Unstoppable: The blind runner is among the competitors of the Turkish trot

Written by Lance Pugmire

There’s a lot to take in during the annual Claremont Sunrise Rotary Turkey Trot, which returns on Thanksgiving morning, and for the past decade, Joe O’Toole of Claremont has enjoyed the experience one step at a time.

“I love being out there, and being like everyone else who wants to,” O’Toole, 60, said when he learned that Claremont Sunrise Rotary Club President Gabe Millar had reported that nearly 1,000 runners had signed up for the competition. It will be appropriate before we break bread as families.” The event of the year, which starts at 8 a.m., immediately after the kids’ 1K race.

Of course, no one else had to endure what O’Toole endured, facing the hereditary, incurable, sight-stealing disease retinitis pigmentosa, which left him blind in his 20s after he watched it infect his mother and uncle. “My peripheral vision and my night vision are gone,” O’Toole said. “I have some light perception. I’m moving towards the window now and I can see that there is daylight.

O’Toole usually walks briskly with his guide dog, Glow, accompanying him on the Turkish trot, and a sighted human guide at his side. On one occasion, he recognized a voice and stopped to chat with the man, a former classmate at Claremont High School who shouted, “Hey, Joe!”

O’Toole could finish faster if he wanted. He regularly runs along the indoor track at the Esporta Fitness gym in Montclair, a guide walking in front of him, on a 10-inch leather belt with finger loops. He also swims for the Claremont Club and is part of tandem cycling groups in which he has conquered nightly up-and-down rides on the Mount Baldy Road and harrowing 50mph sprints.

Blind runner Joe O’Toole, who has competed in the Turkey Trot in Claremont for the past 10 years, with his friends Finja Haifa, left, Elizabeth Tulak, and his dog Glo. Photo/Courtesy of Elizabeth Tulak

For his 60th birthday in July, he and a partner completed a 60-mile trek from San Clemente to San Diego County. “Our house is right at the (Turkey Trot) finish line, and as we see it, it’s a tremendous feeling of support and pride. It humbles me,” O’Toole’s sister Patty said. “Sometimes you can’t tell he’s blind. He doesn’t stumble, and he doesn’t take small, precise steps. He is fearless and ready for anything. “It’s unstoppable.”

Staying active was ingrained in O’Toole, as his mother shuttled her children in a station wagon to a plethora of water sports. As his vision diminished in high school, O’Toole struggled to stave off grief. His father, Joseph, pushed him into higher education, encouraging him: “You have to know what you’re going to do…”

“When you realize you can pursue something and achieve it, that’s what life is all about,” O’Toole said. After his father’s encouragement, he headed to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and got a job as the first visually impaired tour guide at Hearst Castle. “I memorized where everything was and the staff put white strips of tape on the stairs so I could see where I was stepping,” he said. “They welcomed me and embraced me.”

O’Toole returned to earn his MBA from the University of La Verne, then took a personal position with the city of Los Angeles, where he remained a senior analyst investigating workplace equity claims.

“We all have stress in our lives. Exercise is a stress reliever,” O’Toole said. “Obviously with losing my vision I’ve been through some setbacks… It’s not easy to get around when you’re blind, and sometimes, people portray blind people as… Individuals who cannot do things. I didn’t want people to think about blind people that way.

People have stopped and asked me: How do you not trip? I tell them: I’m like everyone else… I’m falling down.”

Competing in the house has special meaning for O’Toole because of the citizens he describes as the most “welcoming” and “generous” of all those he has met during his travels around the world. For that, O’Toole is deeply thankful.

“Those are the amazing things to me, because there are so many supporters and so many people helping,” he said. “That means everything.”

Those interested in participating in the Claremont Turkey Trot can register at runsignup.com, by searching “Claremont Turkey Trot,” in person from 4-7 p.m. on Wednesday, November 22 at the Claremont Depot, 200 W. First Street, or on race day. Before the 8 a.m. start.

Lance Pugmire is a former sports reporter for the Los Angeles Times and USA Today, and is a member of Claremont Sunrise Rotary.

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