lot, he doesn’t mind people asking questions and notes that most other runners are really supportive.
One particularly supportive runner — South Carolina resident Curtis Nash — will act as Merino’s guide in the 2016 race. Nash, who has never been a guide before, volunteered to take this on after seeing a Facebook post on the Asheville Marathon page. A long-distance runner for the past five years, and also a veteran marathoner, Nash sees his role as a guide as a way of giving back goodwill to a running community that he views as a team.
Merino and Nash hope to meet before race day, and get in a long run together. In the meantime though, they are emailing and mentally preparing to spend four hours racing together on the Biltmore Estate in March. Merino’s perspective is that “with hard work and support you can do anything.” All of us at the Asheville Marathon & Half at Biltmore Estate are thrilled to have these two amazingly inspirational runners on board for this year’s race.