David Kuhn likes to run along the same mile-long stretch of gravel shoulder on Nelson Road in DeKalb.
Visually impaired by injuries he suffered in a car crash 35 years ago, Kuhn uses a cane to guide himself down the stretch of farmland between Malta Road and Fairview Drive nearly every day when weather permits it. Kuhn wears a shirt with “Blind Runner” printed in big, black letters on front and back as he runs the same stretch over and over.
Back and forth. Back and forth. Always competing.
“A few people in my running club from time to time have said, ‘Don’t you ever get tired of the scenery never changing?’” Kuhn, 64, said with a laugh.
Since losing his sight for good in the past decade, running and racing have become part of Kuhn’s identity.
Three years ago, Kuhn ran more than halfway across the country in support of his granddaughter with cystic fibrosis. He’s now training for Ironman Triathlons, a series of races across the country that feature a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.
Kuhn, who came to DeKalb in 1991, now has run in more than 50 marathons around the country, along with a handful of half-marathons and eight triathlons. Last year, he took second place in the physically challenged division at the Wisconsin Ironman in Madison – finishing the triathlon in 16 hours, 3 minutes and 20 seconds.
“He’s a very driven person,” said Stacee Seay, who recently became Kuhn’s swim coach and is a coach for Chicago-based Dare2Tri, an organization that specializes in training athletes with physical disabilities or visual impairments. “He’s very motivated. He’s highly intelligent.”
Kuhn competes with a guide, usually someone from an extensive network of runners he’s built over the past decade. He frequently joins with strangers who soon become friends. During triathlons, they share a tandem bicycle, run while each holds their end of a small tether and swim side by side – a longer tether wrapped around each of their upper legs.
He wants to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, and fondly talks about all the relationships he’s created through his running and all the accomplishments he’s had despite losing his eyesight.
“I wouldn’t mind having it back though,” he laughed.
Kuhn was heading home to Bolingbrook in his tractor-trailer one night in November 1981.
Driving south on Interstate 55, another car lost control and slammed into the front left of Kuhn’s truck, and he jumped down between his seats and braced for impact as it headed for the concrete guardrail.
He doesn’t remember the collision. Instead, he remembers coming to with a burning feeling along his side – broken ribs – and hearing and smelling the fuel pouring out of his truck while the cabin faced east sitting atop the guardrail and the empty trailer still facing south.
“The right door opened and somebody said, ‘Hey buddy, you better get out of here before this thing bursts into flames,’ “ Kuhn said.
In the year after the accident Kuhn was having vision problems and a retina specialist told him that eventually – it could be the a week, a month or years – Kuhn would go blind because of the damage done to his retinas in the crash.
“I passed out,” Kuhn said. “I literally passed out.”
Emotionally numb after coming back to consciousness, Kuhn eventually gathered his things and went to his car.
He started the engine and listened to the radio before realizing he was in no state to drive and turned the car off. He would do this over and over, for hours and hours. Looking around the parking lot, he was the only car left. Everybody who worked in the professional building had gone home.
“I finally thought, ‘You’ve played poker with your brother and his friends, you’ve been dealt some good hands, you’ve been dealt some bad hands You won with both, you lost with both. Life just handed you a new hand. What are you going to do with it?’ “ Kuhn said.
RUNNING FOR A CAUSE
Kuhn ran 25 miles May 15, 2014, in Seattle.
The next day, he ran 25 more.
The brutal two-day stretch was the start of a fundraising event he began in honor of his granddaughter, Kylie, who was born with cystic fibrosis who is now 14-years-old. What better way to do something than to run?
“It was just one of those crazy ideas,” Kuhn said. “It was just something I wanted to do. My granddaughter, she’s precious to me.”
He became a traveling running show, moving from city to city and bringing awareness to the disease while piling up his mileage. During the three-and-a-half month trek, Kuhn clocked in 1,899 miles – from Seattle to Madison, Wisconsin – and he said $10,000 was raised for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Kylie, whose family lives in Springfield, Missouri, had her pancreas and spleen removed last year because of complications with the disease.
During the journey, he came across waves of people touched by the genetic disorder, which greatly affects the lungs. With the fatigue nearly unbearable during his runs, his mind would go back to hearing the stories from parents and the emotion in their voice.
“When I’d wake up and want to forget this whole thing, that’s what I kept thinking about all these different people,” Kuhn said. “Moms telling me their story and crying, dads would talk – this guy talked about the loss of his daughter and his voice, oh my gosh, you just knew this guy lived it every single day. He’s in pain every single day and he misses his daughter.
“What was going on for me was nothing. It was so minor compared to what everybody else was going through.”
Still moments to be missed
Kuhn’s first marathon came in Chicago in 1999 after getting talked into it by his optometrist. He went about a decade before running it again – this time as part of a fundraiser for a local senior service center. It’s only been recently, since his vision has gotten worse, that his passion for racing has gotten stronger.
The medals from his achievements are nice, but Kuhn misses being able to see his daughters and grandchildren.
He vaguely remembers seeing Bryce, 16, and Kylie, 14, when they were younger, but no has memory of Gabe, 11, or Kaiden, 6.
He wants to see what his daughters, Kellie, 40, and Tiffanie, 34, look like as adults.
He no longer can see faces in his dreams. Instead, the faces have become distorted – they are either fuzzy or surreal, as in a wild Picasso painting. There are still little moments when he was still able to see that he preciously holds onto. In the aftermath of the accident, when he still could drive his rig, Kuhn would occasionally take an early morning freight up to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.
With dawn moments away, he would take the exit off Interstate 43 to Manitowoc and head to his favorite rest area. Once he parked, he grabbed his thermos of coffee and a couple of boxes of little chocolate doughnuts and sat on a large boulder.
Finally, the sun would slowly rise in the east – the colors making it look like an artist’s palette filling the sky and dancing off Lake Michigan.
“It was just such a beautiful sight,” Kuhn said.
BOSTON MARATHON BOMBING
Kuhn and his guides were about 3 miles from the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013 when he heard – and felt – emergency vehicles rush past them.
His right retina had detached in 1993 – he lost all sight in that eye immediately after that – and his left eye slowly began to deteriorate in the past decade to the point where he could only see shadows in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people and injured hundreds.
“All of a sudden, runners were stopping in front of us,” Kuhn said. “In fact, my guides were grabbing my wrist to pull me around them and I mentioned to one of them, ‘How is looking at your cellphone going to get you to the finish line?’ Joking around, but not realizing how unusual that is because the last 3 miles, you’re head down and no matter what, you’re going to make it.”
Through the chaos, a member of the Massachusetts Association of Blind and Visually Impaired waved down Kuhn and his two guides – Bryon Guida and Boston-resident Joslynn Lee.
“You won’t be able to finish the race, there were two bombings at the finish line,” the employee told them.
Initially, Kuhn thought the warning was an unfunny joke. Instead, the group walked half a block down the path to at least cross the 40-kilometer timing mat. Almost instantly after they crossed, members of the marathon organization came and rolled up the mat.
As they walked around five blocks back to the Massachusetts Association of Blind and Visually Impaired, crying locals put their arms on Kuhn and his group and pleaded with them to one day come back and run the famous marathon again.
On April 21, 2014, Kuhn finished the Boston Marathon in 6:15:26.
Fear or negativity didn’t dissuade him, because David Kuhn is a competitor.