STRIDE STRIDE

They hook their fingers and start to run, arms swaying in unison, feet thumping stride for stride. A short black man named Michael Holmes, a tall lanky white man named Bill Guisinger. They run inches apart, all but breathing on each other.

The funny thing is, Michael has never seen Bill. Wouldn’t know him if walked right past. Michael is blind. His world went dark in 1978, when he was in his early 20s, the result of cataracts and glaucoma.

Up to that point, he had not been so into sports. But someone suggested he take up running. This, to a blind man, might seem a cruel suggestion, like asking a poor man to pay for dinner. But Michael, who speaks and moves with the energy of a pogo stick, did not take it that way. He wanted to try. So he put on some running shoes and held a guide’s elbow.

And they took off.

Can you imagine running in a world where every curb, every car and every sidewalk crack needs to be called out? Can you imagine hearing – but never seeing – trucks coming up the street behind you, or a sudden barking dog, and all the time trusting you’re not about to bang into a tree, a fence or a garbage can?

“It’s a little bit,” Holmes says, “like when a baby starts walking.”

But just as with a baby’s steps, one thing leads to another. This weekend, nearly 30 years after that first cautious run, and one day after his 52nd birthday, Holmes will compete in a half marathon, part of the Detroit Free Press/Flagstar Marathon. Just over 13 miles.

And Guisinger will be with him, literally, every step of the way.

“You see this rope?” Holmes says, sitting inside his home in Clawson. “This is how we used to do things in the ’80s.”

The short rope he holds has loops on each end. The blind runner and guide would slip their fingers through and leash to each other. That worked for a while, Holmes says, until competition rules made it risky because “if the guide is pulling the runner, you get disqualified.”

So he tried hooking pinky fingers. He quickly abandoned that, since “it kept cutting off my pinky’s blood supply.” Next he tried holding a guide’s arm, but the sweat made things too slippery. Next came holding the elbow -“but I kept getting poked in the gut.”

Finally, Holmes discovered a finger hold technique – the baby and ring finger of his left hand dropped into a circle of the guide’s right thumb and forefinger. And that is how he and Guisinger, this Sunday morning, will traverse the Ambassador Bridge, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, and the streets of those two cities, running stride for stride in a practiced rhythm, alongside thousands of sighted runners.

Guisinger, 58, will call out potholes, rough pavement, turns, cracks, curbs. He also occasionally will narrate the environment – particularly if Holmes hears a woman’s voice.

“It’s embarrassing, sometimes,” Guisinger says, laughing. “He’ll say, ‘What does she look like? Get her phone number! You’re my eyes, Bill.’ “

You’re my eyes. That’s a pretty daunting sentence, both to say and to hear. Yet Holmes and Guisinger accept it with no drama, no heavy pathos, as if one had the skates and the other had the key. That simple. “We’re a team,” Holmes says. They began running together last summer, after Holmes, who works as a sports massage therapist, mentioned the idea to his lanky client. Guisinger, a retired school social worker from Birmingham who has been running for more than 30 years, and who has raced in numerous marathons on his own, could have said no. Kept to his routine. Avoided the burden.

Instead he said, OK, let’s try it.

And a partnership was born. Discussion topics for the road

Self-pity would have been easier. After all, Michael’s mother, an alcoholic, died when he was 10. And neither his father, who owned a Chicago pool hall, nor his two sisters or his two step-sisters could save Michael’s vision from fading. He wore thick glasses from the time he was a boy, and his sight was lost in stages, one eye, then, years later, the next, as if someone were slowly turning the lights out on his world.

He could have moped, labeled himself handicapped, lived as if he felt that way. Instead, he went the opposite route. He seemed determined not to let his blindness hold him back.

To date, Michael Holmes has not only run seven marathons – and nearly qualified for the 2006 Paralympic team – he has won awards in track, he has gone tandem-bike riding, cross-country skiing, even did some rock climbing.

And he maintains an almost giddy sense of humor, as if a bigger laugh is always just around the bend. He says, for example, that you should never discuss controversial topics like politics with your guide runners because “they can get mad and leave you stranded somewhere.” He brags that “you rarely see a man my age with a 30-inch waist.” When asked what his waist was before running, he says “29.” Even his answering machine ends with the statement “a body is a terrible thing to waste.”

There have been many potholes for Holmes. And high curbs. And uneven sidewalks. He has fallen “many, many times”- in running and in life. But he gets back up and he trusts his guides, the ones in his heart and the ones who run beside him (he has six, including Guisinger, who rotate his practice days).

“I love being outside, running, competing, just hoping I’m gonna finish,” Holmes says, as he prepares to take off, “and I like letting people know that just because you have a vision problem, that hasn’t stopped you from doing what you want to do.”

There are thousands of runners in marathons, each one with a story. And this weekend, heading over a bridge and through a tunnel, will be another story, one that is bigger than its finish time. A small black man, a tall white man, how they look less important than what they see, together, which is simply the road ahead. Sometimes life really is about putting one hand inside another and saying, let’s go.

SIDEBAR

ALL ABOUT AN INTERNATIONAL FALL CLASSIC

What: 30th Detroit Free Press/Flagstar Marathon.

When: 7:10 a.m.

Sunday. Ceremonies begin at 6:45 a.m.

Where: Starts on Washington near Grand River. Ends at Campus Martius Park.

Field: Around 16,000 runners, walkers, wheelers, handcyclists, relay runners.

Want to enter? There’s still time for the marathon and 5K. Go to Cobo Center for the Saturn Health and Fitness Expo, 3-8 p.m. today and 10 a.m.-

7 p.m. Saturday.

More info: Click on detroitmarathon.com.

BUY OUR NEW BOOK

“Long Run” celebrates 30 years of Detroit’s marathon. Order at freep.com/bookstore or 800-245-5082. Or get it at the race expo!

SEE OUr WEB SITE

Did you miss Thursday’s preview section? Check out freep.com/sports. Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). www.freep.com/mitch.

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