Wanted: Avid, level-headed runner willing to guide blind athlete in Bloomsday. Tortoises need not apply.
If veteran Bloomsday runner Bryant McKinley were to place a classified ad today, that’s how it might read.
Seems McKinley’s most recent race guide, Greg Wilkinson, is sidelined this spring, recovering from cancer surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
So McKinley is looking for a fill-in. At his age – “just say I’m over 50,” he quips – he hates to think about having to sit it out.
“Bloomsday is a celebration of life and spring. The overall feeling of doing it is a wonderful thing,” said McKinley, who wore runner’s gear for an interview — gray sweatshirt, nylon pants with reflective seams and New Balance sneakers with about “a hundred miles on them.”
He ran his first Bloomsday in 1984, just after retinitis pigmentosa robbed him of his sight. He’s laced up his running shoes in more than 20 Bloomsday races since.
A former cycling champion, McKinley’s competitive streak keeps him going. Since taking up distance racing, he’s usually a top finisher in his age category, reported in 2004 to be contestants between 65 and 69. That year, his time was one hour, 8 minutes and 32 seconds. McKinley uses his white cane to connect him to his running partner. The guide runs about three feet ahead as they both grasp the cane in their right hands.
The guide needs to be somewhat faster than McKinley to have enough wind to holler out directions.
And his front-runner needs to be alert, McKinley said, steering away from obstacles, around corners and tucking into gaps during the first three miles when everyone’s bunched up.
Wilkinson said sailing over the finish line with McKinley is a joyful and exhilarating experience.
“Bryant’s one of the most gracious, jovial and accommodating people in Spokane, who’s refused to be limited in any way by what others may view as a handicap,” said Wilkinson, who has run with McKinley in Bloomsday for four years.
Just look at McKinley’s training regimen.
On Mondays, or “Moon Days” as he calls them, he runs 96 flights of stairs in a city high-rise – as if he’s climbing to the stars, he said.
Tuesdays and Thursdays are “T Days” or “torture days,” when he does wind sprints.
Wednesdays he hits his “gerbil trail,” a circuit that includes Doomsday Hill, the steepest part of the Bloomsday course, five times in a row.
“On Fridays I take it easy because I feel like I’m fried,” said McKinley with a laugh.
He said he hopes others with disabilities will be inspired to substitute painting, writing or other endeavors for the things they can no longer do. He works on cars, works out religiously, is a suicide prevention counselor and plays in a band.
The goal, he said, is “to put enough pieces together to still have a good life.”
Co-worker Nancy Linerud said McKinley is the epitome of independence.
“He doesn’t let things stop him or slow him down. He’s just a kick in the pants,” she said.