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Running the Grand Canyon blind

(Photo: Alison Berna)
From left to right, Alison Qualter Berna, Charles Scott, Dan Berlin, Brad Graff, and Pete Kardasis. (Photo: Alison Qualter Berna)

The team guiding Dan Berlin across the Grand Canyon had been running for 22 hours when they stopped, at 3:30 a.m., to admire the moon. One of the guides, Alison Qualter Berna, felt a pang of guilt because Berlin, who is blind, couldn’t see it. But he didn’t mind. For him, experiencing the Grand Canyon in his own way—through the smells, fall breezes, and simply feeling the moon’s presence—was just as powerful.

This fall, Berlin, 44, became the first blind man to run the 46-mile rim-to-rim stretch across the Grand Canyon (with the help of four awesome guides)—a trip that took 28 hours straight, at 25,000 feet.

Despite that feat, he’s relatively new to the running game, taking it up just five years ago after losing his vision entirely in his mid-30s due to macular degeneration. According to Berlin, running instilled a confidence—and happiness—in him that he was missing.

“When I lost all my vision…I was starting to feel down about myself,” he says. “I like to be able to do things on my own,” he says. “Running was the way I decided to get out and get moving.”

(Photo: Alison Qualter Berna)

But, clearly, Berlin’s no casual jogger. In the past five years, he’s completed nine marathons, including the New York City Marathon and the 2013 Boston Marathon (he and his guide, Pete Kardasis, crossed the finish line just 20 minutes before the bombs went off), as well as a dozen half marathons, and two half-Ironman distance races.

The Grand Canyon, of course, posed its own specific set of challenges for someone who can’t see. Berlin’s guides were able to help him along the course by describing the terrain and giving him cues to know when he had to step over rocks, or move in a certain direction (for an even better picture of how it worked, check out this video the group made).

Dan-Berlin-blind-runner-Grand-Canyon“Dan’s senses are incredible, because he can’t see,” says Berna. “It doesn’t mean he can’t see with the rest of himself.”

Along the way, the team raised awareness and more than $10,000 for the Foundation Fighting Blindness and the Blind Institute of Technology.

“Blindness and other disabilities mean different things to different people. [They] can be very debilitating. I want to be careful not to diminish that,” Berlin says.

“[But] in my life situation with my friends, family, and career, I try not to let my blindness dictate my life in a negative way,” he adds. “There’s always a way to overcome an obstacle.” —Molly Gallagher