Rachel Grunwell is a fitness writer for the Herald on Sunday.

New York moment for TV star

A partially-sighted runner will have Mike McRoberts as his guide through the New York marathon. Rachel Grunwell reports

They have made a promise that if it all goes pear-shaped they will still get over the finish line. Photo / Doug Sherring
They have made a promise that if it all goes pear-shaped they will still get over the finish line. Photo / Doug Sherring

TV3's Mike McRoberts is known as the globe-trotting journalist who fronts the news, regularly covering danger zones and international conflicts. He's also a family man.
But he obviously doesn't think he was busy enough because he's about to run the New York City Marathon, guiding blind athlete Mike Lloyd.

In three weeks, McRoberts will lead Lloyd through the one of the world's biggest marathons, using a guide rope and voice commands.

The pair will be among 48,000 runners lining up at the start line on Staten Island at the foot of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and heading for the finish line in Central Park. They will be watched by some two million cheering spectators and 330 million TV viewers.

This is the duo's second attempt to run this event. Last year, Hurricane Sandy ripped through the city and the event was cancelled. So when November 3 rolls around, they hope to finally conquer this goal together.

McRoberts expects that finish-line moment will be exhilarating. The quietly spoken newsreader says it's running with Lloyd, with the help of the Achilles International New Zealand charity, that has made him feel "a part of something special".

This is the 20th year that Achilles NZ has helped disabled Kiwi athletes to get to the marathon. The charity raises money to enable people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics.

Lloyd is one of this year's nine Achilles NZ athletes. He will be joined by two other blind athletes, Vinnie Klein and Hannah Pascoe, Brian Coker, who had both legs amputated when he was trapped during the Christchurch earthquake, paraplegic Brett Tantrum, as well as cancer survivor David Poole, Maryanne Hoosan who is recovering from a stroke, and Kevin Jordain who has cerebral palsy. The athletes range in age from 23 to 55.

The 47-year-old McRoberts will be joined by six other volunteers, people the Achilles NZ chairman Peter Lof, describes as genuine team members.

Asked if it's hard getting volunteers, Loft laughs and says "no", adding that "if you are stupid enough to run 42km, you might as well do it for a good cause!"

Loft says the charity supports disabled athletes in events like this to help promote personal achievement - and the success of this filters into all areas of their lives. But if the public thinks disabled athletes get an easier ride Loft says, "think again".

He says he treats them the same as anybody else, including telling them that failure is not an option.

"I tell them don't use 'I'm disabled' as an excuse not to finish this marathon or we'll kick your ass. This is your opportunity to achieve."

He says "his" athletes thrive on showing the world that anything is achievable with will power. Essentially, their goals are just the same as able-body runners: to finish and get the medal. They just do the marathon "differently", like hop, wheel, shuffle, run slower or use hand cycles. They might take longer to reach the finish. But they always finish, he adds.

"And when you put a medal around their necks they change. They feel fully recognised as full human beings," says Loft.

Lloyd, 43, was born with low vision. At school, he struggled to see the blackboard and over time his vision has deteriorated to "light perception" and "a lot of smudge".

It was at his workplace the Blind Foundation, where he helps blind and partially sighted people with access to technology to help them work or study, that he met McRoberts. The newsreader had been invited to voice one of his books for the Foundation's talking-book library.

The men got chatting about the New York City Marathon and the seed was sewn to run it together and to help raise money for Achilles NZ.

This will be Lloyd's fifth marathon and although he has run this course before, it will give him just as much pride to attempt it again. He says he loves the personal challenges that training for, and completing, a marathon bring.

Lloyd says McRoberts will direct him, but it is by no means "any piggy back".

McRoberts says Lloyd helps him, too. It will be his first marathon so Lloyd has taught him lots about the race, how to prepare and what to expect. And no, marathons don't get any easier the more you do, Lloyd says. "The course doesn't get any shorter!"

Lloyd says when the pair first ran together "we were a bit tentative, but after a couple of days we were throwing crap at each other".

The duo has been training up to 10 hours a week for months. Most of this is done apart, but they do their biggest weekly run together on Saturdays through the GetRunning club.

McRoberts says this club kindly lets them use their facilities and drink stations and shares training tips. One such tip was to change linked arms regularly, to give their arms a rest.

"Although we are a bit like a married couple. We prefer particular sides," jokes McRoberts.
But seriously, he says he is incredibly grateful to businesses like GetRunning that hear the Achilles story and want to help.

If you see this duo out training together then you'll see them run close (so no runners can run in-between and get caught in the guide rope) and you'll hear McRoberts saying things like "big curb ahead' and "step up", or "hanging branch."

Lloyd reckons the TV man does a good job, but he notices when he's fatiguing because he starts going on "auto" with his commentary like saying "now it's starting to rain", and I'll remark: "yeah, I got that one!"

Asked if Lloyd enjoys listening to one of TV's smoothest voices, Lloyd retorts that it doesn't matter what voice he's listening to after 30km: "you still feel like a tin of s***".

McRoberts adds: "that smooth voice isn't so smooth after 30km; it's more of a whimper".

And he's mindful to make the run enjoyable for Lloyd and "not bellow too many orders at him".

So what's it like to guide? "It's quite a strange sort of experience, but I love it. I have a bit of a protective nature about me anyway, apart from the time I walked Mike into a glass door!" admits McRoberts.

And what's it like to be in Lloyd's (running) shoes?

"Trust is the key. Trust in your guide's ability to direct you through 42km of left/rights, maneuvering obstacles (both human and fixed), through drink stations that are like liquid war zones, over bumps, dips and changes in road surface. And that's on top of the normal physical and mental demands of running the marathon.

"I have to focus on the voice prompts, feedback via the tether rope and forearm connection at times and be aware via hearing my surroundings as the environment changes. Fellow runners, cheering supporters, the reflective sounds from buildings, bridges and walls, listening to my own footfall. Collective chaos," he explains.

"But out of this comes the satisfaction that I went the distance, pushed through the struggle and crossed that finish line just like everybody else, one foot after the other".

Lloyd says that on race day, they will spur each other on when the other is tired.

However, McRoberts insists it's Lloyd doing the real hard work. "It takes courage to run and not see what's in front of you on busy streets. It's a huge leap of faith. It's a huge achievement."

Meanwhile, McRoberts says his wife, journalist Paula Penfold, and their kids Ben and Maia support his marathon effort and his desire to support Achilles NZ.

"It's good for them [the kids] to see me desiring that [goal] and achieving it. They will get me back after November."

He admits he has missed most of his daughter's swim lessons lately "but she's okay with that". He has managed to get to his son's rugby games post-Saturday runs, albeit a bit weary.

He says his workmates have been teasing him about all the weight he has lost or teasing him "so that's why you're going so grey!"

McRoberts says he and Lloyd expect to take a while to complete the marathon. But he adds they have made a promise "that if it all goes pear-shaped, we will still get over the finish line".

Lloyd jokes he just hopes "it's before the bars close".

McRoberts says he's looking forward to seeing all the amazing Achilles athletes conquer this event.

"You can't help but be incredibly inspired and feel a lot of admiration for these guys. They take on challenges that most of us think twice about," he says.

At the finish, Lloyd says he expects to feel "a lot of emotion and pride".

McRoberts says: "I'll be quite emotional. Actually, I'm a bit hopeless in these situations.

There will be tears for sure".

• To donate to Achilles NZ or to sponsor an athlete go to: fundraiseonline.co.nz
• The Royal NZ Foundation of the Blind is holding Blind Week from Oct 29 to Nov 4. To donate ph 0800 DONATE or visit blindweek.org.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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