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Living without Limits - Interview with Richard Bernstein

Posted: 28-Mar-2014 by Maccabi NSW

 By Leanne Shelton

After speaking with U.S. advocate for disability rights and 18 times marathon runner, Richard Bernstein, I felt energised for the day ahead. Chatting like old friends for an hour, Richard’s passion and enthusiasm for life was so empowering that I admit to being a bit sad when the interview came to an end.

Although blind since birth, Richard hasn’t let his disability get in the way of achieving great things, such as competing in marathons and ironman events that even those with perfect sight wouldn’t dare to tackle. He is someone who we could all learn a lot from and it was an honour that he allocated some of his time to me while in Australia recently. It was also great to hear that Richard was really enjoying his time down under. 

 “I love Australia. The people here are the warmest, kindest, most good natured people,” said Richard. “Extraordinary things are happening here. My passion is for disability rights and you can just feel it – there’s an energy here. You’ve got the parliament that’s passionate about it and the country is passionate and enthusiastic about working with people with special needs. “

Richard was approached by the Achilles Program about seven to eight years ago, which is an organisation that helps people with severe disabilities to compete in marathons. After spending most of his life thinking that sport and athletics were totally out of reach, Richard was eager to give it a go and has been training with the organisation ever since. 

So how does someone with a sight impairment compete in marathons? Basically, Richard holds a tether with a guide while running and relies on the motion of his guide’s body to, well, guide him. Obviously, there’s a great level of trust. He has to trust them with his life!

“There are tons of barriers and challenges. But you have a team of people around you and you have to focus on every word they tell you and every cue,” said Richard.

“I love the Achilles Program. It’s absolutely fantastic. It completely changed my life.  When I was younger, the idea was that if you were blind, people with severe disabilities wouldn’t be athletic. It wasn’t something you’d have the chance to do. You’d go through your whole life thinking that. Basically while everyone else was athletic, I’d be sitting on the sidelines. It has a huge effect on how you see yourself. It has a profound impact. You have a weakened sense of self. 

Achilles came along about eight years ago and they believe that no matter what your disability, no matter what your circumstance, they believe that anyone can have the chance to be an athlete. I never thought it would be possible!”

So how was Richard’s very first run? 

“Wow! That was something! If I had gone to Achilles and they had told me on the first day that I’d be doing a marathon or ironman, I would have laughed at them. I would have said that makes no sense. I would have laughed and never returned. I started off by doing a single mile. You don’t start by training for a marathon. You take it one step at a time.

For that first run, we went to Central Park.  It was terrifying because I’d never done anything athletic before. It was the first time and I got through it! I had to learn how to rely on my guide. I had to learn how to do it. After surviving that first mile, they asked me to come back the next day. I then built up to 5, 10, 15 miles until I was ready to do a marathon. You just take it one step at a time and if you do that, things have a way of working out for the best. 

It’s all about living life. It gives you that true experience of life experience.”

I then asked Richard what he enjoyed about competing in marathons. Was it the challenge? Was it feeling the wind through his hair? What made him continue his training?

“I live in Detroit but would spend a lot of time in New York. I remember going to Central Park for the first time. You build a fantastic rapport with your guide. It wasn’t just about athletics; it really allows you to have a greater connection and stronger connection with G-D. When you’re out in the water, or out on the road, running gives you a wondrous sense of connection. It’s a spiritual connection. When you run, you develop an incredible sense of spirit. It’s a wonderful spiritual connection. That’s why I do it. 

As a disabled person, what you come to recognise is that you might have a weak body but a strong soul. Even though the body is infirm, is weak, you really have this incredible resilience and incredible strength and this wonderful sense of appreciation and meaning. When you’re out there doing a marathon and ironman, it allows you to see the big picture and a real appreciation for life. It’s really what keeps me going and drives me and really pushes me forward. It gives you a sense of purpose and a sense of mission. 

What being blind teaches you is to live with that true sense of purpose. If I was sighted, life would be that much easier, but I don’t think it would have that same level of purpose. People ask ‘does it make you feel bitter?’ Sure, it wouldn’t be as difficult, or as challenging or as hard. People who aren’t disabled don’t have to go through the same level of difficulty. But for me, I believe an easy life doesn’t always mean that it’s going to be a good life. 

I’m here for a purpose. I’m here for a reason. If you live with a sense of purpose, it really does drive you forward.”

So what were some of the reactions that Richard got from other people when he told them he was going to be a marathon runner?

“Well, you do it slowly. If I had gone out and said I was going to run a marathon, people would have thought it wasn’t feasible. You have a respect for the sport and respect for what you’re doing. When you’re doing ironman, there’s a level of danger. What you always have to do is show you have a level of respect for the competition the endeavour you’re embarking on. You’ve done your training, you’ve worked through it. As long as people see that you’re focused on it and you do it in the right manner. 

There’s always going to be a natural level of anxiety and concern, but people also need to realise that this is the life I want to have and this is who I am.”

How did Richard feel after competing in his very first marathon?

“I think in that situation, I wanted it so desperately. I wanted it so bad. Like in life, you just have to celebrate those small victories. You celebrate what you were able to accomplish and what you could do. And then, the thing is, you keep that moment and reflect and make a choice. Life is always about what’s next. What the next move is. What is it, that’s going to be next. It’s always about trying to push forward. You celebrate how you get through life.”

Tragically, Richard was struck down by a cyclist in his beloved Central Park in 2012, which lead to a shattered pelvis and hip. However, even after 10 weeks recovering in hospital, he hasn’t let the accident break his stride. 

“Whether it’s a marathon or getting past a horrific injury, you adapt to your situation and your environment. You celebrate each minute for what you were able to do. You think about ‘okay, what does the future hold. What is the next thing? How do you live life to the fullest?’ You live each day with a heightened sense of purpose. You tend to live your life with a highest degree of focus and purpose and the highest degree of mission. When it’s a challenge and a purpose, you tend to look back and recognise that you can get so much out of it. 

It’s all about adapting. You can’t think about what you were in the past. You can’t sit and think about that. You have to look at everything in its totality. You’re going to have good days and bad days. My goal is for the good days to outnumber the bad days; then I know I’m doing okay. 

For me, it was that I had to believe that there was a purpose. You’re part of something grander and something bigger, but you have to believe in something bigger than yourself, that you’re here for a greater reason; that will give you that strength to ultimately keep going. Not just survive but travel and really live. You’re just part of something. I really use that as a central core. “

I then commented on his amazingly positive outlook on life and asked whether he’d always felt that way or if there was a turning point in his life when he started to feel that way.

“It’s a learned behaviour. It’s also a choice. I was raised with this kind of belief system. My parents instilled that you should live and experience the world. 
With a disability needs child the natural inclination is that you want to be protective, but I think there’s a balance between being protective of that child and allowing that child to experience the world. My family allowed and encouraged exploration and risk. To really appreciate life. Live without limits. Anything and everything could happen and is possible. You’re not going to succeed all the time. You’re having the chance to truly live. “

Despite his injuries, Richard competed in his 18th marathon in November last year; only 12 months after the accident.

“Running the streets of New York after that accident, the pain was immense and excruciating. It was my way of saying that I had to move on with life. It was simply time to move on and move ahead. It was something I absolutely had to do. It was so difficult and so painful, but by doing it, it had a great effect; working through it was really critical. 

It was always going to be painful. But you’re not doing any more damage. This was my struggle. If I could adapt to this pain, I could deal with this new pain. It was having the power to simply move on.”

And will he be competing in any more marathons?

“I will do every New York marathon. That’s how I mark the year. It’s just one of those things. I go to New York every year for that marathon; it’s a rite of passage. It’s November, it means the marathon. 

I used to do three marathons a year, but now it’s a bit more problematic. The New York marathon is one that I absolutely must do. I go by the school year so I start my year in September, so when I get to marathon in November, I know that I can enjoy the different holidays afterwards. I’ve gotten through the hard part of the year and now I can give myself the chance to truly enjoy it.

I don’t train the same way I used to train. It’s now about focusing on that pain management and respecting and appreciating that level of pain management. The thing that always keeps me going is that I have to be focused on the next challenge; that’s what keeps me alive and keeps me living. 

You have to live life to your fullest and I can’t let the day go by without doing something with it.” 

So how does Richard juggle his marathon training with his pro-bono disability rights cases?

“The training actually enhances the work. It makes you work better. People who are athletes are very organised, efficient and structured people. Athletes just get stuff done. It allows you to have a regime, so you simply do your job better. 

If you do training, you’re doing your job better because it’s with greater focus. The training has a profoundly positive effect on your work. You make every minute and every second count. Busy people get more stuff done. I have a full case load back in the states but you find a way to balance it all and make it work. You’ll find a way to get the job done and make it work. It’s up to you.” 

Sadly, our interview came to an end shortly after. But I’m glad that I was given the opportunity to speak with Richard Bernstein. Thank you very much to Richard, Rabbi Sender Kavka from The Friendship Circle and Richard’s contacts Emily Kramer and Tim Maclean for organising the interview.

If you’d like to follow Richard on Facebook, click here.

Read more about Richard and the inaugural Maccabi NSW Breakfast of Champions here.

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