Navigating Philly as a stubborn blind runner

Matt McAvoy, 47, running on the Ben Franklin Bridge. "I don't like feeling restrained," he says. "If I'm going to run, I'm going to run."

MATT McAVOY CAN HEAR PEOPLE breathing heavily. He hears the slap of sneakers against sidewalk. He hears exhaust pipes, bus brakes.

But it’s the things he can’t hear — curbs, fences, stoops  that are the real dangers when running blind.

On a Thursday evening, McAvoy in his mirror-tint sunglasses folded up his cane, tucked it into his backpack, and started out toward John F. Kennedy Boulevard, walking without hesitation.

Soon he and a friend would be running, setting a swift pace through dense urban traffic, dodging cars, dogs, and fire hydrants, and totaling close to 10 miles culminating in frosty beers with like-minded neighbors.

McAvoy’s movements weren’t always this instinctive. In his first year without sight, he had diligently measured the steps of city blocks and train stations. Now he'll walk the perimeter of a new building before putting his cane away and feeling confidence in his movements.

When he takes off his sunglasses, he looks people in the eye  and in his own, the 47-year-old betrays no weariness.

"You rely on others," he said. "There's no superhero thing where you get better at sense of smell or hearing."

The disease is degenerative, and it's picky: Women pass it on, but only men show symptoms. McAvoy’s optic nerves started to atrophy about four years ago, leaving him in a deep, grayish fog. He can identify shapes if they are set against extreme contrasts  bright yellow shirt, black hair, white wall.

A couple years ago, he got involved with the international group Achilles, a nonprofit that pairs visually impaired runners with a visually healthy partner. The Philly chapter was founded in 2012.

McAvoy and his guide, Rodney Russen, usually start at the Comcast Center, where McAvoy works, and run to the meeting point of the Fishtown Beer Runners. For the two toned city dwellers, it’s a quick 3-mile warm-up.

Matt McAvoy, right, and his running partner and friend, Rodney Russen. (via Facebook)

Navigating through the city has become an art of observation and timing. Approaching sidewalks, Russen yells "curb" and McAvoy leaps like a man in a suit averting a deep puddle. When McAvoy occasionally drifts too far to one side, Russen will tug at his backpack.

Traffic, it turned out, became easier to navigate after McAvoy’s eyes failed.

"It's actually safer to listen to it, once you get used to that, than it is to look," McAvoy said. "A lot of times, cars kind of sneak up and you might think they're parked."

Hard rain creates big trouble. The water muffles sounds and masks smells.

But McAvoy’s greatest foe is the chain-link fence.

"They're like spider-webs," he said.

One woman he runs with is a super-competitive athlete. He was tethered to her for this year's Broad Street Run, which they finished in just over an hour.

She's chatty. And because McAvoy moves so well, and keeps up with her pace, she sometimes forgets that he can't see.

One time they were were moving at a brisk pace down Girard Avenue when they approached a fenced-in construction zone. She dodged to the side.

"Luckily it was taller than I was," he said, "so I just bounced back."

Matt McAvoy began losing his sight about four years ago due to a degenerative, hereditary disease. (Tommy Rowan / STAFF)

Another time, on a hot summer day, McAvoy was walking home, swiftly, when he slightly bumped his head on the corner of a fence. A piece of wire had sliced his forehead, but as he walked, he assumed it was sweat dripping down his face.

He walked into his house and his wife screamed, "Oh, my god! What's going on?"

It's not always inanimate objects out to harm him.

In 2014, he was walking from a local restaurant to his Northern Liberties rowhouse. When he reached the front door, a man who had apparently been tailing him ran up from behind and smacked McAvoy in the back of the head with a brick.

McAvoy dropped his cane and fell into his front door's knob. While stunned, he felt the guy fishing his wallet and iPhone out of his pockets. He pushed himself up and started chasing after his attacker, swinging his fists at the wind.

"But then I realized I should probably go back," he said, "because I was spraying a lot of blood."

With the beer runners, he feels safe.

McAvoy and Russen’s warm-up run ends at the steps of the Fishtown Beer Runners' founder, David April, on Susquehanna Street.

They’re among the 60 or 70 people who gather at the stoop around 7 p.m. every Thursday, all year round. April explains the route, which is followed by a roll call with every runner saying their first name. The group lets out a cheer, and then sets out for the 4 or so miles toward an area bar.

Crowds can be difficult to navigate. Often, the blind runners will tether themselves to their guides. But McAvoy is stubborn, and prefers to run without a leash.

"I don't like feeling restrained," he said. "If I'm going to run, I'm going to run."

About this Series:
Some Philadelphians spend summers lounging down the Shore, and others spend it sitting on their Stoops. This weekly series, about the places and ways Philadelphians gather, aims to tell the kinds of summer stories started or shared among neighbors. These are city stories that perpetuate long traditions, or cast a wary eye toward new trends. These are your stories, which are quintessentially, and unapologetically, Philly.