Sunday's marathon in New York will be Metro area attorney Richard Bernstein's 18th. (Achilles International)
At 4:30 a.m. Sunday, Richard Bernstein, a lawyer and former Wayne State University trustee, will lace up his sneakers to race in yet another marathon: No. 18 for him.
But this time, he’ll be striving merely to complete the 26.2 mile New York City course, not to come close to any of his previous running times. On Sunday, he can count himself lucky to be walking. “It will be slow and represent a different kind of experience,” he says, sounding philosophical.
Bernstein, blind since birth, is one of the most optimistic people you will ever know. But since a Central Park cyclist crashed into him in August 2012, he’s deployed every positive-thinking technique he’s acquired over 39 years to maintain his customary patter of run-on sentences and over-the-top enthusiasm.
After the crash (he was a pedestrian), Bernstein spent 10 weeks in a Manhattan hospital, where nurses and doctors supervised his recovery from a shattered pelvis and left hip. From his hospital bed, he gave interviews about New York City’s failure to regulate bicycle riding in the park. From his hospital bed, he filed a lawsuit against the city. His spirit was indomitable, even if his bones were not.
But over the last 14 months, Bernstein has realized that he cannot will his body to magically re-knit itself whole. “You don’t ever recover from injuries like this. The pain is always there,” he says. “This marathon is going to be challenging. Every time your left foot hits the ground, it, the pain, resonates through your whole body.”
To train for the race, he’s adopted a different approach, swimming two hours a day instead of running or walking at gradually lengthening distances.
Swimming builds his endurance, but doesn’t re-create the jarring sensation of his battered left side colliding with hard pavement. Wearing customized shoes designed to cushion the pain rather than augment performance, he’ll still be hurting every step of the way.
Why is he pushing himself this way? To Bernstein, a legal gladiator on behalf of the disabled, these new injuries threaten his very sense of self. And he’s determined to prove that he is still the blind guy who completes marathons, who leads an athletic life. “Athletics is the way I learned to deal with being blind, my first disability. I cannot allow this to be a closing chapter,” he says.
But it has slowed him down. Instead of sleeping through the night, he grabs two or three hours when exhaustion finally overwhelms pain.
Perhaps it’s also a way of reminding us that he’s not finished, legally speaking, with New York City and Central Park. Bernstein sued the city last year, seeking no damages, but a ruling that would force the city to change traffic flow in Central Park, or creating safe crossing areas in the park, monitored by crossing guards. “We could do it with volunteers,” he says, and says some organizations have already agreed to provide crossing guards at no charge.
Of the city, he says: “They know it’s dangerous and they know people are getting hurt. The city is dangerous and I get that. But the Central Park situation is preventable. I believe we can save lives.”
The city is fighting the lawsuit, and will formally depose him, probably on Monday, the day after his grueling 26-mile walk. Elizabeth Thomas, a spokeswoman for the New York law department, described the lawsuit as “defective, most significantly in its allegation that the city is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.” The lawsuit continues — and so does Bernstein.
“It’s not that there’s anything to fear,” he said of the upcoming race, where he’ll be accompanied by volunteers from Achilles Track Club in New York. One of 320 disabled athletes registered to run Sunday at the ING NYC Marathon, he intends to face what he describes as “an intense level of pain.” Most of all, he intends to reach the finish line.