WILLIAMSTOWN -- When he takes off from the Boston Marathon starting line, Jonathan Cluett will be running with watchful eyes and purpose.

This will be a special sixth marathon for the Williamstown resident, but he won't be racing for personal achievement: He's running for the petite woman who'll be following alongside.

His running partner, Maya Jonas, 51, of Toronto is blind.

"It's certainly going to be a special day in Boston but it is very clear my role is to support Maya and to make sure she has as good an experience as possible," Cluett said. "If I succeed in that, it's going to be a great day."

Despite her blindness, Jonas has run multiple marathons, including the Boston Marathon last year, when she was stopped about a mile from the finish line where two bombs had exploded.

Like so many others, Jonas refuses to let the Boston Marathon be tarnished by the bombings -- but she needs help. So she'll hold on to Cluett's elbow, and they'll be tethered together by a loop of material.

"You have to take back control and you have to let people know that this is not acceptable and let those bad people scare us," Jonas said in a phone interview.

The Canadian lost her eyesight at 23 due to the condition retinitis pigmentosa. She started running about four years ago, about a year after a breast cancer procedure. After completing shorter races, she was inspired to to try a marathon after overhearing someone doubt her abilities.


Advertisement

Following last year's bombing, Jonas was eager to come back to the state where her husband graduated from college and where she was overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers who provided her something warm to drink and temporary shelter from the April cold after being turned away from the finish line.

For many, the Boston Marathon will carry a special significance following last year's bombings that killed three and injured more than 260. Cluett and Jonas are among about 36,000 people who will run to reclaim the marathon's glory.

The pairing was arranged by the nonprofit Achilles International -- which matches physically challenged people with volunteers to compete in mainstream sports -- and recently opened a Boston Chapter with the help of some Berkshire supporters. There are 11 Achilles competitors from Massachusetts who will be participating in the Boston Marathon.

Longtime Achilles supporter and Williams College professor Hank Art -- who was six blocks from the finish line last year -- asked Cluett to participate. Art will also be running in the Boston Marathon, helping a blind Illinois mother of two.

"You always feel like you are hyper-vigilant," Art said. "I've never been a secret service agent, but it's that mentality. You have to look up the course, to the side, behind you where the threats will come."

While races typically are about speed, Cluett will need to slow down to help Jonas. Cluett's fastest marathon time is 3 hours, 9 minutes. Jonas had to qualify for the Boston Marathon, but she is slower than her guide; she completed her qualifier in 4 hours, 58 minutes, or about a minute ahead of the benchmark.

They've had a 10-minute phone conversation, and they were expected to practice together Saturday.

Cluett speaks with awe about Jonas' ability to run marathons.

"If you think about closing your eyes and taking a walk down the front yard or sidewalk and think about how challenging that can be," Cluett said, "that just amazes me that she overcame the fear and anxiety ... and she's tackling it head-on."

Jonas dismisses the idea that her blindness as an impairment. "It's like you're hanging on a leash. I can feel the way they are moving," she said. "It's not hard. The hard part is that I am old and I am trying to compete. I am at a point where in 5K, 10K and 15K, I can win my [age] group."

Running while blind is not without challenges, she concedes.

Potholes can be tricky, for one thing, she said. And she could run into people from behind without a good guide; at a recent 5K race, she said, she ran into three people. 

Jonas is lighthearted about falling, saying she told the people, " If you can't run faster than a 51-year-old blind woman, you need to get out of the way."

Jonas finished second in her category, but she was peeved she wasn't first in a race she normally dominates.

"When you run and you fall down, you pick yourself up," Jonas said.

Art, a regular volunteer since 2008, was quick to offer his help after the Boston Marathon, and he helped raise funds to donate a hand-crank wheelchair to the nonprofit.

"I had contacted Achilles after the Boston Marathon," he said. "The next day it hit me the dimensions of what happened."

In New York City last year, Art guided a blind and deaf 70-year-old runner from Norway alongside with two other guides. The guides flanked him from the left and right side and the back forming a dart formation.

During the long run, Art said he had a pleasant conversation about politics and culture.

While he has completed 56 marathons, he was still moved to see the crowds cheering as his runner ran by.

"He was high-fiving these kids on the side of the race course," Art said. "It was the most amazing thing to see. It brought tears to my eyes."

The marathon lasted more than eight hours. The bright morning sun disappeared to dusk before they reached the finish line at Central Park. Art met up with his wife, and he was brought to tears again after the runner introduced himself to his wife by patting her face and he gave her a hug and kiss.

"I think there were tears in all our eyes and a feeling of elation," said Art. "My thought was we started at 10 a.m. and we ended up in Central Park after dark. And yet all his races are in the dark. It made you very thankful to have your sight and hearing and to be inspired. ... It was one of those memorable events that will stick with you for an entire lifetime."

Cluett admits to feeling nervous about today's race, but he's ready to help restore the luster and create new miraculous memories at the Boston Marathon.

"For anyone who feels an association with distance running, Boston last year was an incredibly painful day. It's important to reclaim it for distance running and not as a day of tragedy and terrorism."

To reach John Sakata:
jsakata@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6240.
On Twitter: @jsakata