(This piece is for my latest book titled Pacesetters: Runners Who Informed Me Best and Inspired Me Most. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from September 1992.)
BLIND AMBITION. In the oddest of pairings, running campers shared a Park City, Utah, hotel with rock-music fans. This summer morning one group was getting up and going out to run, while the other was coming indoors to sleep.
Two middle-aged runners left their hotel room together, walking arm in arm. Two long-haired rock fans met them in the hallway. One young man motioned to the other, and they shook their heads and rolled their eyes.
One of the older men was blind. But it was the younger men who could not see what was really going on here.
They were passing a greater talent from our world than they’d seen the night before in theirs. If they had come out later and poked their heads into a nearby meeting room, they could have heard Harry Cordellos tell his story.
How he was born blind 58 years earlier, gained sight briefly as a child, then lost it again. How he lived a sheltered and inactive life into his 20s, then had it all change when he was introduced to sports through waterskiing. How he started running races at San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers in 1968, and went on to break three hours in the marathon and to finish the Ironman Triathlon.
I was Harry’s roommate at Park City. I was the guy who linked arms with him in the hotel hallway, though he hardly needed help.
When we checked into the Radisson, he said, “Describe to me the lay of the land here.” One guided pass through the entire hotel was enough to let him navigate it alone with his cane.
Our room didn’t have raised numbers. “That’s no problem, he said. “I’ll just reach into my bag of tricks.” He marked the doorknob with a rubber band.
Harry runs by bumping elbows and sometimes linking arms with a partner. This teamwork carried him through his 25th straight Bay to Breakers this spring, and the San Francisco Marathon will be his 12th there.
“Running is about the easiest thing I do,” Harry told the Utah campers. He meant this several ways.
Running is easier than making his way through San Francisco each day. “I had to take two buses, the subway and another bus to reach the airport to fly here,” he said.
Running is easier than trying to earn a living as a blind man. His last steady job ended 10 years ago in a dispute with his bosses over working conditions. Speaking and writing (his second book is in the works) now supply his income.
Running is easier than his non-athletic hobby. He rides every roller-coaster he can find, and he builds intricate miniature carnivals complete with movement and sound.
Running a race is easier than finding a partner for training. Dr. Kenneth Cooper gave Harry a treadmill for running alone, but the lack of consistent road miles still limits him.
Running races is easier than any of his other sports, most of which involve risk-taking. He wind-surfs, dives from a 10-meter platform, downhill skis and jumps on water skis.
Harry was recovering this summer from a ski-jumping accident. An arm tangled in the rope as he went over the ramp, and his shoulder was dislocated and several muscles were torn.
His artificial eye once jarred loose while he wind-surfed. He thought the costly orb had sunk to the bottom of San Francisco Bay but found it lying on the wind sheet.
“The moral of this story?” he said. “Keep your eye on the sail.”
Harry doubts he’ll ever realize his dream of skydiving. But he’d like to try the next-best adventure: bungee jumping.
Harry Cordellos is one of the wonders of our world.
UPDATE. Harry Cordellos’s book, No Limits, was originally published in 1993 and updated seven years later. The latter edition remains available.
When last I heard from him, he was still running the Bay to Breakers and participating in other amazing adventures. He turned 80 in 2014.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Memory Laps. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]