Sunday, April 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Feeling It

Writing about the pains and gains of 20,000 marathoners as they run rings around a city is challenging enough for one writer. For a journalist who is mostly blind, it would seem unfathomable.

Feeling It

David Block covers the Philadelphia Marathon.
David Block covers the Philadelphia Marathon. (Kriston J. Bethel / for the Inquirer )

Writing about the pains and gains of 20,000 marathoners as they run rings around a city is challenging enough for one writer.

For a journalist who is mostly blind, it would seem unfathomable.

"It's nothing," David Block said yesterday, waving off the suggestion from the pace truck as the Philadelphia Marathon began. "I'm more worried about getting my interviews."

Block, who is 46 and from Ardmore, was born with cataracts that limit his sight. Basically, an object that someone with 20/20 vision can see from 200 feet away he can see only if he's 20 feet away.

So for an event like the Philadelphia Marathon, he must rely on the eyes of others. His assistant for this race was Chris Lesnewski, a friend since they were telemarketers for the Walnut Street Theatre.

Lesnewski, 42, leaned against the cab of the crawling Ford F-250 truck as Block sat, scribbling in a spiral notebook Lesnewski's observations about the lead runner's pace.

Three races were being run at once, but the big one, the 26.2-miler, began at the Art Museum, stretching from Old City to Manayunk before ending where it started. As the sun rose over the city, the wind began to bite and Block, who had no gloves, rubbed his hands for warmth.

He could hear the cheering sections, the cowbells that would clang along the route, the string band at Front and South. None seem to interest him.

"Who is leading?" he'd ask. "Who is around him? What numbers are they wearing?"

One year he missed getting on the pace truck and he sat for two hours in the media tent until the winners were brought by. He hated that.

"I want to get a feel," he said, "even if I can't see what's going on."

Block is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker whose last short, Abandoned Heroes, about soldiers returning from war, just won an award at a Tampa indie film festival. He was covering the race for Runner's Gazette and the Main Line Times.

What he couldn't see he could draw on from experience.

He's run nine marathons - in Boston, New York, and one in Philadelphia, back when the race was named after Provident Bank, and he was a 16-year-old from the Vanguard School. He found running the only thing that made him feel free.

"I ran it in three hours, 40 minutes, and 23 seconds, Nov. 11, 1979, a Sunday."

He finished that race without a buddy. "I was trying so hard to be like everyone else that I didn't even think of running with a guide," he said. "I never thought my running was a big deal because I loved to run so much."

That was before his knees started bothering him, before he put on some weight and started using a white-and-red cane, which saves him time and effort.

"If I go into a store, I grab someone and say, 'I can't see too well. Can you help me?' I hate to shop."

He ran the New York Marathon "slower than a paralyzed turtle," he said. "That's slow."

Block is a bit loud, a little eccentric. He's self-deprecating and blunt and his memory approaches photographic. He says his life changed when a camp counselor pushed him to switch from a school for those with learning and physical disabilities to Lower Merion High. He wound up graduating from Bard College with a degree in history.

The lead changed in yesterday's race in the 23d mile. Local runner Karl Savage faded as North Carolinian John Crews came on strong.

Back at the media tent Block made it clear to several race officials what he wanted: interviews with the winner, the runner-up, the first woman, and the first Philadelphian. "He's a bull," Lesnewski observed admiringly.

Wrapped in a metallic blanket to keep warm, Crews was saying things like, "I thought if I had a good day, I'd be up there."

There was less interest in the second-place runner, but only Block went for the No. 3 finisher, Savage, who'd set the pace for nearly two hours. Pale and bearded, Savage sat alone.

No other reporter had chosen to arrive at 6 a.m. and make sure to be on the pace vehicle, so only Block knew how close Savage had come.

"Just one of those days that went south," the runner told Block.

As he felt for his notebook, his tape recorder, and his cane, Block sized up his material.

"It's not always easy talking to someone who had the lead and then lost it," he said. "I get nervous approaching them. But it's more interesting."

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