Chaz Davis ran quite a debut marathon on Sunday at the California International Marathon in Sacramento.
While his 2:31:48 result would be a strong effort for any first-time marathoner, his finish time is especially remarkable given that he is visually impaired and that he only really trained for the 26.2-mile distance for about six weeks.
With the aid of his guide Jacob Huston, the 23-year-old Davis, who is legally blind, averaged 5:47 per mile en route to setting a new American record for a debut marathon in the T12/B2 visual impairment category. He was one of 40 blind runners who competed in the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes Marathon National Championships, which is coordinated in partnership with the California International Marathon each year.
Davis and Huston came through the halfway mark in 1:14:45, which is about 5:42 mile pace. That was slightly faster than planned, but the downhill profile of the course and Davis’ fitness made the miles go by with ease.
“I thought I had a chance to break 2:30 because I felt great through about 20 miles,” Davis said. “But from miles 22-25, that’s when my legs got tight and I slowed up a bit.”
Davis’ story is inspiring and empowering. After going blind suddenly halfway through his freshman year at the University of Hartford, he fell into depression, gained weight from a lack of physical activity and struggled to adapt in everyday life. But through the help of friends, family and running, he’s become a world-class visually impaired runner with the potential for more record-setting efforts.
About midway through his first year of college, Davis was stricken with Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON) a rare, incurable genetic disease that causes vision loss. He thought he would never run again, but his teammates encouraged him to get back at it and helped guide him on runs. He wound up running on the cross-country and track teams at Hartford and graduated in May with a degree in criminal justice.
In September, Davis represented Team USA at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, placing 10th in the 1,500m in 3:58.28 (roughly a 4:15 mile) and eighth in the 5,000m (15:15:86) and setting personal bests in both events.
Davis recently moved from his hometown of Grafton, Mass. to Denver, for a 10-month study at the Colorado Center for the Blind. Since he moved to Colorado, he’s relied on several guides to assist him in training, either running with him or riding a bike alongside him. His longest run prior to the marathon was only 16 miles, but he learned a lot from his experience and is confident he can run faster.
He plans to turn his focus back to track and field for a while, but he says he’ll definitely run another marathon. Davis was recently awarded the Richard Hunter CIM to Boston Excellence in Running Award, which gives him the opportunity to compete in the Boston Marathon in 2017 or 2018 on an all-expenses-paid “Team With a Vision” program from the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
“I’ve had great support in Denver and that’s what the running community is all about,” he said. “Overall, I felt pretty strong, even though I didn’t have a lot of time after the Paralympics to train for the marathon. I was averaging about 70 to 90 miles per week leading up to it, but I just had to go work with what I had. Honestly, I was surprised that I wasn’t as beat up from the marathon as I thought I would be.”
Davis plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work to help people who have gone through similar experiences to his.
“The blindness has not kept me from my goals and what I want in life,” he said. “I have found a purpose and I want to work with other people like me.”