Dan Berlin (above, center) started losing his vision at age seven and over the next 31 years continued to lose more until he couldn’t see his own fingers in front of his face. Then he started running marathons.
On October 8, at age 46, he became the first blind person to complete the Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon, a 46-mile trail run with an enormous 20,000 feet of elevation gain. Guided by four sighted athletes and starting on the South Rim, Berlin and team finished in 28 hours-an achievement for any ultrarunner, but obviously exponentially more difficult for someone who can’t see rocks or steps in the trail, or the dropoffs on the side of the trails.
We interviewed Berlin about his experience.
1. How did the idea to try the Rim to Rim to Rim come about?
It all started with a yoga class. Well, 15 actually. My friend Charles Scott wrote a piece for The Huffington Post about taking 15 yoga classes in five days. His friend Alison Qualter Berna, who is an accomplished yogini, joined him. They had so much fun pushing their limits in yoga, they decided to look for other endurance challenges to try. Charles had run Rim to Rim to Rim across the Grand Canyon before and asked Alison to try it. Although intimidated by such an enormous physical effort, she was intrigued. Soon after, Charles guided me in the Toughman Half Ironman triathlon in New York. Alison also did that race, and the two convinced me to join them in the Grand Canyon.
2. As a blind runner, obviously you can’t see the trail, or the steep drop-offs on the edges of the trail. What else is personally challenging about doing something like this?
The overriding challenges for any person attempting this are the physical demands and the need for proper training to complete such a long route with so much climbing. Our GPS calculated that the 46-mile route we followed in the Grand Canyon included about 29,000 feet of elevation change! Training for the run over the past six months was challenging. It was hard to replicate the steep descents, ascents, and terrain that I would face in the Grand Canyon. It also wasn’t easy to find people willing to spend hours out on trails with me, since Charles and Alison live in NYC, while I live in Fort Collins, Colorado. I am so lucky to have my wife and many friends who were willing to spend hours guiding me through over 1,000 miles of training leading up to the Grand Canyon run.
Managing nutrition and hydration is also a significant challenge that all athletes attempting this feat must prepare for. As a blind runner, I was totally dependent on verbal cues from my guides at all times, every step. Staying fully engaged and focused over such a long time period was an extreme mental challenge. I could not zone out for even a few seconds without the risk of falling over a rock ledge or log step in the trail. I found that even more than physical rest breaks, I needed mental rest stops to calm my mind and refocus on the trail and my guides.
3. What’s something about the experience you think a lot of sighted people might miss down in the canyon, but was memorable for you?
I loved the changes in the sounds as we passed through the canyon. From a rushing stream ahead in the distance to the whirl of the wind as we passed through narrow gorges, to the still quiet of the pine forest on the north rim, all elicited a sense of being one with nature.
4. You weren’t born blind. Can you describe how cone-rod dystrophy took your vision?
I was first diagnosed with a retinal condition around the age of seven. The doctor described my symptoms to my parents as, “You see the end of a pin as a sharp point, while Dan (or Danny at that time) sees it as a rounded fuzzy tip.” I steadily lost my night vision and color vision through my teens, and by my early 20s was losing some of my central vision. By my early 30s, my central vision was almost gone. One way to think of it is like a TV slowly losing pixels. The picture first loses color and acuity, then loses contrast, then loses light sensation, finally leaving me with a big blurry grey blob in the middle of my vision. It is not blackness but more the loss of all color, like looking into nothingness or a dense colorless fog that does not change with my eyes open or closed.
5. What was the journey like, going from losing your sight, which must have been devastating, to doing something like running the Rim to Rim to Rim?
I progressed on through school slowly seeing less of the board each year but not really thinking too much about it. I became a strong auditory learner by instinct, I guess. By the end of high school, while playing football, I realized that as starting defensive end, I was not really seeing the ball but instead following the motion of the players in the backfield and putting my pads on the first person coming my way as hard as I could and hoping I hit the guy with the ball.
In college, I relied on my ears more than my eyes and probably denied that I could not see the screen or read the text as well as I wanted to. In graduate school, I asked my girlfriend (now wife) to help me count cells through a microscope, as I could not do it accurately. Moving into the working world, I steadily advanced in some great companies eventually traveling more than 100,000 miles a year for several years, but this slowly became more uncomfortable, especially in foreign countries, where I learned to adapt by listening more and asking for assistance when I got really stuck.
By age 33, I got my first “blind man’s” cane, and by age 35, I stopped driving completely and could not read a standard text page in a book. This was an internal low point in my life, but the realization that I had two awesome children motivated me to not give up, and instead work hard on being a good role model for them. At age 36, I decided to leave my stable company job and venture to Colorado to eventually co-found what has become one of the world’s leading vanilla companies, Rodelle Inc. I started running two years after that, when I could no longer count the fingers on my own hand held in front of my face. Running was a way for me to stop the slide of disability and start adding to my capabilities. It was a way for me to explore what I can do instead of focusing on what I can’t do.
6. You had four sighted runners accompanying you on the trail-how did the whole team work together to get this done safely?
They were awesome. We spent the first few hours trying some different things, which led to a verbal cue system, and from then on I just did what I was told. When we started down the South Rim, Charles positioned himself directly in front of me on the narrow trail and held the front end of a hiking pole by his side. I held the back end, which kept me on track, and he constantly warned of obstacles to avoid or step over. Another guide, Brad Graff, led the way across the base of the Canyon, which was less treacherous than the steep rims. I began to feel comfortable enough with the verbal cues that I no longer had to hold onto a hiking pole, which was getting old after several hours. Alison led the way up the North Rim, which is quite dangerous – narrow switchbacks snaking up an intimidating canyon wall with a certain death dropoff just a foot or two away in many sections. For this part, while Alison led the way, Charles stayed very close behind me, holding out his arms to catch me if I stumbled. On the return, Pete Kardasis also took turns guiding. Brad led the way for much of the second half, and he developed a system of tapping his hiking poles on obstacles so that I could hear where they were.
Each guide described obstacles in slightly different ways. When approaching a step up in the trail, for example, Brad, an engineer who worked at Intel Corporation for many years, preferred to be precise, saying, “Step up a foot and a half.” Alison, who runs a business working with children, described obstacles as “small, medium, and large,” joking that she was most comfortable using Goldilocks terminology.
7. You became the first blind person to complete the Rim to Rim to Rim in October. Were you aware that Erik Weihenmayer and Lonnie Bedwell planned to become the first blind people to kayak all 277 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in September?
Yes. They are awesome, and I strongly admire their attitude toward life and what they accomplished.
8. What kind of message did you want to send people, both blind and sighted?
Life is short, and we often spend way too much time dwelling on the things we believe we cannot do. Instead I find great freedom and happiness in putting myself in uncomfortable situations and working hard to overcome my own perceived limitations. Also, I would like to encourage anyone with a disability to not be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. Often the one giving assistance will get as much or more out of it than the one asking for help.
9. What’s next for you?
That is the million dollar question! We are discussing our next team challenge to invigorate and inspire others, but we’re not yet ready to unveil it. In the meantime, I am working on setting up a mentorship program in my hometown of Fort Collins for athletes with disabilities, continuing to explore the world with my family and friends, and focusing on running my business.
10. How has your definition of “adventure” changed over the years?
People project many definitions onto the term “adventure.” For me, it represents a mindset open to change and growth and challenge. Over the years, I’ve had no choice but to accept the challenge of losing my sight, which can make something as simple as crossing the street feel like an adventure. I’ve come to accept that life doesn’t always go the way I’d like, but that is no reason to give up or feel sorry for myself. I prefer to look for ways to explore my body’s physical capabilities and make the most of the time I have on this planet, relishing the joy of spending time with my wife, two children, and friends.
Photo courtesy Dan Berlin