As he rounded the corner of South Aiken Avenue onto Walnut Street in Shadyside during last year’s Pittsburgh Marathon, Mike Bruno, accompanied by a sighted guide, experienced sensory overload for the first time in his life.
The loud noise from the cheering crowd was too much for the blindfolded runner, drowning out his guide’s command and overwhelming him.
“It’s very similar to people who live with autism,” says Bruno. “I heard all the noises, the fans. It was so loud. The encouragement was so great, but it was so detrimental to me hearing Jim’s commands. My tendency was to get away from it.”
That feeling of sensory overload is all too familiar to his 8-year-old blind and autistic daughter, Cassie.
For the second year in a row, Bruno, 45, is running 26.2 miles blindfolded in the Pittsburgh Marathon to raise awareness of his daughter’s conditions.
“Last year I thought he was crazy and this year I’m more excited for him to do it,” says his wife, Jennifer.
This time around, Bruno is fundraising for Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization.
“The perception is children suffer from autism when actually they live with autism,” says Bruno. “What they suffer from is the public’s ignorance and lack of understanding of what autism is.”
Getting others to be aware and to understand is his motivation. “Spreading awareness and creating empathy is my passion,” he notes.
On your mark
To run the marathon blindfolded, Bruno relies on his trusted friend and colleague, Jim Irvin, as his sighted guide. The two men will run together holding an 18-inch nylon strap — “I hold it in my left hand and Jim holds it in his right” — between them. Bruno is also guided by the verbal cues given by the 49-year-old Point Park University cross-country head coach.
It was Bruno’s idea to run blindfolded last year after taking 20 years off long-distance running following an Achille’s tendon injury at the 1993 Pittsburgh Marathon.
Now the duo train on Montour Trail, a 46-mile trail extending from Moon Township to Clairton, with long runs up to 20-miles on the weekend. At last year’s race, the men started with the wheelchair division. Even with a ten-minute delay, Irvin and Bruno finished in impressive time: three hours and 47 minutes.
While it’s hard to give up so much time to train, Bruno is motivated by his intentions and a desire to introduce the sport to Cassie.
“I want to find opportunities for my daughter to live a normal life as much as she can,” says Bruno. While they planned on running the children’s marathon together on May 3, that was scratched when Cassie fell just before Easter, breaking her leg.
Irvin and Bruno are still honing their communication system. Last year, Bruno kept asking Irvin where they were on the course and Irvin directed him to do things such as make a right hand turn in 100 yards.
“Running the Marathon is the easy part,” says Irvin. “Working with him consistently— letting him know what’s going on is a challenge, but it’s working out well for us.”
“What has really helped us is his giving me directions on the clock — 1:00 is a slight right and 3:00 is a 90-degree right,” says Bruno who laughs when he adds, “Why didn’t we think of this last year?”
Like running a 26-mile marathon, everyday life has its challenges for the Brunos, who live in Cecil Township. “We enjoy all the blessings and all the comforts life has to offer, just like everyone else,” he says. “The journey of having a special needs child is unique. The rewards are amazing, but the challenges are great.”
Cassie was born 15 weeks premature at just 1 pound, 14 ounces. Two weeks before the couple planned to head home with their baby, they were given life-changing news, that Cassie would never be able to see.
“We kind of felt like we were thrown to the wolves when we heard that,” says Jennifer. At first she was mad at the world and was stuck in denial.
Jennifer and Mike both hold down full-time positions—Mike is the Point Park University volleyball head coach and Jennifer works for HCR ManorCare overseeing 10 health care facilities and a business office. The couple also have a 10-year-old daughter named Carly.
Yet Cassie was one of the higher-performing children at the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children where she attended from age three to kindergarten, says her mom. “Mike has always been the vision advocate,” says Jennifer. “He always wants her to use her cane.”
Now Cassie is in a mainstreamed second-grade class. And Bruno spreads awareness about special needs in his talks at Cecil Elementary and Bethel Park elementary schools.
He’s also working to launch the Team Cassie Foundation. Around 80 friends and family represented Team Cassie at the Autism Frostbite 5k this past March and Bruno wants to keep up the momentum.
“What we envision is awarding scholarships to visually-impaired, autistic and siblings of special needs kids,” says Bruno.
Bruno says this may be his last Marathon, but he’s still undecided. This summer, he and Irvin will reverse roles with Irvin running blindfolded. Irvin, like Bruno, is motivated for personal reasons. Irvin’s 16-year-old nephew is autistic and can’t communicate verbally.
“It gives you an appreciation of not just what they go through, but how fortunate we are that we are healthy,” says Irvin.
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The Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon takes place on Sunday, May 4th. Since its return in 2009, the race has sold out every year, growing from 10,000 runners to 30,000.