Richard Hunter is a program coordinator for the USABA Marathon National Championships, held each December in Sacramento, CA. He was instrumental in the creation of United in Stride, an online database resource to unite volunteer sighted guides and blind runners across North America. In 2015, Richard was paired with Klinger, the first-ever certified running dog guide. Special honors include being selected as the 2014 National Road Runners Club of America’s Challenged Athlete Award recipient and the 2017 SRA Community Runner of the Year.
“Even though I’ve ran 23 marathons, three 50-milers, a 100-miler, and an Ironman, it all started with taking that first step,” Richard says.
“Richard’s passion as an athlete is a real testament that you can accomplish your dreams and create positive change through persistence and determination,” said Melody Goodspeed, AFB Major Gifts Specialist. “He takes it a step further by creating a pathway for connection through United in Stride as well as his other volunteer efforts.”
Melody: Having you here on episode 17, that's a big one I'm so excited for Inform & Connect for the American Foundation for the Blind. We originally started this series to build this all together during the time and creating that camaraderie. And now we've just really blown this out and I'm so happy to have you guys here today. And I want to go ahead and start with our special guest that we have today, who is Richard Hunter, and he is an amazing athlete, and an amazing person and a wonderful advocate. And I think we're really going to love hearing from him. So Richard, how are you today?
Richard Hunter: Doing great, sitting here in Folsom, California.
Melody: Nice, nice. Richard was just telling us that he is doing well at [inaudible], but he is [inaudible] out there running you guys. So I just wanted to [inaudible]. Richard, you have done so many things here that I, I can't name them all. But a four time Boston marathon runner, you have done Ironmans, a hundred mile run, which I can't even imagine. And you broke some records with the 12 hours and all doing that by being vision impaired. And I just... It's a lot. And I know you're going to tell us more, but I just wanted to give everybody a little bit of what, just a little drop of what you've done. But what I really want to focus on is, in our conversations, you talk a lot about taking the first step. And I know that you were talking with me in your conversations, talking about how you wanted to be an officer in the Marines and you were, and then you had your RP diagnosis. Can you walk us through the first step you took to where you kind of are now?
Richard Hunter: Yeah, I think that sometimes when people look at some of the things I've done, whether it's Ironman or a hundred mile run or all the marathons I've run, they just automatically assume that I'm just this amazing athlete, that these things just come natural to me and they're really easy. But even from the time I was first commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, I weighed at the very edge of the limit of what you could weigh for being six foot one. And back then it was 209 pounds. So I was always kind of struggling at that edge of the limit and when I was first... And so I'm a big guy basically and so not necessarily natural for all those endurance sports that I do.
But when I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a Second Lieutenant, I didn't even know what it was, nobody in my family had it. And not only did they say I was going to have to immediately leave the military, but they told me I was going to eventually go blind. And at the time for me, that was kind of like a death sentence to have your dream taken away from you in terms of your career pathway and say, you're going to be going blind. And that was a big, that was one of my first major do-overs. And one of the things I think is just really important to just to connect with some people on this whole thing is that I'm no different than anybody else that's kind of has one of these diagnosis that's you don't know anything about, it's a little bit scary, it's degenerative that I constantly had to go through that adjustment phase.
And in the beginning, when I was first diagnosed, I couldn't even really think long-term. It took me about a year before I could even set my next, start thinking forward and to take those first steps in terms of what's next, and that was like a pathway towards graduate school, but it was definitely a challenge for me and it taught me in the very beginning that I also have to give myself a little bit of grace, that there are going to be times even still where I'm feeling a little bit, maybe a little bit down, but as long as I don't get stuck there that, it's just, it was a great learning lesson for me in the very, very beginning.
Melody: Yeah. I can relate to everything that you're saying. I mean we... A lot of transition goes on there when you are hit with something like that, that changes your life and your life path direction. Can you talk just a little bit, you mentioned going back to school, can you tell us a little bit about that?
Richard Hunter: Yeah. I'm a helper sort of person, and so I paid my dues getting different experiences in different helping fields. And I ran a group home actually for kids, adolescent, pre-adolescent boys that had serious emotional disturbance issues. And I was connected with so many different people from different mental health disciplines. And I actually chose to pursue school psychology.
So I was a school psychologist for 10 years, and I was a part-time lecturer at California State University Sacramento in the graduate program of school psychology and... Interesting about all this is even though going way back, I've been an advocate for people with disabilities in the educational system, I didn't know anybody who was visually impaired, not a single person. And here I was, had these vision loss problems. And so when I started to experience massive and quick, very rapid rate of vision loss in about 2004 and when the Department of Rehabilitation showed up in my workplace with all this equipment, it brought tears to my eyes because I'm like, wow, there's all this stuff that I didn't even know about this stuff, even though I was in the field and it gave me a lot of hope about my future for myself and levels of independence, just based on all this technology and equipment I would have access to.
Melody: Yes, that is, it is. Because you really do, you feel like your dreams are ripped and like you said, losing your sight, you just don't know. These things are not... And then when you get that experience, it seems to really... So can you tell us about when you started really pushing in the athletic part of your life?
Richard Hunter: I had a rapid rate of vision loss and I ended up leaving my, once again, it was like do-over two when I left my job as a school psychologist, it's assessing people for all sorts of disabilities. Lot of visual demands on that exam, it's not being a counselor. And one of the things that just really resonated with me and still resonates with me today is kind of one of the principles that are really important to me is, that I need to model for my three daughters, that one could still set ambitious goals and be relevant in the face of adversity. And I've always said, "You focus on what you can do, align your gifts with things, engage in things that you're passionate about with all your gifts" and stuff like that.
And so I had to... I was just thinking about what do I enjoy? And I enjoyed running and back then, I'm like, well, what would be a good running goal? What's something that can kind of get me out of this kind of little funk and change where I could just be somebody that was a role model to my children. It was like, could I qualify for the Boston marathon? And that's when I found out for the first time that the Boston marathon has all these visually impaired people that run it.
And this is back in 2007 when I was having these thoughts and I ran the 2008 Boston marathon I ended up qualifying. But that was the first time I actually really connected with the community of other visually impaired runners that I met through the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Boston who introduced me to my first opportunities to run with a sighted guide. And that was so impactful for me to be part of this community of people that have these similar interests and were on this similar journey. And it was very empowering to be around people that were kind of like-minded if you will. So that's kind of where it started.
Melody: Now, when you decided, because I would love to go run a marathon like that, but I mean, it's hard. So can you walk us back to when you were like, hey, now here we are, I'm going to do this marathon. Can you talk to the first step you took when it came to training?
Richard Hunter: That's a huge thing for me is this, people just taking the first steps because there's one thing to... Because I used to run to stay in shape like a lot of people run on sidewalks sucking in the bus fumes and all that. And I used to think, marathons to me just seemed like such a far away sort of thing. And I never even really thought it was possible for me and a neighbor just... And so a neighbor of mine was, signed up for, wanted to sign up for a 10K, and I'd never ran a 10K before. And that was literally the first step. I mean, had I not done 10K, which is 6.2 miles, all this other stuff wouldn't have even have happened.
I mean, when you kind of look backwards at just some sort of like, oh, I could run three miles, but a 10K run, that's kind of a far run and it just... So just taking that first step to even sign up for my first race and I did it. And it was just, if I would have said, "Okay, I'm going to run a marathon, I'm going to go out and run a marathon." I wouldn't even have known what it would... I didn't have the resources, I wouldn't have even known how to put that into place.
But as you take that first step, it's like, wow, I just met other runners. Oh, wow now I'm learning. There's places that I can run where I'm not sucking in bus fumes. So there's just all these things you just learn by putting a step, one step in front of the other, and then you could see, just from the things I've done since then, it's like, okay, well, how in the world, it's like Richard ran a hundred miles in 24 hours and 29 minutes. And it's like, well yeah, I've done that, but guess what? I was a [inaudible] like, okay, I'm going to sign up for my first 10K. I was at that place at one time as well.
Melody: And I love how you're mentioning that because working here at the American Foundation for the Blind and [inaudible], having that trajectory of saying, okay, this is where we want to be, creating systemic change. And you've essentially are doing that with, of taking that first step of saying, and I think we get caught up so many times thinking that, wow, look at all these amazing things, which you have. But you've earned them, and you've worked towards them. And it's the work that you have to put in to make those changes.
And I really love how you also highlighted getting your people together, being passionate and play the cards that you have. That builds that positivity and building that teamwork environment, which is so important. And I want to move into that teamwork environment. So when you started running, when did you decide that you wanted to be the creator of United In Stride? I want to bring this up because I just want to point out to everyone that you not only have done these accomplishments, but you're a connector and you love so much from that. And what was it that drove you to... Tell us about that experience of building that and why it was so important.
Richard Hunter: Well, when I first became legally blind and, I did not know another single visually impaired person out there. And then when I was like, wow, you can... In Boston, they have visually impaired people doing this, I had no network. And after I kind of started meeting people, one person at a time, literally one person at a time, I just vowed that I would shorten the learning curve for others. And this is, going back, many years, and so slowly but surely, over time and meeting one person after another, connecting one person and another, I'm probably the best connected, visually impaired runner in the United States. And as time has gone on, it used to be that if you didn't know me or you didn't know a couple of other people in the country and you wanted to be a sighted guide, or you wanted to become part of the community of visually impaired runners, there was really no way to do it.
I mean, at one, it... There's not just at one point, but there've been several times where I've been at a race and somebody will run up next to me and they're inspired or encouraged by the fact that I'm out there, wearing my blind vest and I'm running and they want to know how could they get involved. And I would like, do you have good memory? Here's my email address, and literally to get this person to remember my email address.
And so United In Stride is a resource, which I founded, was a way that allows people to independently network without knowing me at all. So it's an online database resource that unites sighted guides and blind runners across North America. So you create a profile, you enter some personal information in there, guides do the same, and then you could search the base using the zip code find a partner function.
So even if I travel to another town, and I travel a little bit, I can go into United In Stride, enter the zip code to my hotel and search the database for people that want to be a sighted guide. And I connected with many people that way. And then, so I can meet somebody who just wants to run with me and they never have had to know me. It's kind of like, I've set the goal of making myself obsolete that now there's just countless stories. There's several thousand people in the system now, but I hear countless stories of these people who have met a running partner and have done their first 5k, maybe starting even from walking and jogging and slowly running. And I don't even know who they are because they were able to use this resource and connect with someone through the system.
So it's pretty amazing. And I partnered with the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and they host it and they staff it and everything. It's a resource, it's not an organization so everybody can share it, not feel like it's part of an organization or a specific organization. So it was very important for me to do that.
Melody: Love it because I wanted to really highlight the way that you have gained so much and share with others and make sure their [inaudible] are done and making it because it is difficult. Just going back to when you made the comment about finding out about the adaptive technology that was out there for you to access, and then you're providing this access for people to have an outlet and inclusion, because that's obviously the main thing we want to do, having a life of no limits at AFB is having inclusion and you're naturally and organically doing that by creating these partnerships and setting up systems that are effective.
Richard Hunter: And one of the things that I've been very passionate about from the beginning is connecting fellow visually impaired people who are like-minded. And so I'm the one that started the Marathon National Championships for the visually impaired that's held in conjunction with the California International Marathon. And I partnered with the US Association of Blind Athletes to be part of that. And one of the things that I have always insisted upon from the very beginning, is opportunities for all the visually impaired runners that are part of this event to come together under one roof and to be able to meet each other and network and become friends. And it doesn't matter if they're the fastest runner in the country or their first time marathon or running a relay leg. I built a community that I really feel like is a functional family reunion.
And I remember early on when... Because this has been going on, the National Championships since 2009. And I remember in a early year I met some of the runners down in Sacramento and we went out for a sandwich. And while I knew who they were, because I had connected with them to get them there, they didn't know each other at the time. And I remember sitting in a little sandwich shop and there were two, there was a medical doctor with retinitis pigmentosa and kind of an accessibility expert, Eric Manser. I'm sitting at the table also with retinitis pigmentosa and they were meeting for the first time.
And I was just listening to their conversation between the two of them about being RP and their families and running. And it just, I'm a big old softy, but it just, it brought tears to my eyes because that's, to me what it is all about. And now I've had runners from all over the world, come to the California International Marathon and it's no different. And it doesn't matter if someone was a multi Paralympian from New Zealand or a big guy like me, we're sitting down with our iPhones and it's like, wait, where'd you get that? What app is that? Or, how did you do that on your phone?
But we were serving as resources to one another. And on top of that, by getting to know each other in different life experiences, we were all setting the bar higher for each other. It's like, wow, you've done a race, but you're a swimmer. Have you thought about doing a triathlon where there's people that are running and they never even heard about goalball before.
So they're out signing up to go to a goalball experience or something or skiing, but it's just this building this community of people with similar vision issues sometimes. I've connected people that literally have, I've met, who are visually impaired, who've had, for example, like a shunt in their brain to drain fluid into their stomach and they have an interest in triathlons and they're from different states. But because I so much care about these people, it's like, wow, I know someone that's going through exactly what you're going through now and they have the same interests. I need to put the two of you guys in touch. So it's super important to me this community building and a very, very big deal. And it's very empowering. And I've seen that firsthand countless times.
Melody: Well, I have to say Richard, you lead with the heart. And I just, we talked earlier about how you, we're getting ready to move to the question and answer which I can't believe we're here yet, because you have such great stuff here, but can you, before we move into that, can you tell us about why leading in the heart was so important to you?
Richard Hunter: One of the things that I've always believed is that I want to have, my goal is always just to have an impact on one person. Some people think too grand, they think they don't want to get involved in anything unless it's something big because they're intelligent people, they're educated people and they have this idea and they have a grand plan and they never put anything into motion. That's never been my goal. I mean, I just care about people and I want to make a difference in someone's life. So I would always say especially way back when, if everything that I'm doing all this time, energy and stress that I'm putting into this and stepping outside of my comfort zone to talk to media or whatever is, if that has an impact on one person, then everything that I've done is going to be worth it.
And I really believe that, it is just impacting the one and so I never know who that one person is going to be. So I treat everybody like they're going to be that one person that maybe I might have a real impact on whether it's a sighted guide or whether it's a visually impaired runner. And fortunately, I've been blessed in that I get the feedback from people about how they've been impacted. And not just that, but the spider web of impact that, you impact one person and then what did they do with that? How did they act on their inspiration to impact people in their own community in ways that are important to them? That's really one of my driving things, it's just impacting one.
Melody: I love it. And I don't, I couldn't [inaudible] well said. Richard, every time we've talked, I've always come away with something else. So thank you so much for being here with us today. And Susan, if we can go ahead and open up the floor for people to ask questions.
Susan: Yes. And we have a comment and a question from our friend Roy Samuelson. He says, love how you talked about modeling the approach to take the first steps toward goals and with focus. How have you approached growing useful habits and removing habits that aren't useful?
Richard Hunter: It's interesting that that's... I actually implemented a little bit of that during COVID-19 with removing habits. So part of setting a goal is just a commitment towards doing something every day. If you can't implement your whole plan, you're just going to do something. And during COVID in the month of January, I wanted to remove some bad habits because when I ran the California International Marathon in December, I weighed 234 pounds, and I'm still fast at 234 pounds. In the month of January, I made the choice, it was kind of a challenge at the church that I go to, just give up something for 30 days. And I'm like, you know what would be really hard for me to give up is snacking between lunch and dinner. I don't have problems snacking the rest of the day, but I eat a lot of cookies.
I put chips and by just making that commitment, which was not easy for me, by the way, it was hard. It was really hard. I say that, I mean, it's like, I have an addiction or something to cookies and things like this. I gave it up and I started losing weight. And I'm proud to say that because of eliminating that one habit, by focusing on something small, I wasn't setting the goal to lose weight. I was setting the goal to give up something for 30 days. It was challenging for me. And it was just between lunch and dinner. I wasn't focused on anything else. And that small step paved the way for me to ultimately lose over 20 pounds. Sitting in front of you today this morning, I weigh 211 pounds. And it started with that first step, of just making a small commitment towards not snacking between lunch and dinner.
And then that step turned into a couple other positive choices that I made about having fruit smoothies for breakfast instead of cereal or stuff like that. But even those habits, those hard to break habits, you need to break them up in my opinion, into something that's doable and not overwhelming. If I would have said, I want to lose 20 plus pounds in the next couple of months, I don't know if I could have done it. And if I would have said, I wanted to change all of my dietary habits in January, I don't think I would have done it. But by focusing on that first step of just giving up snacks between lunch and dinner and not really worried about my weight, here I am weighing under my high school weight. Almost my Marine Corps weight, and I'm 53 years old. So yeah, so that's a good question. And that's kind of how I've kind of lived out that example just recently.
Susan: That's a great approach for anyone. It seems Richard that you're driven. Where does that drive come from?
Richard Hunter: I think I've always been driven, I was always a good student. I think that nothing's ever come easy to me. I was never the smartest kid in school, but I worked really hard. I ended up graduating at the top of my class and it's not like I had the highest SAT scores or anything like that. I mean, I got into Oregon State. But I think what's always worked for me is just a disciplined approach to thing. It's just focusing on the small steps, focusing on the process, trying to not make things overwhelming. So, it might be kind of an innate thing in me in terms of follow-through and discipline.
For a while when I was training for some of my bigger events, I had a coach and leading up to Ironman and I had sciatica. I mean, I had all sorts of problems. I had bronchitis just a few weeks before Ironman, had all these problems. And my coach said, and I was, I'm like, I couldn't even imagine getting to the start line, to be honest with you, because I was in such bad health condition at the time. He's Like, "You know what, Richard, just take one day at a time. Don't worry about tomorrow, do what you can do today." And even with bronchitis and the sciatic problem, I implemented every single thing on my training plan, just by taking a day by day approach. And we're talking like real problems with bronchitis, the doctor said, I could do it. He said, "You're not going to win a race, but you might be going slower when you're training, but you could..." So I just kind of focus on the present.
Susan: We have one more question, [do] we have time?
Susan: Okay. From our colleague Sonya, did your Marine Corps experience influence your approach to losing your vision? If so, how?
Richard Hunter: I actually grew up as kind of an insecure little kid, believe it or not, a lot of people don't know this about me and why some people think all this stuff is easy for Richard. It's never been, I mean, I was a kid in the third grade that the teacher and my parents had to come up with an intervention plan so I wouldn't cry in class every day. Because I'd feel really stressed and overwhelmed as a smart kid. I put a lot of pressure on myself and if I didn't get something right away, I would get upset. And I've worked through that as an insecure little kid, but one of the things that the Marine Corps did for me especially was giving you a lot of confidence.
Richard Hunter: I used to hate, I mean I feared getting up in front of a group of people and speaking. But when you're training for the Marines, you want to speak, you stand up in front of 200 people at the position of attention in an assertive voice and you are front and center and you state things assertively in front of a bunch of type-A sort of people.
So I think that experience of going through, having that confidence builder and training and the discipline part of that definitely kind of set me up to the micro disciplines that are involved in the way I looked at how do I adjust to vision loss because each one of these, each one of these challenges that we face with progressive eye problem is always about taking first steps, trying something new, being afraid and doing it anyway, right? Even going out with your white cane for the very first time. I mean that was hard for me. So I think yeah, I think just the kind of discipline and confidence building was really good in helping me become who I am.
Melody: Richard, thank you so much for this. I want to keep going [inaudible], but you really for me, I just, thank you for sharing your story and being so open and honest and everything. And I know that I'm probably speaking for the audience too when I say we've learned so much today and you touched a lot of us here, so thank you so much. And if you guys have any way that, how could, if people want to contact you Richard, how could they?
Richard Hunter: They could send me an email. I mean, I'm a networker, I like connecting with people and they can send me an email. I don't know if you want to just send that out to people here.
Melody: Well, you can go ahead and tell us your email address and it'll be in the recording and I'll send it out to you. I'll have people who can contact me to get it to you if they like. But go right ahead.
Richard Hunter: Perfect, so it's all lower case firstname.lastname@example.org. So my name email@example.com. And if there's something I can do to kind of put you on your pathway, whether it's my interest or just want to connect more, I'd be happy to talk.
Melody: Thank you so much. We really, really appreciate it. And you guys, you can always contact me at AFB if you'd want to get in touch with Richard too. And we just want to say, thank you so much for being here. We are better together at living a life with no limits, I'm going to take this from Richard. If we take it one day and one step at a time. Taking that first step, where you're on our way to creating a life of no limits. Thank you so much for being here with us today. You're all very special. We appreciate you so much. And if you want to learn more about the AFB, go ahead and visit our site at afb.org to learn about our programs and our upcoming centennial. Thank you so much for being here with us today, we'll see you next week. Take care everybody. Bye.