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Blind runner in for long haul

Garbutt believes his can-do attitude will inspire others to participate

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The Manitoba Marathon website claims there are "14,000 stories waiting out there for you," as each entrant strives to reach a personal goal, whether it's to set a personal best or just complete the race. A spectator might see one runner's story in the relief, joy, or exhaustion on their face as they cross the finish line. In Tracy Garbutt's case, however, they'll see his story in a length of surgical tubing that tethers him to the person in front of him.

The "Tracy leash," as it's affectionately known by Garbutt and his longtime guide Mike Malyk, will allow him to navigate the twists and turns of the half-marathon course on Sunday -- despite the fact he's almost completely blind.

The 38-year-old Garbutt suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive eye condition first diagnosed when he was 12. It has now robbed him of almost all of his eyesight.

He's had to make many tough changes as his vision regressed, from tripping over things while trick-or-treating to trying to date in Winnipeg without being able to drive. ("Great, now I'm going to pick up this girl on Transit Tom? That's a turn-on.") Yet instead of letting his affliction beat him, he's dedicated his career to enabling others to live full and healthy lives.

"It's been a long journey of adapting while you go along," he said. "For example, ever since I could remember I wanted to run a marathon, and I didn't know how I was going to do it. It took me until I was almost 35 years to figure it out."

His first major run was in 2005, when, with the help of a team of guides, he completed the Manitoba Marathon.

Garbutt has shared the lessons learned in that first run -- in which stifling heat left him bitterly disappointed with his time -- through motivational speaking.

"One thing I always say to people about that first marathon is just make sure you finish," he said. "Putting a time limit on it can really destroy you."

His speaking engagements are only a part of his effort to share his yes-you-can attitude with others. Since 1997 he's worked for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind as a rehabilitation worker, making day-to-day activities from sewing to cooking possible -- and safe -- for the visually impaired.

"He's strongly and passionately independent," said Malyk, who has run with Garbutt since 2005, adding that he still routinely does his own dishes and cuts his own grass. "He doesn't like relying on anyone."

Garbutt sees his running career as another opportunity to inspire others.

"It feels pretty good when you hear people yelling and cheering and you know they're thinking, 'Wow, he's really doing it!' "

He's excited that, for the first time at the Manitoba Marathon, he'll be able to get an early start, avoiding having to weave his way through the thousands of other runners. Even more exciting is what's in store next year, when the marathon will open categories for blind athletes.

"Now participation's going to get up, and who knows, maybe next year I'll have people who want to come out and challenge me," he said, noting that blind runners in other parts of the country are traveling to different cities to race against each other.

But doesn't training for these runs take time? And between working with the CNIB, doing speaking engagements for the Running Room and raising his two young sons, where could he find it?

"I train six days a week," he said. He gets up every weekday at 4:50 a.m. to work out at the Duckworth Centre at the University of Winnipeg, then runs every Sunday -- not necessarily a schedule everyone in the house can keep.

"(My wife) just thinks I'm crazy."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 17, 2010 C6

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