Keeping Score: Inner strength
Marathon runner Ben Simanski crossed the finish line 30 minutes ahead of the mayhem that ensued at 2:49 p.m. last Patriot’s Day, a stroke of good fortune for a man who’d recently received his share of bad news.
A 30-year-old attorney with a passion for criminal defense, life was good for him until the wintry day in 2013 when he walked into the the Valley Medical Group in Greenfield to get sized for contacts. The ophthalmologist, Dr. Herbert Meyers, paused during the exam and asked, “Has anybody ever said anything to you?”
“No, why?” answered Simanski.
Meyers had seen something, an abnormality. “This is above my pay grade. You need to go to Boston.”
The news didn’t scare him. If anything he was perplexed. His eyesight seemed fine, good enough to see his lovely wife Kathleen, whom he’d met at law school and sharp enough to avoid the roots and frost heaves on his daily runs.
In Boston, Simanski was greeted by Dr. Eliot Berson, an ophthalmologist and Harvard professor who specializes in retinal degeneration at the Mass. Eye and Ear Infirmary. The Infirmary’s photo of him shows a smiling man in his mid-50s with gray hair parted to the left wearing tortoise-framed eyeglasses with round rims.
Berson looked into his patient’s eyes and saw small yellowish spots. It was Stargardt’s disease, a form of macular degeneration that was first reported by ophthalmologist Karl Stargardt in 1901. The disease is usually diagnosed at a younger age and the end game is blindness.
“He sat me down. He didn’t sugarcoat it. He said, “Listen, this is the deal. There’s not a lot we can do, it plays its course. It’s very fast-paced once it engages.”
He went home and hoped for the best. “I didn’t think it was going to progress very rapidly. I was doing everything I was supposed to do, but it wasn’t long before I started not seeing things. I couldn’t see peoples’ faces and things started disappearing on me.”
One day he received an email inviting him to run in the Boston Marathon for the Mass. Eye and Ear running team to raise money for indigent patients. He trained with about two dozen other members and sought pledges from friends and courthouse colleagues. “Most of the team had children with eye conditions. It was more of a support thing, we all like to run.”
The starter’s gun sounded at 11 a.m. in Hopkinton and though a lot can happen when the mind pushes the body to exert beyond reason, Simanski breezed along the course. His feet held up and so did his knees. He had no leg cramps or stomach issues. He got up and over the daunting Newton Hills thanks to some coaching help from Laurie MacLeod, a Greenfield District Court judge and avid runner. “Judge MacLeod was unbelievably supportive with her tips and advice.”
Running sub-eight minute miles, Simanski completed the 26.2-mile course shortly before 2:30 p.m. and was whisked ahead to make room for other runners. “They kept pushing me along saying “Congratulations” and handing me bananas and sweet rolls and I met up with my wife and parents at the family corral a block away.”
Then the bombs exploded.
“Everything went silent. We started toward the sound. I heard ambulances but didn’t think much of it because so many runners were dropping. I tried calling a friend and the phone went dead. Then I saw the helicopters and firetrucks and my wife said, ‘Something’s not right.’ We walked into the hotel and it was ominous, all these runners staring at the TV watching what was going on.”
They left the hotel and went to his sister-in-law’s house. “The good part is our group was so tight, we instantaneously texted each other to make sure everyone was OK. My parents were supposed to be right across the street (from the bombs). They’d won VIP tickets but they weren’t there because my pace was faster than anticipated.
“It was a horrible thing. Something I’ll never forget, even though I wasn’t part of the devastation.”
Despite the day’s horror, Team Eye and Ear had raised $323,973 of which Simanski had tallied nearly $14,985, about $3,500 over the average. “(Register of Probate) John Merrigan and the Franklin County Bar Association were huge in helping me fund raise. I’ve never felt such family type support, and these were people I’d go against in court, all unbelievably kind. They say ‘Boston Strong’ but it’s the whole state. We’re Massachusetts strong.”
Though he can’t drive and no longer practices law, Simanski still runs 50 miles a week. “I’ve become obsessed, kinda nonstop, it my way of dealing with it. Running is my determination to keep my freedom. I bought a watch that if I get lost it’ll bring me home. My wife has my cell, and sometimes she’ll ride her bike in front of me on the bike path.”
He’d take his vision back in a second, but his sight loss provided a revelation. “When I found myself in a little trouble, there were people looking out for me and that’s nice to know.”
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.