Interview: Richard Hunter

April 18, 2016

Amid tall blades of grass, a smiling man with a cap and yellow vest that reads Blind adjusts the collar of a panting German Shepherd.

Back in March, we shared a Facebook post about Richard Hunter, a runner with vision loss, and Klinger, the first certified running guide dog (right). To celebrate the 2016 Boston Marathon, we got in touch with Richard and are pleased to share the following interview.

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First, please give us a brief description of yourself, both as a person and a runner.

I live in Folsom, CA with my wife of 24 years and my 3 daughters (19, 15 and 9). I’ve been running since graduating from high school in 1985, initially just to stay in shape for Navy ROTC at Oregon State University.

Were you born blind, or did you become blind during your life?

I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) at age 22 when I was a 2nd LT in the US Marine Corps. I didn't become legally blind until 2006. As with all folks with RP, I’ve experienced ongoing vision loss. I now have less than 5 degrees of visual fields, and my acuity is measured by my ability to count fingers rather than seeing the eye chart.

What inspired you to start running?

When I became legally blind and had to leave my career as a school psychologist, I set the goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon for my age group. This meant running 26.2 miles in under 3 hours and 20 minutes. I wanted to model for my daughters that one could still set ambitious goals and be relevant in the face of adversity. I also needed a challenging goal to focus on when so much seemed out of my control at the time. This is also the time that I started the visually impaired division of the California International Marathon.

How many races, including marathons, have you run without a guide dog?

I have completed Ironman, 11 marathons, and 2 50-mile ultra-marathons. I’ve run a lot of shorter races, but I enjoy the challenge of training for longer endurance events.

Do you use a guide dog for navigation outside of running?

Klinger is a regular guide dog first. He was trained like any other guide dog. He just had additional training to guide at faster paces and to build his endurance through running with training staff and playing with a tennis ball.

Why did you want to use a guide dog as a guide during training?

I was struck by a car while riding my tandem bicycle on July 5, 2013. I flew through the windshield of the car and woke up inside with my head in the lap of the driver. I broke my neck, had a severe concussion, and had many lacerations. I’m blessed to be alive, let alone not having any spinal cord injury. That was a huge exclamation point on my safety. At the time, I was still doing some shorter runs by myself near my home. I had injured myself a few times and had many close calls running solo. My accident had a big impact on my family and my safety running by myself. My middle daughter is the one who asked me about getting a guide dog to run with. At the time, I knew it wasn’t an option since guide programs did not not approve of it.

A chance conversation with the CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Thomas Panek, at the beginning of the 2014 Boston Marathon is what opened the doors to the pilot project. Guiding Eyes for the Blind agreed to adopt a pilot project to assess whether or not running with a guide dog was safe and appropriate. I was fortunate to be the candidate for the pilot project. Klinger is the first guide dog in the United States to be certified as a jogging companion for a visually impaired runner.

Do you include Klinger in all of your training?

Klinger runs with me 2 to 4 times per week for my shorter and slower training runs. I run 6 times per week so I mostly run with sighted guides who can run faster and further. Many of my runs range from 8 to 20 miles, and that is beyond what I can do with Klinger. There are many strict rules about running with a guide dog and we are not going to be running any races together.

Are there any special preparations you need to make before running a training route with Klinger?

Before running a new route, Klinger first has to learn the route walking so he can learn where the stationary obstacles are located. This could include curbs, poles, bus stops, turns, etc. Once he learns the route adequately, he can anticipate obstacles by slowing down, stopping or moving over for proper clearance. When I travel to a new city, I cannot run with Klinger. I have to arrange for a sighted guide through United in Stride, which is an online database resource that unites sighted guides and blind runners across North America.

How do other runners & pedestrians react to Klinger?

Klinger does a great job of staying focused on me when working or running. This doesn't stop people from approaching him, talking to him, and even petting him without permission. I have to educate people multiple times a day about proper etiquette. People are not supposed to interact with a guide dog, but very few people have ever had contact with someone who has a guide dog.

What has been the biggest benefit of running with a guide dog?

The biggest benefit to me running with a guide dog goes way beyond my personal benefit. Success with Klinger is paving the way for others to go to Guiding Eyes for the Blind to be paired with a guide dog who can jog with them.

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For more, see this national television news segment about Klinger. CBS This Morning (Oct 1, 2015)

Want to help connect more people to dogs like Klinger? Consider a donation to Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

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