HOUSTON -- Steve Gokey is unique among the 17,000 runners signed up for today's Chevron Houston Marathon: He's the only blind person in the 26.2-mile event.
"I love running, I love sports," said Gokey, 55, who works as a switchboard operator for the Modesto Police Department and who for many years was welcomed into the dugout as a devoted Modesto A's fan. "It's recreation but very competitive for me."
He's run nearly two dozen marathons, including four times in Boston and just last month in Sacramento, since his first marathon almost 11 years ago in Napa. Today will mark his first appearance in the Houston event.
"I will sit home (tonight) and I'll think about it," Gokey said. "It never gets old. Finishing and the idea of finishing and getting my medal and wearing my medal for a week, it never gets old."
Gokey was born blind, making his disability different from those who had sight and lost it later in life, he said.
"I've been fortunate," he said. "It's not a big deal. It's an inconvenience at times but I've adjusted pretty well with it. I don't have any fear with it."
He trains at home on a treadmill.
"There are days I don't like to train," he said. "It does take a certain amount of discipline."
In a marathon, a team of four guides lead him around the course, each taking a segment of the race. He's linked to his guide by two 5-foot-long PVC pipes, the kind used in plumbing.
"They hold on one end and I hold on the other," he said. "The pipe balances me. It feels like the treadmill. It's probably psychological but it works out."
His guide tells his location on the course, or if there's a turn or a change in the surface like a railroad track crossing. Frequent irritations for him are reflectors cemented to the roadway that mark traffic lanes.
"Those things in the middle of the road, my feet are like magnets. They find them," he laughed. "My biggest problem is I get so consumed with wanting to run well and sometimes if I'm not running well it gets in my head and then I start pressing. And you can't press."
His best time is just over 4 hours.
Statistics aren't kept on the number of marathon runners among the 1.3 million legally blind Americans. Mark Lucas, executive director of the United States Association of Blind Athletes, made an "educated guess" that it's less than 100. He said, however, that running is a popular activity for the blind.
The association has helped train blind athletes for more than 30 years and advocates for them to be allowed to compete with sighted people. The Paralympics record in the marathon for the class of runner who, like Gokey, is totally blind and is allowed to use up to four guides is 3:03:48, set in 1988 by Rick Holborow of New Jersey.
"As a veteran of 21 marathons, I know firsthand how unbelievably hard it is to train for, and complete just one marathon, in perfect health," said Steven Karpas, director of marketing and race development for the Houston Marathon. "Having to run 26.2 miles as a blind person truly boggles my mind. I have huge respect and admiration for Mr. Gokey."
Gokey said spectators and runners often tell him the same.
"I think it's fantastic," Connie Almeida, one of his guides, said while training with Gokey a few days before the event. "I think he's an inspiration to anybody, that you can get out there and do anything."
His four-member guide team is affiliated with The Lighthouse of Houston, which for nearly 70 years has worked to help visually impaired people lead independent lives.
One hazard in the often close quarters of a marathon is unwittingly getting in the way. Gokey remembers stepping on a woman's foot a couple of times in the Sacramento Marathon a few years ago.
"She didn't even look back, but just said: 'You blind or something?' "
He replied: "You know what? As a matter of fact ...
"My guide said it was great. When she finally looked back, she had that look like she just had stepped in something. Then she ran away."