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By Erich Manser (5 min read)
“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” —Amelia Earhart.
For me, the experience of running this year’s Boston Marathon was even more powerful than normal. This from a guy who survived the 2013 bombings, ran to “reclaim the race” in 2014, and who has become a fixture on “Team With A Vision”. The race this year was extraordinarily powerful because of how and with whom I ran.
My friend Bhumika works with me at IBM. I’ll say we “met” 3 or 4 years ago in the way people often meet these days, virtually. We are both runners, each with a unique story and the strength of community at IBM led to us knowing each other, perhaps inevitably. I became aware of the remarkable work Bhumika was doing with “See from the Heart with IBM” in India, and felt an instant kinship.
When I learned that Bhumika would be coming to run Boston in 2019, I was just coming off of my grueling experience at Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, and was in the process of doing some serious reassessing. I hadn’t even committed to running Boston 2019 yet, but found myself moved by the chance to run with this colleague so committed to empowering blind young girls, and I signed up.
From our discussions and race planning calls, my sense of Bhumika was that she was all business, and someone very serious. When she spoke, she spoke softly, but firmly, and was completely matter-of-fact. When we were meeting up to practice running tethered, I was nervous about telling her she would need to speak louder during the race for me to hear her over the cheering crowds, afraid it may seem like a criticism.
She was delayed getting to that practice run, calling from the back of an Uber, her driver lost. I was stunned, overhearing the level of disrespect and impatience her driver showed her, yet Bhumika remained calm as she explained the delay to me. It seemed to be treatment she had become familiar with, sadly, and was so starkly different from my experiences as a white American male with a disability. She’s so strong, I thought, I’m not so sure my “speak louder” feedback was likely to even faze her.
For our practice run, we did an easy 2 miles along the Charles River. In no time, Bhumika and I found our rhythm, and were chatting and jogging effortlessly. She’s an experienced guide, great with the tether, and started using a louder voice, almost without having to think about it. To my amazement, by the end, we were joking and giggling. I got this new image of her in my mind—imagining her as one of those young girls she helps in India. My favorite picture from the marathon weekend is from that run where we both look gleeful, liberated in our shared activity.
Erich and Bhumika practice running tethered along the Charles River. Erich wears a bright yellow vest with the word “Blind” in the center of it in large, bold text. Bhumika wears a reflective yellow vest with the word “Guide”.
The next day, in the race, things continued to unfold in ways that set this year apart. When Bhumika and I agreed to run together, we knew my typical marathon time is slightly quicker than hers, and we discussed running at a pace that allowed her to easily talk and describe details the entire time. We were having a great run, and I found myself feeling fresh and energized as we steadily moved along. When the climb to Heartbreak Hill began at mile 15, Bhumika’s request to walk was the first outward sign that she was dealing with issues. Her game face is strong, and she had never let on that anything might be wrong. The hills were wreaking havoc with her quadricep muscles, but we pressed on, determined.
I had been in similar situations before, but it had always been me struggling, and my sighted guides urging me along. I cannot express how empowering it felt for me to be in a position to offer help, encouragement and experience to someone who had come to help me. I started whooping it up with the crowds, waving my arms and pointing at our “Blind” and “Guide” bibs, which brought cheers and positive energy, carrying us forward. It felt so good to be empowered in this way, and I am grateful for the experience. By the time my own fatigue set in, at around mile 23, Bhumika and I were so tough and determined that we were definitely getting through this.
Kindness is a powerful thing. It’s at the heart of organizations like ‘See from the Heart with IBM’ and ‘Team With A Vision’, and ultimately, it’s what led Bhumika to come run with me in Boston. It beats negativity, and drives inclusion and understanding. Bhumika and I are from very different places, but we will now be forever joined by kindness.
Bhumika Patel is a Global Program Manager for Cyber Security in IBM India. She has been recognized in India’s #IBMWomenWhoInspire 2017. For years now, she has been training the visually impaired and running as a guide to them. Bhumika joined the Boston Marathon 2019 as the official sighted guide of IBMer Erich Manser. She says of the experience, “There have been numerous anecdotes to tell, numerous incidents, happenings. But none of them can beat the fantastic experience of the Boston marathon.”
About the Author
Erich Manser is the Accessibility in Design Squad Leader at IBM. As an Accessibility evangelist, Erich is part of the IBM team exploring new approaches to accessible technology, new applications of emerging technologies to enhance accessibility, and contributing actively to worldwide accessibility standards.