2016-08-26 / Front Page

Blind runner tackles trust trails

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Sanford native Kyle Robidoux, 40, of Boston, closes in on the final mile of the half marathon alongside his guide Heidi Brennan, Sunday, Aug. 21, during the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust Trail Fest. Despite being limited to a 4 percent field of vision, Robidoux was able to traverse the wooded course in less than 4.5 hours. (Duke Harrington photo)

Sanford native Kyle Robidoux, 40, of Boston, closes in on the final mile of the half marathon alongside his guide Heidi Brennan, Sunday, Aug. 21, during the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust Trail Fest. Despite being limited to a 4 percent field of vision, Robidoux was able to traverse the wooded course in less than 4.5 hours. (Duke Harrington photo)

KENNEBUNKPORT — When the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust had the vision two years ago to create the Four Seasons Trail Fest, it never foresaw the event might also serve those who cannot see.

In fact, the trust’s Executive Director, Tom Bradbury, admits to being momentarily nonplussed when his phone rang recently and the caller asked if the trust could accommodate a blind runner. It only took a moment to say yes.

“We were on board right away,” Bradbury said. “Of course he needed a guide. So, we put out a Facebook post and people stepped forward immediately.”

But, as it turns out, the willingness of the community to help out was not needed.

Sanford native Kyle Robidoux, 40, now lives in Boston, where he works as director of volunteer and support group services at the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He’s also an appointed member of Boston’s Commission for Persons with Disabilities.

As such, one of his duties is to find and train guides for blind runners, who jog alongside calling out turns, terrain, and other obstacles.

Working with old friends in Sanford, Robidoux was able to connect with Heidi Brennan, a distance runner now training for a 100-mile event later in the fall.

“That’s important,” Robidoux said, “because the guide needs to be able to run a pace that’s a little bit faster than the person they are assisting, so they have the ability to talk the entire time they are running.”

It seemed Brennan might have her work cut out for her. Robidoux is no slouch.

A brand ambassador for Topo Athletic Footwear, which is based in Newton, Massachusetts, he’s completed seven marathons, in addition to an ultra-marathon of more than 50 miles. On a road course, Robidoux said, he generally averages an 8-minute mile.

He and Brennan turned in an easy pace Sunday, completing the 13.1- mile half marathon in 4 hours and 20 minutes.

The Trail Fest is part of the trust’s annual Summerfest celebrations.

The paths though the woods and fields surrounding trust headquarters on Gravelly Brook Road — part of a local 20-mile trail network — are peppered with roots, and more than one runner with full sight ended up snagging a toe and kissing dirt before the day was over.

Still, despite one serious stumble at Mile 12, Robidoux stayed on his feet for the entire event, even if he admits having to resort to essentially “power-hiking” a long stretch at about the 8-mile mark, where the path got particularly tricky.

“Overall the course was much more challenging than I had anticipated,” he said. “But that is why we run and why we race, to take big challenges and overcome them. It was a great day and we had a lot of fun.”

“I think it’s inspiring that someone would be willing and able to do that,” Bradbury said. “It emphasizes that the trails are not for any particular person. They’re here for everybody. They awaken all of your senses, and he’s a perfect illustration of that.”

As Bradbury mentioned, there is much to hear, smell and feel on trust trails. Still, Robidoux was able to see and enjoy the beauty of the property as much as anyone, just limited to an extreme case of tunnel vision, which he describes as “looking at the world through a toilet paper tube.”

He was diagnosed at age 11 with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease. Today, his vision is corrected to 20/40, but he can only see in a field that ranges no more than 4 degrees from his center focal point.

The experience in Kennebunkport was worth the trip up from Boston, Robidoux said, noting that his wife, who hatched the idea to come up for the Trail Fest, “smoked” him on the timeclock.

“It was just a beautiful day to be outside and enjoying the conservation trials, which were amazing, and just being active,” he said.

Robidoux ended up posting the 64th and final time in the half-marathon, but he finished the event, which was more then many runners did. Bradbury said about 80 people entered the event.

For his finish, Robidoux credited Brennan.

“She did an absolutely fabulous job,” he said. “In addition to being in good shape, the guide has to be ‘present’ the entire time, and that takes a tremendous amount of laser-like metal focus. But she was on-point and mentally strong for more than four hours, which is an incredible feat, to run while making calls and speaking that entire time.”

Runners had a choice of four events on Sunday, Aug. 21 – a 10K, 5K, half marathon and full marathon. A total of 199 participants completed the various courses. The Trail Fest also included a kids’ fun run.

The day was rounded out with a human foosball tournament, in addition to music, food and craft vendors.

The trust stages a similar trail run event each season, with the next event coming up on Oct. 9, timed for peak foliage season.

“We do these as fundraisers, of course, but also as a thank you to bring out entire extended family of volunteers together, and to encourage people to get out and enjoy the trails, many for the first time,” Bradbury said.

Associate Director Lisa Linehan said Monday it’s not yet known exactly how much the trust took in from this year’s Summerfest. However, “100 percent of the proceeds will go to our educational programs,” she said.

Meanwhile, Linehan, like Bradbury, expressed wonderment at Robidoux’s run.

“It’s pretty amazing,” she said. “I have trouble walking on the trails, with 20/20 vision and not tripping over roots. I think it’s an incredible accomplishment, for both of them, Kyle [Robidoux] and his guide. We are honored that they would do that here in our race.”

And, while Bradbury says the trust tries not to promote its trail network as a destination, in order to avoid crowding out or inconveniencing local property owners — they’re simply something there “to be discovered,” he said — there’s no question the trust’s four-season trail series has become something of a draw. Like Robidoux and his family, others entered in Sunday’s events came from as far away as New York and Illinois — some as summer residents and visitors to relatives in the area, but many just for the day’s festivities.

That, said Bradbury, gives evidence to the power of preservation.

“The same thing that is so appealing to the people who live in town is the reason we have such a strong tourist-based economy,” he said. “Having the islands preserved, having the lighthouse in good condition, having the beaches open, that’s what maintains the tourism that’s been going on here since the 1870s.

“The underlying philosophy of the trust is we try to identify those places in the community that are loved and used by all, and to try and preserve them so that anybody who is in the community, whether they’ve lived here for a lifetime or just arrived, doesn’t lose access to those special places that make this area so nice, so they’ll know their kids and grandkids will be able to enjoy the same things that have traditionally been enjoyed,” Bradbury said.

In addition to the autumn Trail Fest on Oct. 9, the trust also has an online auction coming up this fall, with a host of items to include an autographed Ted Williams picture, among other offerings.

Linehan said anyone interested in upcoming trust events should keep an eye on the trusts website, kporttrust.org, or its Facebook page.

Meanwhile, Robidoux said anyone with a vision impairment interested in entering future trail runs, or in doing any kind of running, from competitive event to routine exercise, should check out the website unitedinstride.com.

Prospective running guides also are encouraged to visit the site, which matches guides and visually handicapped runners nationwide, he said.

Robidoux said he also is available through his nonprofit agency.

“I’m always happy to chat with anyone who wants to talk about or learn how to be active despite vision issues,” he said. “At the end of the day, we all may have different challenges, but we can’t let those challenges dictate how physically active we can be.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at

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